Alex Smith's journey back from a gruesome injury that nearly ended his career and his life in 2018 to starting at quarterback for the Washington Football Team against the Detroit Lions Sunday is one of the most inspiring stories of any season in any sport.
It will be almost two years to the day since Smith's last start. He had two broken bones in his right leg in a game against the Houston Texans on Nov. 18, 2018. He underwent 17 surgical procedures, including treatment for a life-threatening infection.
Smith made it back to training camp this year with Washington and played in two games as a backup. In itself, that was a personal victory – with bigger ones to come, as it has turned out.
"The more I've gotten to know him, the more competitiveness I've seen out of him," said Ron Rivera, Washington's head coach. "That's one of the biggest things. His return to football was really about competing against himself to get back on the field.
"It's pretty exciting to see him get that opportunity."
View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Wednesday Nov. 11, 2020.
Smith completed nine of 17 passes for 37 yards in a 30-10 loss to the Rams in Game 5. He was sacked six times.
Last Sunday he took over when starter Kyle Allen went out in the first half with a severe ankle injury. Smith completed 24 of 32 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown in the 23-20 loss. He was undone by three interceptions.
The irony of taking over for a teammate who sustained a severe injury was not lost on Smith. But neither was the reality of the opportunity, and what he can accomplish as Washington goes into the second half of the season with a 2-6 won-loss record that has them in second place in the weak NFC East. The Eagles are in first place with a 3-4-1 record.
"I know that routine well," Smith told the media after Sunday's game, speaking of seeing Allen taken from the field in a cart with the injured leg in an air cast.
"Tons of emotions. As quarterbacks, we spend a lot of time together."
Smith's return will be one of the NFL's top storylines of the week. And that is well deserved, given Smith's status as a respected veteran.
From the Lions' standpoint, they cannot afford to get caught up in the drama of Smith's return.
Smith, 36, has an overall won-loss record as a starter of 94-66 with one tie in 14 active seasons. He entered the NFL in 2005 with San Francisco as the first pick of the draft.
He made three Pro Bowls with the Chiefs, from 2013-17, before sustaining the injury with Washington in 2018. Washington was 6-4 at the time.
Washington has problems scoring points, but the defense is stocked with young talent up front. Washington has 27 sacks, fourth most in the league. Seven players have at least two sacks. Second-year defensive end Montez Sweat leads the team with five.
Smith felt better prepared to come off the bench against the Giants from having his stint against the Rams.
"A lot different," Smith said. "I really felt that was a step for me a few weeks ago and kind of moved on to the next one. Just playing -- I feel more comfortable. I've gotten a lot more work in the last few weeks, feeling better and better."
As a backup, getting practice time running the scout team got Smith back in the routine of playing quarterback. Getting all the reps as a starter should accelerate his progress.
"It's always difficult coming off the bench as a backup." he said. "Your work is just limited to mental reps. I look forward to getting those reps (on offense) with those guys. Everything is different. Every quarterback has a different style
"It will be nice for all of us to take advantage of those a little bit."