When I visited the Washington Redskins’ training camp last July, one moment stood out in such a way that I haven’t been able to shake it.
It occurred after a morning practice, during a one-on-one interview with Jay Gruden. Now, Gruden was only weeks away from being fired, so much of the talk at camp centered on the hot seat that had been placed under the head coach. There was lots of chatter about the team’s first-round pick, quarterback Dwayne Haskins, and when he’d be ready to take over. Lost in all this was much mention of the team’s previous starting quarterback, Alex Smith. The football world had largely moved on from him, a stark contrast from the previous year when Smith, acquired in January 2018 from the Kansas City Chiefs, was being hailed as the veteran leader the routinely dysfunctional organization sorely needed.
Smith lived up to that billing. His steady hand helped lead Washington to a 6-3 record, best in the NFC East. Then came a Nov. 18 home game against the Houston Texans, an outing that changed his life forever. Smith suffered a gruesome leg injury while being sacked — his bone even pierced his skin — and he missed the rest of the season as the Redskins plummeted without their leader.
The injury’s severity – the infection, the multiple surgeries, the threat to the 35-year-old’s career – produced a steady stream of news. Yet, Smith repeatedly expressed his desire to come back and play.
What I didn’t know then — what few could have fully known until the revelatory one-hour ESPN documentary on his rehab called “Project 11,” which aired Friday — was how ugly the war against the flesh-eating bacteria that attacked his wound had all been, how perilous it nearly was.
Prior to the documentary, Smith had been reticent to dive into the gory details on the few occasions he spoke to the media, understandably preferring to keep things focused on the future.
But in the conversation with Gruden that same day last summer, I asked him if he ever wondered if Smith would play again, Gruden’s silence, which followed for a few seconds after the question, said plenty in retrospect.
“Yeah, I mean … it’s a tough deal,” Gruden said. “But the thing about Alex is, if it’s a one-out-of-a-million deal, he’ll be the one.”
It’s the same sentiment that many, based on social media, seemed to have taken from “Project 11.” By the end of it, Smith didn’t have the giant metal contraption on his leg and played freely with his kids, a moving testament to his work ethic and indomitable spirit against the injury that once threatened to take a portion of his right leg.
All this seemed to hit home with viewers, which was nice to see considering few rock-solid NFL quarterbacks have been dismissed more easily nationally by football fans than Smith, the former No. 1 overall pick turned bust who battled his way back to save his career and even make a few Pro Bowls in Kansas City.
What Smith also did in Kansas City was win people over with his professionalism, even if they remained split on his play. In K.C., Smith was slapped with the dreaded “game manager” tag. That, plus several premature playoff exits and the selection of Patrick Mahomes, may have necessitated his exit. But by the end of his five-year stint, he was still widely respected and appreciated, so much so that Chiefs fans donated more than $60,000 to his charitable foundation in the days following his trade to Washington as a thank you for all his contributions.
“I have felt a lot of support from a lot of people,” Smith told me last summer. “I’m so grateful for everywhere I’ve played, Kansas City and the fans.”
The positive way Smith left the organization has contributed to the overall good vibes that remain in his old stomping grounds. Smith harbored no ill will toward Mahomes, who was taken to be his replacement after a season in which he guided the Chiefs to an 11-5 record, and even served as a mentor during the budding superstar and eventual MVP’s “redshirt year” in 2017.
To this day, Mahomes speaks highly of Smith and makes sure people know what he did for him.
“Building that relationship that I had with him for a year, seeing him every single day, and then getting to go out to eat with his family and him with mine, we built a great relationship,” Mahomes told reporters last week.
The two even stayed in touch following Smith’s trade to Washington, talking via phone or texting every few months or so. So when the 2018 season began, it was easy for Smith to appreciate Mahomes’ MVP run.
“It’s ridiculous how Pat was playing,” Smith said. “I loved it. It was so much fun. I don’t know how you could be a fan of football and not enjoy what they did last year. It was very unique, Pat is such a unique player, has such a unique tool set. I thought it was a ton of fun to watch.”
But that’s not all Smith liked.
“I love how Pat handled himself off the field,” Smith added. “I mean, as a young guy to have that much success is hard. To see how he handled it, to see how he continued to handle it, I think, is also just as impressive. To be an MVP at 23 and to like, still keep the mentality he has — humble, good teammate — [it’s tough].”
So when Smith told ESPN that he was rooting for the Chiefs to win Super Bowl LIV a few months ago, that ranked as one of the least surprising things I’d ever heard.
“There’s so many good dudes there ... I enjoy watching them,” Smith said of the Chiefs. “And Pat’s such a good kid. People ask me all the time if I get mad or bitter, but it’s really not like that at all. There’s really like a sense of pride, even a little bit from beyond, watching those guys play like they do.”
During Smith’s five years as a starter in Kansas City, he posted a 50-26 record, all while completing 65 percent of his passes, posting an absurd 102-33 touchdown-to-interception ratio and guiding the team to four playoff berths. The totality of all that should easily place him in the team’s Hall of Fame one day.
But for handling himself like a consummate professional the whole time and willingly training the NFL’s next superstar, to boot? Yeah, it’s safe to say that Smith also earned the appreciation of an entire football-loving city, one that will, collectively, always say good things about him for decades to come.
That’s Smith’s legacy in Kansas City, and after everything he has been through over the past 18 months, it’s cool to see that now, thanks to the resilient spirit he displayed in “Project 11,” everyone else in the country is starting to do the same.
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