Alex Smith has received praise from his peers for his hard work and preparation, but make no mistake, his mental toughness is what allowed him to make an impact in the NFL for over a decade.
Despite a rough start to his career, Smith managed to bounce back and prove that he can be a starting quarterback on a Super Bowl contender. In 2011, he threw 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions while leading the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game.
Even when the 49ers decided to move on from Smith and ship him to the Kansas City Chiefs, he never allowed that to affect his mindset. Instead, he took his game to another level and became a three-time Pro Bowler.
Kansas City eventually parted ways with Smith, sending him to Washington before the start of the 2018 season. Smith’s career in the nation’s capital was off to a promising start, but then, he suffered a major injury that not only put his career but his life in jeopardy.
On Nov. 18, 2018, Smith suffered compound fracture that broke both the tibia and fibula in his right leg. His recovery process became very tricky due to a life-threatening infection. In order to fend off the flesh-eating bacteria, he underwent a total of 17 surgeries.
Although the idea of Smith playing football again sounded too good to be true, he turned that dream into a reality. During the 2020 season, he returned to the field for Washington and helped lead the franchise to the playoffs. His incredible comeback inspired so many people, as he proved to the world that life isn't about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
Once the 2020 season came to an end, Smith announced that he was officially hanging up his cleats. It didn’t take him very long to find a new team, though, as he joined ESPN as an analyst for the 2021 NFL season.
We caught up with Alex Smith to discuss his retirement, new role at ESPN, incredible comeback and more.
This interview is presented by Gatorade’s newest technology – the Gx Sweat Patch and App.
The Spun: Can you tell me about your current work with Gatorade?
Alex Smith: Earlier today, I got to join in on a Mission Viejo High School football meeting. They’re all getting to try out the new Gatorade GX Sweat Patch and app today. It’s the first-of-its-kind wearable technology. So it was fun to visit them and talk about football in general. I think a lot of us who played high school football remember just how special it is. I did remind those guys that they beat my high school in the state semifinals a couple of years ago. I had to give them a little grief about that. They were lucky there was no state tournament when I was in high school [laughing .] But yeah, these sweat tests were always only reserved for the most elite athletes out there. I didn’t know about them until I became a professional and got tested at all three of my stops, San Francisco, Kansas City and Washington. It was expensive, it was laborious, and it took a long time to get that information back. Now, with the advancement in technology and the work that Gatorade has done, you can slap this sweat patch on, go work out, and then scan it with your phone and get instant, personalized information back on your sweat profile and what you need going forward. I think it’s amazing that it’s available for everyone at this point. I think people will be surprised to learn there’s a huge difference from person to person when it comes to variables and your sweat profile
The Spun: So, it was announced before the season that you were joining ESPN as an analyst. How has that transition been for you, and do you still have the itch to suit up on Sundays?
AS: To answer the first part, it’s been an awesome experience so far. I was ready for this. I never thought I’d play professional football for a day, let alone 16 years. With that, though, I’ve been around a ton of great coaches and players and have learned a lot. I enjoy talking ball, and what I’ve learned has allowed me to focus in on what’s important. For the second part, I got my comeback last year. I thought my career was over when the infection set in and doctors were talking about cutting my leg off. Even as I chased trying to get back on the field, I never quite truly thought it was possible. So for last year to happen the way it did and get to start six games for Washington is something I’ll cherish forever. My family has sacrificed so much – my wife and kid - for my career and I’m ready to turn the attention toward them. Like I said, I’m enjoying this next phase.
The Spun: Your recovery from your leg injury inspired people everywhere. Do you ever look back and think ‘Wow, I was able to overcome that?’
AS: No doubt. I pinched myself out there all the time that I was actually back out there in those situations. And for me, I think that’s what allowed me to walk away as well. I played with such freedom in those last six starts. I was so grateful for that opportunity, and I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow. It was all about making the most out of that moment that I was in. It was an amazing way to play and to live. For me to flip that with how I started my career as a rookie - it was a rough start, I carried a lot of weight and anxiety and I worried about making mistakes. That was paralyzing for me. So to come full circle with a lot of the things I’ve learned over the arc of my career and overcoming something like that taught me a lot about mental perspective and fortitude. To finish my career with that kind of freedom was something I’ll never forget.
The Spun: You mentioned your rookie season. What would be your advice to Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson?
AS: They’re both in different situations, but they’re both in difficult ones for young quarterbacks. They’re dealing with new coaching staffs and rosters that had a lot of turnover. There isn’t a huge history or foundation of success. On the flip side, we see Mac Jones playing in a far different environment. The Patriots have been using the same system for a long time and the pieces around him are very stable. So, all that stuff plays into the arcs of these guys’ careers, and it’s tough. Hopefully, these rookies learn quicker than I did with their mistakes. It’s such a fine line playing through these rough spots and being able to come out on the other side versus going out there and digging yourself too big of a hole that you’ll never get out of. You can’t go out there and build up too much scar tissue that’s tough to get rid of. I felt like I did that my rookie year, and it took me years to get out of that. All of these situations are unique, but it’ll be interesting to watch and see how Lawrence and Wilson play moving forward.
The Spun: Have you thought about potentially being a coach in the future?
AS: It’s certainly something I’ve given a thought to. My father coached for a long time, and I obviously grew up playing sports and had a great relationship with a lot of my coaches. But at this point with where my family is at and everything they’ve sacrificed already, that’s not something I can do with them right now. It’s just too big of a commitment and too much time away from them. I’m enjoying being at ESPN and being around the game. I see a lot of my former teammates and coaches still, I’m just in a different role this time around. I still get to talk about the game I love, but at the same time, I get to focus on being a father and husband too.
If Smith decides to pursue a coaching gig at some point in the future, we're sure he'll have success. For now, though, he's proving to be a valuable addition to ESPN's staff.
You can read more of our interviews with athletes or media stars here.