Alex Smith no longer has to dodge All-Pro pass rushers coming at him on Sundays. Now, the heaviest pressure coming at the former NFL quarterback is the rush to getting his kids to soccer practice on time.
It’s a role — soccer dad — Smith may have once taken for granted, as well as being able to actively pass down his pro football passer knowledge to his lineage. But when all that was nearly taken away by a catastrophic, career-threatening injury such as the one Smith suffered nearly four years ago, each kick of a soccer ball, toss of a football or downfield route run with his kids has become a greater daily blessing.
“The greatest thrill I have is like being able to go play soccer or catch with my kids and just chase them around,” says Smith, who was selected first in the 2005 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. “There was a long time that I thought that was all gone. To me, this is the most important part of my life.”
Since being named 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year with the now Washington Commanders, his improbable and inspirational comeback story has had many fans and pundits calling for the award to be permanently named after Smith.
Alex Smith stayed focused under life-altering pressure
And their argument is valid, considering when both Smith’s tibia and fibula were snapped after an awkward tackle against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 18, 2018, many were uncertain whether the three-time Pro Bowler could return to football, including Smith.
In addition to the hideous injury that went viral on the internet, the leg became infected, which now meant amputation became a real possibility, let alone football. Smith admits that maintaining focus throughout this challenge was just as brutal mentally as was the physical therapy.
Eluding tacklers was part of the job during Smith’s 14 seasons with the 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Washington. Now Smith was faced to learn to walk again. As opposed to seeing this rehabilitation as one long road with no end game in sight, Smith maintained his focus throughout the challenge as a multiple-step process. It’s a lesson Smith now applies to his daily routine.
“It was amazing that I actually couldn’t stand on my own two legs when I said I want to play football again,” says Smith, who is also become an investor with nutrition brand UCAN. “And I was incredibly terrified when I said that, because there were overwhelming odds that I was going to fail. But my focus was always on that next little achievement. And I think that mindset now carries over to life, whether you’re recovering from an injury or setting goals.”
Getting out of the wheelchair was Step 1, then standing, followed by actually taking his first step. He kept adding to this process till finally Smith was lacing up his cleats and stepping onto the football field, nearly 23 months’ later.
Game day once again for Alex Smith
And while getting slammed to the turf by a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is on no QB’s wish list, taking a sack from Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and jogging off the field on Oct. 11, 2020, was the final victorious step of Smith’s recovery.
“I literally went through that last milestone in front of everybody,” Smith recalls. “It was incredibly scary and exhilarating at the same time. But when Aaron tackled me, it was like ripping the tape off — I was able to shed all the weight I had been carrying from that moment on.”
Now, in addition to participating in sports with his three children as well as occasionally tagging along with his wife for a workout session, Smith works as an NFL analyst with ESPN, and can be found sharing his story on the Ted Talks circuit. The UCAN ambassador shares some of his tips with Muscle & Fitness on how staying fit both physically and mentally helped him stay focused during his rehabilitation.
Finding a new perspective on fitness — physical and mental
My fitness is something I’ve always taken seriously — I built my career by keeping my body in great shape. Being a quarterback I was kind of fortunate that I was able to train for life — I didn’t need to squat 700 pound to make be a better quarterback, but needed to be able to a little bit of everything well.
Then when I broke my leg, I went from being incredibly used to my body doing what I wanted it to do to all of a sudden having serious doubts and fears about if I’ll ever be able to do any of it again — and for a long time, amputation was not off the table. Even as I was trying to recover, I had that looming over my head.
But it helped me chase football again, even as a lot of people had a hard time figuring out why I did it. For me, it was about whether I could find a way to play pro football again without limitations, especially mentally.
And for how scary it was, I’m so thankful that I did see it through. When you have something taken away from you like that for so long, I’m more thankful than ever just to be able to get up and move. I find myself saying yes to everything, whether it be an activity I’ve done all my life to playing with my kids or exercising with my wife. I’m going to take as much advantage of this opportunity to do anything and everything.
Short steps to reach a long goal
There was never one particular moment in which I said, “Oh, I can do this.” To be honest, when I started out, I never actually thought that it was going to happen.
It took so many steps. At one point, I couldn’t even stand and yet I was talking about trying to play football — that was crazy! There was talk of having my leg cut off, and I was talking about coming back and playing pro football.
I always kept everything very short sighted. When I was in a wheelchair, the goal was to be able to stand. I really did try just to take the next step each time, both literally and figuratively. I gotta get on my two feet, then I got to be able to stand on my legs. I did everything I could to do that. And once I finally got there, then it was, what’s next? I just kept my head down and only focused on making these small gains.
There were all these little milestones along the way, then all of a sudden, I’m at the point in which I’m lacing my cleats and getting on the field. Then it was can I drop back and throw. And if I did it long enough, can I gain more confidence.
When it was over, looking back, doing it that way was such a savior. I really don’t think I could’ve done it if took a different approach or mindset.
Embracing the final step to victory
The final step for me was getting tackled again, on live TV in front of the whole country. As quarterbacks, we don’t get tackled in practice, and there was no preseason that year because of COVID, so I literally went through that final milestone in front of everyone. It was both scary and exhilarating at the same time. My final step was being tackled, by Aaron Donald. That game was really when I kind of shed all of the weight I had been carrying, and really felt like I could do it.
It was a crazy run, we ended up winning five of six games I started, and it helped us make the playoffs. But that tackle was when I shed everything mentally.
If it works for some, UCAN stay focused as well
UCAN was a product that I used the whole back half of my career. I started using it on game day, then on practice days. I needed an energy source with no sugar to help me keep focus without crashing. I loved intermittent fastingfor that same reason: I loved the focus it that gave me the productivity that it gave me. I probably use it more now that I’m retired, to get me out the door in the morning with my kids.
I get pitched things all the time that I know nothing about, it’s crazy. This partnership was a perfect fit, the easiest yes ever for me. I used it throughout my recovery, and now that I’m retired I’m still using it. I don’t think enough people know about it yet, I’m trying to get the word out.
Focus can mean the difference between TD and INT
You couldn’t even put it into seconds — it’s fractional how a loss a focus can impact a play. A lot of times as a quarterback, you’re anticipating everything, what the defense is going to do and counter it. There’s so much processing that happens, and I don’t care how talented you are at the NFL, as a quarterback, the number one thing you have to be able to do is process.
And you’re processing hundreds of factors at once — all the possible looks you could get then all your different counters to them. And this all happens on the fly, at the snap, then post-snap. What happens if the defense moves? Or if your left guard misses a block? Now you’ve got literally thousands of things getting processed at once. And so being able to focus is an absolute priority. It’s a must. You can be as big and fast and as strong as long as you want, but if you can’t process, there’s no way you can play at the NFL level, for sure.