Alex Smith's comeback breaks through the dark clouds hovering over the NFL

At 2:22 p.m. ET Sunday, late in the second quarter of the Washington Football Team’s 30-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, a moment that once seemed so improbable, so far away, finally came to fruition.

That’s when, during the middle of a live, actual, regular-season game, Alex Smith strode into the huddle in the middle of FedEx Field, looked 10 other men in the eye and called the next play.

And then, with his loving wife, Liz, and their three kids watching eagerly from the stands, Smith took his place 5 yards behind center, barked out a hard count, received the snap and immediately dumped it off to J.D. McKissic on a swing route for a short gain.

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - OCTOBER 11: Elizabeth Smith, wife of Alex Smith #11 of the Washington Football Team, and their children watch the second half during a game against the Los Angeles Rams at FedExField on October 11, 2020 in Landover, Maryland. Smith played in his first game since being injured during a game against the Houston Texans on November 18, 2018. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Elizabeth Smith, wife of Alex Smith of the Washington Football Team, and their children watch the second half of Sunday's game. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

In the context of the game, it was an inconsequential play. Washington trailed by 13 points late in the second quarter, and after Smith relieved starter Kyle Allen, failed to gain many yards the rest of the day.

While the NFL is the ultimate performance league, every once in a while you’re reminded that some things are more important than the final score.

As inspirational NFL tales go, Alex Smith’s return Sunday was the story of the year. And man, the timing couldn’t have been better, given the COVID-19 outbreaks the league is fending off in Tennessee and New England, not to mention the grotesque injury Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott suffered Sunday.

Smith’s final stat line — 9 of 17 for 37 yards — was hardly spectacular. And yes, Washington lost.

Alex Smith reaches out to shake Ron Rivera's hand.
Washington quarterback Alex Smith (11) gave us all a reason to feel good on Sunday. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Yet, the fact he was out there was a testament to the human spirit, a nod to what matters most to anyone who has ever been through anything. Life is hard, and yes, it can have a way of beating you down if you let it. The trick of it is to never quit, to never give up, no matter how bleak things are, no matter how badly you want to take the easy way out.

Sometimes, even under the worst of circumstances, you can come all the way back.

Smith is proof.

What Alex Smith felt when he returned to game action

Six hundred and ninety-three days prior to Sunday, Smith suffered a gruesome leg injury on the same field he stepped on Sunday. That injury led to a life-threatening infection that almost cost him his leg and took 17 surgeries to correct. His career was over, most assumed, and a lesser man would have accepted this fate, counted his $194 million in career earnings and moved on with his life.

Smith couldn’t go out like that. He’d been through so much in his career already. He’d been everything from a franchise savior to one of the biggest draft busts ever. Even when he fought his way and changed that narrative, he twice had the rug pulled out from under him after career seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, which both sent him packing in favor of younger quarterbacks with more upside.

Coming back from all this required a deep sense of pride, not to mention tremendous fortitude and mental toughness. He tapped into all of that to make the most unlikely comeback in recent NFL history a reality, and when he arrived at the stadium Sunday, he found himself thankful for the little moments.

“The feeling, the range of emotions, the good and the bad, is why I fought so hard to come back,” Smith said after Sunday’s loss. “Sometimes you can take it for granted, and certainly being away from it a couple years ... I’ve missed it.”

That’s not all that fueled Smith during his journey. Shortly after he first returned to on-field work in August, Smith revealed another reason why he suffered through every rehab session.

“When I became a father, it’s something obviously that changed my life,” Smith said this past summer. “I think you learn pretty quick that parenting wasn’t always about me telling them things, it was really more about the example that I give and lead with.

“And faced with this, the injury, the aftermath and the recovery process, [it was about] how I was gonna handle that.”

Smith did it for his children, just so they could see first-hand what they can accomplish when you push through adversity and endure instead of fold. He might as well have been doing it for everyone who has ever battled anything that has engulfed them in fear — an addiction, an illness, whatever — and made them feel hopeless.

“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a lot of days where I didn’t think it was gonna happen,” Smith said Sunday. “But you always keep pushing through. When I had my darkest moments, there was always something around the corner that happened that … I just kind of kept plugging along. And all of a sudden, I made a big gain or a big step or something clicked and I kinda kept marching and it would repeat itself.”

Aaron Donald gets to Alex Smith as he releases the ball.
Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams defense tested Alex Smith immediately in his return to NFL action. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Smith passed immediate test from Aaron Donald

Over time, as Smith got closer to his goal, it became more real. So much so that when Washington coach Ron Rivera benched starter Dwayne Haskins before Sunday’s game, he also elevated Smith to No. 2 on the depth chart, which meant Smith was one play away from action and the hits that come with it.

Of course, Smith wound up being thrown into the mix before halftime against the Rams. He even saw the massive hit that knocked Allen out of the game unfold right in front of him.

“Seeing his reaction getting up, I knew immediately,” Smith said.

Smith grabbed his helmet and got ready to play. It all felt surreal to him, especially with his first game back being in the rain, weather that often contributes to injuries.

“Certainly not envisioning the downpour,” Smith said with a laugh. “The quarterback’s worst nightmare.”

Smith got the looming fear of his first hit out of the way quickly. On his third play from scrimmage, future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald terrified everyone watching at home by jumping on Smith’s back and hauling him down for a sack.

“I’ve been waiting for that a long time,” said Smith, who got up just fine. “The first one felt good. It was nice to knock the cobwebs off, sort of speak.”

Like everyone else watching, Rivera was relieved.

“That was good to see, to be honest, because now you know he could handle it — that’s the one thing we didn’t see,” Rivera said. “But he handled it, he handled it every well. He’s done a great job, and it’s a hell of a story.”

One that should make Smith a cinch to win Comeback Player of the Year at season’s end.

True to form, Smith remained professional in the postgame. He repeatedly redirected questions about his comeback to his unhappiness with the loss, and he said that if Allen returned to the starting lineup next week, he’d be fine with that. He’s here to do whatever he can to help Washington win.

He proved that by stepping on the field Sunday. Regardless of what the scoreboard said, Smith won Sunday by overcoming his fears and doubts. Not just for himself, but all the people he has inspired along the way, too.

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