Opinion: Alex Smith's NFL comeback was a reminder of why sports are so powerful

Nancy Armour

Alex Smith’s career cannot be measured in touchdowns or interceptions, quarterback rating or draft position.

Instead, it should be measured by two numbers: 17 and eight. As in, the number of surgeries he needed to save not only his leg but his life, and the number of games he played in afterward.

Smith, who announced his retirement Monday with a moving Instagram post, reminded us last season why we love sports. Why we continue to watch even when our teams have no hope of winning or the power brokers do everything they can to turn us off.

Sports offer us the possibility of the unimaginable. The idea that if we work hard enough and dedicate ourselves fully, we can achieve anything. Overcome whatever obstacle stands in our way.

That’s not true, of course. Some challenges really are insurmountable, for any number of reasons. Biology, economics, bias, timing. We can do everything right, everything within our power, and there will still be external factors that will remain stubbornly beyond our control.

Dwell too long on all those reasons we can’t, or we shouldn’t, and we eventually cease wanting to try.

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Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith (11) throws a pass as Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson (58) rushes during the second half at FedExField.

But Smith’s comeback renewed our faith in that pursuit of the impossible. He reminded us that the foolishness is not in dreaming too big, but in living too small.

“Putting my helmet back on was the farthest thing from my mind. I just kept asking myself, `All this for a stupid game?’” Smith said in his video announcement.

“But then, someone did something that changed my recovery completely,” Smith continued. “He put a football back in my hands.”

Smith’s gruesome injury alone would have made a comeback a longshot. His lower right leg was essentially snapped when he was sacked during a November 2018 game against the Houston Texans, the compound fracture breaking both his tibia and fibula.

But then he developed an infection, and sepsis set in. In an effort to halt the life-threatening infection, doctors went in numerous times to cut out the dead and decaying tissue, as well as the skin and muscle around it, until, as his wife Elizabeth recalled in an ESPN story last year, “he is missing everything from his knee to his ankle and from side to side.”

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Doctors would eventually rebuild Smith’s lower leg by transferring muscle from his quadriceps. He was in a wheelchair and then used a walker, his leg initially encased in a metal contraption that looked as if it was designed by NASA engineers.

When he began physical therapy, his only hope was that he could someday take walks with his wife and play with his three kids.  

And then someone gave him that football.

“I don’t know what it was, but all of the sudden I felt stronger, more driven. And what once seemed impossible began to come into focus,” Smith said.

He spent months in rehab and recovery until finally, late last July, he was cleared to resume football activity. On Oct. 11, just before halftime against the Los Angeles Rams, Smith returned to the game. It had been 23 months since his injury.

Football is an inherently violent sport, and there were questions of why Smith would risk his rebuilt leg and hard-won health for it. Three plays after he came in against the Rams, in fact, Smith was sacked by Aaron Donald, who would win Defensive Player of the Year honors for a third time last season.

But that misses the point. Smith’s comeback wasn’t even about football, really. It was about having the perseverance and courage to confront human frailty, and the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. Football was simply the backdrop.

“Football wouldn’t let me give up because, no, this isn’t just a game. It’s not just what happens between those white lines on a Sunday afternoon,” Smith said. “It’s about the challenges and the commitment they require. It’s about how hard and how far you can push yourself.

“It’s about fully committing yourself to something bigger. Most of all, it’s about you.”

Not all comebacks will be as successful as Smith’s, and not all dreams will be realized. But as Smith reminded us, it's always worth it to try. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.