Joe Theismann's emotional connection to Redskins QB Alex Smith's recovery effort

Julie Donaldson
NBC Sports Washington

Why not walk into the sunset and call it a career? 

No one would blame Alex Smith if he did. The Redskins quarterback played 13 seasons, made three Pro bowls, had five post-season appearances as a starter and made his money. 

In Washington, he signed a four-year, $94-million-dollar contract extension in 2018. And $71 million of that money was virtually guaranteed. He is set for life.

So why try to come back after one of the most well-documented leg injuries in the NFL? Because that's not the mindset of a winning quarterback and it's not how Smith plans to go out.

In last week's ESPN E:60 documentary "Project 11" we all witnessed the extent of damage. We counted the surgeries (17). We saw the tears from his wife, Elizabeth, his rock, and even from Smith himself.

Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann will always have a connection to Smith. He endured a similar injury on the exact same date 33 years earlier (Nov. 18, 1985) to Smith's (Nov. 18, 2018) against the Houston Texans. And while his road to recovery was dramatically different, he never did play a down again.

Theismann admitted utter horror when seeing Smith's leg on screen. 

"I was stunned and shocked by how much of his leg they had to take out to save his life first of all, and then his leg," Theismann said. 

Even so, despite being through it himself, he fully understands the drive to want to come back. It is something the rest of us have a difficult time wrapping out minds around. Why?

"This is the thing, Julie. People don't understand us," Theismann said. "They don't understand what goes on inside the athlete. I've gotten so many tweets from people saying since "Project 11" aired – he should retire, he should leave the game, at least he's healthy."

Forget his football career. Smith almost lost his life. To the common fan, the mere fact he can play with his kids again should be enough. Theismann gets that, but he also has a different perspective. 

"It's not who we are," Theismann said. "You're not finished yet. You‘re not done. The game is not over until the fat lady sings. And it's not over."

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Theismann admits he was already near the end of his career and struggling when his injury happened after that infamous sack by Lawrence Taylor in a game at RFK Stadium against the New York Giants. At 35 years old, he had played 12 seasons, had led the Redskins to two Super Bowl appearances, winning one. He was named NFL MVP. It was enough to hang his hat on after the injury, but the competitor in him still wouldn't let it go. 

"I tried to come back, I wanted to come back," Theismann said. "It took me two years to get the mobility back and Alex is approaching well past a year-and-a-half now."

Theismann credits then-Redskins coach Joe Gibbs for giving him the opportunity to try. It is the same thing the Redskins are affording Smith now in his hopes of return. Washington coach Ron Rivera has said numerous times they need to see what Smith can do before they decide to rule him out of the quarterback competition. 

It is not easy. Yes, the leg has a rod in it. Even in a sport as rough as football the odds are always against such a catastrophic injury. But the mental hurdles are another issue even if you came back healthy.  

"What it is going to be like with people around your feet? How comfortable are you going to be dropping in a pocket with people coming at your legs?" Theismann said. "Can you stand there with great confidence that you did before? If Alex does come back, that will be the mental hurdle that he's going to have to go through."

The Redskins could not afford to wait for Smith to return, drafting quarterback Dwayne Haskins last year at No. 15 overall in the first round in 2019. The organization hopes Haskins is the future so that would make things more complicated should Smith beat the odds and work his way back to the field. Some have said he'll never play again. Others say they wouldn't be shocked if he does overcome the impossible.

Theismann, with that traumatic injury connection, goes back to the bargaining he went through with the end of his football career imminent. He sees a fellow quarterback on the edge of the same choice and believes Smith will know when it is time to stop and move on. But that time isn't quite here yet. 

"I think if he gets out there and sees that he cannot do the things that he believes he could do - or did in the past - then I believe he'll reconcile with himself and say it's just not meant to be," Theismann said. "But if he can do the things that I believe he can, that I think he'll be able to do, certain movements that I know were a hindrance to me, if he can do those, I think he will come back and play."

Physically Smith has already defeated the odds. He has his leg and he's working the heck out of it. 

"He's not the one to give up. He carries rocks under water to train. He's like Aquaman!" Theismann said. "He's a physical specimen, but he's showed how tough he is mentally as well."

And that is why the story of Alex Smith the NFL quarterback may not be over just yet. Hold the final scene anyway and, if nothing else, get ready for a sequel. Many have already hinted at a front-office position or coaching role in Smith's future when he decides that the time is finally right. 

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Joe Theismann's emotional connection to Redskins QB Alex Smith's recovery effort originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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