Alex Smith Will Be Missed in Innumerable Ways After Gruesome Injury
The NFL is the most brutal of sports. An NFL player who proclaims a clean bill of health only means his pain is manageable, his tendons sore not ruptured.
As a player or a fan watching said player, you know devastation is always possible. Any snap could be the one that ends a season. Yet that knowledge does little to soften the emotional blow when a leg actually snaps the wrong way as it did for Alex Smith Sunday, and the air cast and cart signaling doom appear. Smith broke both his fibula and tibia, the shin and calf bone crucial for walking, let alone playing football. Season over. Career? We’ll see. Eerily, former Washington quarterback Joe Thiesmann’s career ended from the same injury 33 years ago to the day.
Injuries are the dark, too frequent reality of football and you don’t wish them on anyone. But there are certain players where your heart is especially ripped out as they lay helpless on the field, the type of players who are universally loved. Alex Smith is one of those.
I haven’t watched the play in which Smith got injured. I can’t. I tried a couple of times but simultaneously looked away as I pressed play. I’m not ready for the possibility that Smith’s fate will be the same as Thiesmann’s or even a shell of himself. Smith deserves more time to properly complete his football life.
The NFL has fallen on dark times in recent years. In fact up until this season every one in recent memory has come with some dominating toxic cloud – DV, brain trauma, the President’s tweets. For me the exhaustion sucked much of the exhilaration from an inherently fascinating game with mostly decent humans filling up rosters. But players like Smith offer a reminder of the power of sport, a feel good story rising from football purgatory, one Super Bowl win away from being the subject of a motion picture (Smith played by Ryan Gosling, of course).
My first bio on Twitter read “Alex Smith apologist.” That was in 2009, right before the 2005 no. 1 overall draft pick’s image was sometimes pictured next JaMarcus Russell’s on posters that spelled out one of football’s nastiest four-letter words: BUST. That was right before Smith experienced so much losing in the midst of his seven offensive coordinators in San Francisco that 49ers fans once chanted “We Want [David] Carr” after three straight incompletions in an otherwise statistically sound game. Smith wasn’t the only problem in San Francisco at the time, but he did come wrapped with expectations befit for any no. 1 overall pick. He was never going to be a savior, and in hindsight shouldn’t have gone first overall. This reality has always been heightened when juxtaposing Smith to future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers who went 24th overall in the same draft.
But unlike almost every other draft bust since the term was coined, Smith didn’t turn into Russell or hit rock bottom off the field, nor was he ever banished to football hell. He persisted. He survived. Then he thrived. Always beloved by teammates, Smith persevered until Jim Harbaugh came to San Francisco in 2011 and turned him in a highly successful game manager with flair. Smith’s efficiency and confidence skyrocketed that season and all culminated in the electrifying nailbiting 2012 divisional game against the Saints that I believe is the best game of his pro career. When all was said and done, Smith outdueled Drew Brees in the final seven minutes with his feet and his ability to executive a shrewd playbook that included the game-winning Vernon Post. Smith and the 49ers had a legitimate chance to best the Giants in the NFC Championship until Kyle Williams muffed a punt. Who knows where the Alex Smith Story would have gone from there if they had won. But alas…
The 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick that year, a jewel from Nevada who greatly intrigued Jim Harbaugh. There would be some succession plan but few thought it would come so soon. Smith followed the playoff run by playing stellar football in 2012, the most consistent of his career, and in fact led the league in completion percentage. But when he reported a concussion in Week 10 and Kaepernick was brought in, that was it. Harbaugh decided the baton would be passed then. Smith handled the transition with absolute class. He was honest “I mean, It sucks,” he said at the time, but still professional and helpful.
Then Smith was traded to Kansas City where Andy Reid’s playbook helped him shine. Reid incorporated plays Smith would run at Utah and unlike any of Smith’s previous NFL coaches, Reid tapped into his deft athleticism. The Chiefs were a little more electrifying but streaky and unable to advance in the playoffs. When the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes no. 10 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, the writing was on the wall and Smith’s clock was ticking. Instead of pouting like Ben Roethlisberger did when the Steelers took Mason Rudolph, Smith embraced Mahomes. He stayed after practice serving as a mentor available to provide any guidance to the rookie. Smith literally groomed Mahomes to take his job. In Mahomes’s current historical season in which he is often profiled, Mahomes frequently gives credit to Smith for his willingness to help.
“He had a great season last year, and being the person he is, he always was helping me whenever I did something he thought he could help me improve on,” Mahomes told The MMQB this offseason. “That’s just the type of leader he is. We have a great relationship, still, going forward.”
Mahomes was among the many luminaries expressing well wishes for Smith. His message, while short and sweet, illustrates his fondness for the injured quarterback.
The fondness felt for Smith is deeply shared among fan bases he has touched – San Francisco, Kansas City and for a sliver of time, Washington. I believe a huge part of that fondness is also rooted in Smith’s persona. He’s an intellectual powerhouse (he graduated college in two years) but also an every man who happens to be good at football. He comes with zero drama, zero selfishness and is incredibly polite to all. Every PR person or writer I’ve ever asked about Smith beams and mutters something along the lines of “That’s my guy!” Smith is honest. He’s real.
Smith’s gruesome injury Sunday was absolutely crushing. No, Smith isn’t poised for the Hall of Fame like so many quarterbacks in this era. But his presence on a football field makes the sport better in myriad ways. If the football gods are worth any salt, they’ll help him get back there.