Alex Smith no longer has to dodge All-Pro pass rushers on Sundays. w the biggest pressure on the former NFL quarterback is rushing to get his kids to soccer practice on time.
It's a role - football dad - that Smith may have once taken for granted, being able to actively pass on his knowledge as a professional footballer to his lineage. But when all of that was nearly wiped out by a catastrophic, career-threatening injury like the one Smith suffered nearly four years ago, every kick of a soccer ball, throw of a football, or downfield run with his kids has grown in daily blessings.
"The biggest thrill I have is being able to play football with my kids or catch them and just chase them around," said Smith, who was picked first in the 2005 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. "For a long time I thought it was all over. For me this is the most important part of my life.”
Since being named the 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year with the now Washington Commanders, his unlikely and inspiring comeback story has led many fans and pundits to permanently name the award after Smith.
Alex Smith stayed focused under life-changing pressure
And their argument is valid considering many were unsure if the three-time Pro Bowler, including Smith, could return to football when both Smith's shin and fibula fell after an awkward tackle against the Tennessee Titans on v. 18 were torn in 2018.
Adding to the horrific 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 during this challenge was just as mentally brutal as physical therapy.
In Smith's 14 seasons with the 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington, dodging tackles was part of the job. w Smith was faced with the task of learning to walk again. Rather than seeing this rehabilitation as a long road with no endgame in sight, Smith focused on a multi-step process throughout the challenge. It's a lesson Smith now applies to his daily routine.
"It was amazing that when I said I wanted to play football again, I couldn't really stand on my own two feet," said Smith, who has also become an investor in nutrition brand UCAN. "And I was incredibly scared when I said that because the odds were overwhelming that I was going to fail. But my focus was always on the next small success. And I think that mindset carries over into life now, whether you're recovering from an injury or setting goals."
Getting out of the wheelchair was step 1, then getting up, followed by the actual first step. He continued this process until, almost 23 months later, Smith finally laced up his cleats and took to the soccer field.
Game day again for Alex Smith
And while being flung onto the turf by a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year isn't on any QB wish list, taking a sack from Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and shooting on May 11 was the right thing to do October 2020 from the field to a jog last victorious step of Smith's recovery.
"I literally walked through that last milestone in front of everyone," Smith recalls. “It was incredibly scary and exciting at the same time. But when Aaron grabbed me, it was like ripping off the tape - I was able to get rid of all the weight I had been carrying from that moment on."
w, in addition to working on sports with his three children and occasionally taking his wife to a training session, Smith also works as an NFL analyst at ESPN and is able to share his story on the Ted Talks circuit. The UCAN Ambassador shares some of his tips with Muscle & Fitness on how physical and mental fitness has helped him stay focused during his rehabilitation.
Courtesy of Alex Smith/UCAN
Find a new perspective on fitness—physically and mentally
I've always taken my fitness seriously - I've built my career by keeping my body in tip-top shape. As a quarterback, I was fortunate to have been able to train for life — I didn't have to squat 700 pounds to be a better quarterback, but I did have to be good at a little bit of everything.
Then, when I broke my leg, I wasn't so incredibly used to my body doing what I wanted until I suddenly had serious doubts and fears about whether I'd ever be able to do any of it again to do – and amputation was not off the table for a long time. Even as I tried to recover, I had this over my head.
But it helped me get back into chasing football, even though a lot of people had a hard time figuring out why I did it. For me it was about finding a way to play professional football again without restrictions, especially mentally.
And for how scary it was, I'm so thankful I stuck it out. When something has been taken away from you for so long, I am more grateful than ever to be able to just get up and move. I catch myself saying yes to everything, whether it's an activity I've been doing all my life to play with my kids or to exercise with my wife. I will use this opportunity as best I can to do anything and everything.
Short steps to achieve a long goal
There was never a specific moment where I said, "Oh, I can do that." To be honest, when I started I never really thought it would happen.
It took so many steps. At one point I couldn't even stand up and still talked about playing football - that was crazy! There was talk of cutting off my leg and I talked about coming back and playing professional football.
I've always been very short-sighted about everything. When I was in a wheelchair, the goal was to be able to stand. I really tried to just take the next step each time, both literally and figuratively. I have to get on both my legs, then I have to be able to stand on my legs. I have done everything to do that. And when I finally got there, then it was, what next? I just kept my head down and just focused on getting those small wins.
There were all these little milestones along the way, then all of a sudden I'm at the point where I'm lacing my shoes and walking onto the field. Then I could fall back and throw. And if I've done it long enough, I can gain more confidence.
When it was over, looking back it was such a save. I really don't think I would have made it if I had taken a different approach or mindset.
Embracing the last step to victory
The last step for me was to be tackled again, live on TV in front of the whole country. As quarterbacks, we don't get attacked in practice, and because of COVID, there was no preseason this year, so I literally went through that final milestone in front of everyone. It was scary and exciting at the same time. My final step was tackled by Aaron Donald. That game really threw off all the weight I was carrying and really felt like I could do it.
It was a crazy run, we ended up winning five out of six games I started and it helped us get to the playoffs. But that tackle was when I mentally threw it all down.
If it works for some, UCAN also stays focused
UCAN was a product I used the entire back half of my career. I started using it on game day, then training days. I needed a sugar-free energy source that would help me focus without breaking down. I loved intermittent fasting for the same reason: I loved the focus it gave me the productivity it gave me. I probably use it more now that I'm retired to get me out the door in the mornings with my kids.
I'm constantly being accused of things I don't know about, it's crazy. This partnership was a perfect fit, the easiest yes ever for me. I've used it throughout my recovery and now that I'm retired I still use it. I don't think enough people know about it, I'm trying to spread the word.
Focus can mean the difference between TD and INT
It couldn't even be summed up in seconds - it's just a fraction of how a loss of focus can affect a game. As a quarterback, you often expect everything the defense will do and counter. There's so much processing going on and I don't care how talented you are in the NFL, as a quarterback you have to be able to process above all else.
And you're processing hundreds of factors at once - all the possible looks you might be getting, then all your different counters at that. And it all happens on the fly, at the snap and then after the snap. What happens if the defense moves? Or when your left guard misses a block? w you have literally thousands of things to process at once. Therefore, the ability to concentrate has absolute priority. It is a must. You can be as big and fast and as strong as you want, but if you can't handle it, there's no way you can play at the NFL level.