Inside Alex Smith’s Long, Painful Road Back to Starting in the NFL

11 June 2021

Because of the horrific nature of the injury, Washington Football Team physician Dr. Robin West called a friend, Johnny Owens, MPT and former Chief of Human Performance Optimization at the Center for the Intrepid. The department of defense facility in San Antonio, Texas, specializes in the rehabilitation of military personnel with blast injuries, and Smith’s gruesome leg injury was indeed more reminiscent of something that would occur on a battlefield than a football field.

It was Owens who encouraged Smith’s doctors in Washington to keep his leg despite the extensive damage; they could always amputate later if their rehab attempts failed. Smith received special dispensation from the Secretary of Defense to visit CFI, where his rehab plan was laid out.

“It was humbling and crazy and it really put my injury into perspective,” Smith says. “But at the same time, it gave me such hope, because Johnny and the doctors and PTs at CFI had seen injuries like this so many times before. To them, the idea of me playing again wasn’t a question. It was without a doubt, when to everyone else, it was crazy.”

The Start of the Comeback

It was Owens—who says Smith’s leg now looks “mangled, like a shark attacked it”—who first put a football back in Smith’s hands on a visit to CFI in February of 2019, just three months after the injury. Smith’s leg was in the fixator, and he was doing exercises on one knee when Owens flipped him the pigskin. “He didn’t feel sorry for me,” Smith says. “He pushed me. And we played catch.”