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The Alex Smith story sheds light on the private drive that separates athletes from the rest of us



It’s a lot to handle, all stemming from a quarterback sack. There was consideration that he could — and maybe should — elect to have his leg amputated. At one point, Smith’s mother recalls how doctors had moved from “leg-saving mode” to “lifesaving mode.” Scary stuff.

Put the seriousness and the gruesomeness aside, though, and there’s something else this gripping E:60 episode reveals: the loneliness and anonymity of an athlete rehabbing an injury. Not just for a traumatic situation like Smith’s, but for the events we now consider routine.

A torn elbow ligament that requires Tommy John surgery for a pitcher or a shredded knee that requires reconstructive surgery for a basketball player are marked, by fans, in time. After an athlete heads down the dugout steps and into the privacy of the clubhouse — or into the tent on the sideline of an NFL game, or through the tunnel toward the locker room in the NBA — the anguish on his face exits the public consciousness, and that player is replaced. Next man up? It’s a mantra for sports teams. But it kind of spits on the player who went down.

Those major injuries, they’re so well known — and both surgery and rehabilitation are so advanced — that we feel like we know what to expect. Blow out your elbow as a pitcher? We’ll see you back on a big league mound in 15 months, maybe sooner. Blow out your knee on the basketball court or soccer pitch? If you’re a fast healer, maybe seven months. If you’re a little slow, perhaps nine.

What that ignores: the work.

Injured athletes often feel like outsiders on their own teams. “You feel dead,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton told me three years ago after he shredded his knee and landed on what was then called the disabled list.

“When I’m on the DL, I don’t like being here,” Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said that same week. “I don’t want to be seen. And when I’m playing, I don’t want to see DL guys.”

We all know a little bit more about isolation than we did, say, a month ago. Injured athletes, though, must not only survive in isolation. They must thrive in it.

Watching what Smith went through not just to throw a football again, but to first save his mangled leg and then walk, is inspiring. In an analytics-driven sports world, sheer determination and uncommon toughness can’t be quantified and therefore are too frequently dismissed. Watch Smith perform basic drills with a leg that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, and you know those qualities count for something.

Yet after his injury — Nov. 18, 2018, when he was sacked by the Houston Texans’ Kareem Jackson and his leg went in opposite directions — Smith vanished. “Project 11” reveals that during his time in hiding, he needed 17 surgeries. His leg was besieged by four kinds of bacteria, including one that, in the vernacular, would be deemed “flesh-eating.” His most meaningful discussions weren’t with other athletes who have endured similar injuries but with soldiers who had lost limbs blown off in combat.

“What’s life going to be like?” he wonders at one point.

What you learn from Smith is that, with no fans in the stands or even teammates by his side, he determined his future. No one else.

Take that attitude, that will, and apply it to so many other athletes in so many other sports who suffer injuries in public, then come back from them in private. Actually, “come” back is kind of insulting to the process. They “work” back, no doubt.

I’m reminded of Tiger Woods, and not just the exploded knee and broken leg on which he won the 2008 U.S. Open — a public display of overcoming pain — but the back problems he endured in private. In May 2016, Woods was less than half a year removed from the third of four back surgeries, and I talked with him at Congressional Country Club.

“It’s brutal,” he said then. “Do I want to go through that whole process again, of getting back? Some part of me said yes. Some part of me said no, because it is hard.”

Tiger can say something like that, and we can dismiss it, because we just figure great athletes yearn to be great athletes in perpetuity. In reality: We have no understanding of the effort that takes.

That day, Woods went out to the tee at Congressional’s 10th hole, a par-3 that’s entirely over water. As part of a promotion, he was supposed to hit a pitching wedge on the green, all of 102 yards. He chunked the ball into the water. Someone tossed down another, and he made another pass. Again, splash. A third went off the bank, in the drink once more.

What we associate with Woods’s comeback now, of course, is his victory at the 2019 Masters, all smiles and fist pumps. But think about how much had to happen behind the scenes for him to build from the point where he couldn’t flip a wedge over a water hazard to having all the shots to win again at Augusta. There’s athletic ability and genetics, sure. But focusing on those elements ignores the work, and ignoring the work diminishes the achievement.

Back to Smith. Let’s be frank: He is an afterthought here in Washington. The Redskins’ quarterback situation involves Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen, and if Coach Ron Rivera leaves open even the tiniest crack in the door for Cam Newton, well, that can get you through a day of sports-talk radio. Smith? He was never really our quarterback here, because he played just 10 games before his world imploded. Washington fans cringed, felt bad for him — and moved on.

“Project 11” highlights the private drive that makes athletes great. Follow Smith from near death to struggling to walk to throwing a football and driving on his leg again, and it’s impossible not to appreciate his commitment.

“Football might not be out of the question,” Smith says at one point. “Can I go play quarterback again? Can I push it that far?”

Whether he does is immaterial now. What Alex Smith has taught us by sharing the story of his rehab is to never, ever simply mark an athlete’s comeback by time alone. Acknowledge, every single time, the work.

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