Despite 17 Surgeries and Nearly Losing His Life, Alex Smith Wouldn’t Change a Thing

The recently retired Comeback Player of the Year says the road back from his devastating injury was about more than just football

June 3, 2021 9:00 am
Ex-Washington quarterback Alex Smith
Washington quarterback Alex Smith runs off the field during a 2020 NFL game.
Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty

Playing in his 10th game with Washington on November 18, 2018 after eight years with the San Francisco 49ers and five with the Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Alex Smith suffered a spiral and compound fracture to the tibia and fibula in his right leg. 

Described by doctors as more akin to a blast injury suffered by a soldier than a sports injury, Smith’s battle wound required 17 surgeries over the next nine months. A bacterial infection complicated things further, nearly forcing him to have his leg amputated — or worse.

Having earned almost $200 million in salary alone during the course of his career at the time he suffered the devastating injury, Smith could have hung up his cleats for good and no one would have thought any less of the former No. 1 overall pick. No one except maybe Smith, who spoke with InsideHook on behalf of recovery footwear brand OOFOS, himself.

“The whole world was telling me all the things that I wouldn’t be able to do after the injury, starting with my career. I wanted to see what I could get back,” Smith, who organically discovered OOFOS on a family vacation in Hawaii and is now a brand ambassador for the company after getting hooked instantly on wearing their shoes, tells InsideHook. “I started just to be able to pursue things I thought had gone away forever, like standing and walking. I wasn’t going to stop that pursuit. Football was the last big mountain sitting there for me. I really wanted to see what I had left and if I could adapt. If I wouldn’t have pursued football, I don’t think I’d be talking to you, sitting here pain-free. My pursuit of coming back, I think the rest of my life will be better for it. People thought it was stupid and didn’t understand why I would do it, but I think I’m better off.”

Smith’s pursuit paid off. Four weeks after he made it back on an NFL field in relief of an injured Kyle Allen against the LA Rams in Week 5, the 2020 Comeback Player of the Year started a game again just three days shy of the two-year anniversary of his leg injury, completing 38 of 55 passes for 390 yards, all career highs, in a narrow defeat to the Detroit Lions. That loss was the final one of Smith’s NFL career: he went on to win his final five starts for Washington, guiding them to a division title and playoff berth despite ending the 2020 season on the sidelines due to a  right calf strain.

“I’m so thankful I got to just try, let alone actually get back out on the field and play and win games. When I was stuck in a wheelchair or in a hospital bed and cutting off my leg was on the table, I never thought that was going to happen,” Smith says. “If people actually knew how bleak it looked and my mindset at times … there was no way. I would’ve called you crazy if you told me I was going to come back, make the team, start six games and go 5-1 to help us win the division. I wouldn’t have believed you in a million years. No one had ever done this. It didn’t seem possible and the vast majority of the world was telling me that. I really thought it was unattainable. As much as I was pouring into it and pursuing it, I didn’t really think it was realistic. Having said all that, to have done it and lived it, was such an amazing experience. I’ll cherish it forever. I wouldn’t go back and change anything.”

Alex Smith being carted off the field after breaking his right leg in 2018.
John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty

According to Smith, football was the principal motivator in a recovery process that saw him become the first athlete to be gain clearance at the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility for combat veterans in San Antonio.

“I spent a long time early on engaging in negative self-talk and self-doubt about all the things that I wouldn’t be able to do. You go down there and the perspective is different,” Smith says. “It is more about owning your injury and finding out what you could do and how to do it. For me, that was such an important example to see. It really changed my recovery forever.

The rest of the world was telling me all the things I couldn’t do and the military people were telling me I still could do a lot and potentially play football again. They were the first people to help me utter those words out loud, as scary as it was. Perspective is such an important thing.”

Part of that perspective involves embracing the concept of an “Alive Day,” a remembrance of the anniversary of the date when a veteran almost lost their life in combat. 

Alex Smith
Alex Smith is living without pain, partially thanks to his OOFOS shoes.

“They call it your Alive Day when you have a brush with death, because it can change you. I do feel my injury has definitely had an impact on my perspective. How could it not?” Smith says. “When November 18th comes around for me, I’m celebrating it because I’m here and rolling. I’ve got a great family and friends and so, so much to be thankful for. Regardless, obviously, what’s done is done and there is no going back. For me, this is my life. For a long time, I woke up every morning and dealt with that shock of re-coming to grips with the reality of my leg. That time has come and gone. For me, I’m so proud of my leg and thankful for where I’m at.”

And where exactly is that? Fully retired from the NFL and, amazingly, living a pain-free life.

“I really don’t have a lot of limitations. I have to wear a brace for a lot of things and Oofos are part of my regimen because they’re helping me. Nothing’s changed on that front,” Smith says, noting he began advocating for the brand in the locker room during his days in Kansas City.

“Last May, I was still dealing with a ton of soreness and pushing my leg harder and harder trying to get back out onto the field. When I put my Oofos on, I felt better and they helped me recover. They helped me go harder in my next physical therapy session and in my next workout. It helped, so it became a part of my regimen. The crazy thing is that last fall, what it required to return to football really helped me turn a corner and got me to the point where I am now, which is really pain-free. Like I said, football was the vehicle, but coming back was not so much a career accomplishment as a life thing. At that point, I’d already played a lot of football wasn’t worried about anything like a legacy. It felt so good to pursue this impossible thing, to chase that one more time. But for me, it was always more about the rest of my life going forward. It always was, always will be. I don’t really look at [coming back] as part of my football career. It was a lot bigger than that.”

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!