Alex Smith Healed Enough to Walk Away

21 May 2021

Johnny Owens, former CFI rehabilitation specialist, became the QB’s new coach that week, humbling Smith the way that football had in San Francisco. Owens started by introducing Smith to his new teammates. They rehabbed most mornings at CFI and trained again all afternoon. Initially, Smith lagged behind the veterans, a rookie trying to find his center yet again. That same trip, he fell down on a balance exercise and hung his head. “Stop with the pity party,” Owens snapped.

He threw Smith a football. Holding the very thing that made him famous, anxious, rich and immobile, the quarterback groaned inside. This stupid game. But gripping while balancing helped him stay upright longer. Owens started shoving Smith, trying to knock him askew. No luck.

The therapist backed up and motioned for Smith to throw, as cameras from E:60 captured the rarest of moments, the exact instance when NFL history changed. From his knees, the quarterback let loose a spiral, the impact so sudden and forceful it knocked Owens backward. That act, at once simple and cathartic, transported Smith back to childhood evenings spent playing catch in the backyard with his older brother and his dad. He threw another pass, then another hundred passes. “It was like [Owens] was daring me to play football again,” Smith says.

Smith started carrying a football everywhere he went, his new companion so ubiquitous that doctors had to remind the QB that his comeback chances still fell somewhere between slim and less-than slim. He knew he sounded deluded but simply floating the notion that he wanted to return produced an unexpectedly fierce emotion—relief. He still had that fixator bolted to his leg. He could hardly walk. But later that night, he sent Owens a text message: Alright, it’s frickin’ onJust tell me what I gotta do.

Smith can’t find his phone that evening in Hawaii, as kids buzz by, paint dries and storm clouds gather on the horizon. He heads to another room, discovers his electronic appendage and returns like he’s holding a prize. When he looks down, there’s a video from Owens, the same kind of clip the therapist has forwarded for months. All feature men and women running in prosthetics or on salvaged limbs, jumping out of planes, wading into combat. Smith spends countless hours watching and re-watching them, these injections of hope he calls “crucial” to his changing mindset.