- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pam Smith distinctly remembers the message that doctors delivered moments after they were done operating on her son, Alex. Another surgery had been required as the Redskins quarterback’s broken leg turned purple from the amount of swelling and developed tar-black blisters on the previous incisions.

He had an infection. And it was bad.

“‘We’re in life-saving mode now and leg-saving mode,’” she was told, “‘But it’s in that order.’”

The fight to save Smith’s leg and his life is at the heart of “Project 11,” the one-hour program from ESPN’s E60 that details Smith’s gruesome 2018 injury and all the complications that came with it. The special debuts Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Smith’s career-altering injury happened against the Houston Texans on Nov. 18, 2018, when Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt sacked the quarterback — breaking Smith’s right tibia and fibula. But Smith’s true battle took place in the days and months following. The documentary makes it a point to show just how much pain the quarterback went through: a 103-degree fever, septic shock, 17 surgeries, 59 days across two trips to the hospital.

Shortly after his mother’s disclosure, Smith’s wife, Elizabeth, details how seriously the parties considered amputating Smith’s leg. She tearfully recalled asking Dr. Robin West, the Redskins’ team doctor, why they couldn’t just “cut it off,” if it meant her husband would be OK. The program then cuts to West, noting how Elizabeth asked her what she would do if it were her own leg.

“I said I would consider doing it,” a choked-up West said.

The doctors finally got Smith’s infection under control, thanks to a series of debridements — an operation that removes the infected tissue. Doctors did the procedure eight times, leaving Smith’s leg with hardly any skin.

A word of warning: This program is not for the squeamish. Take the “viewer discretion is advised” caution seriously.

Beyond repeated replays of the actual injury, the program shows the medical images of Smith’s leg. Viewers will see Smith’s carved-open, bloody leg that reveals bone and the metal rod placed in. They’ll see the blisters, stitches and deformities that developed. It’s all there — unless you close your eyes, of course.

So what made Smith want to do this? Why would he want thousands, if not millions, of people to see his open leg on television?

Once the quarterback got through the scariest part of his recovery, the 35-year-old began asking West who he could possibly talk to who had been through something similar.

After failing to come up with an exact parallel, West suggested Smith document his experience and recommended he reach out to ESPN. Stephania Bell, the ESPN reporter who narrates the piece, said she first heard from Smith’s camp in January 2019.

The program isn’t just an hour of graphic images and Smith in pain. The filmmakers go into great detail on Smith’s recovery and on his career before the injury, which causes the beginning to drag a bit.

But viewers see the support system, from family to doctors to the military specialists who advised Smith throughout the process.

It is revealed that Smith traveled to the “Center for the Intrepid,” a state-of-the-art medical facility outside San Antonio, Texas, that treats veterans wounded in combat. Smith got permission from the U.S. secretary of defense to receive consultation from the military.

One of the most illuminating moments in the documentary is when Smith tosses a football for the first time as part of his rehab. A physical therapist throws Smith the ball for him to use during an exercise involving his leg. Cameras capture Smith’s realization that he hadn’t thrown a pass since the injury — and soon, the Redskins quarterback breaks out into a wide smile.

The documentary doesn’t answer the question of whether Smith will ever play in the NFL again.

That’s certainly his goal — Smith has said so many times. But none of the doctors interviewed for the piece are shown answering whether Smith can realistically expect to resume his playing career. Instead, there’s a note near the end that doctors are “amazed” by his progress.

Still, at one point, Smith says he was just concerned about whether he can do everyday tasks, whether he can play with his kids or stand up taking a shower. Getting back to normal was the goal — and football would be a benefit.

“His leg will be forever different,” said Bell, who served as a physical therapist before jumping to ESPN. “You can’t have that much of your anatomy physically removed and then altered and be exactly the same as you were pre-injury.

“But that doesn’t mean you can’t adapt and be highly functional. I think we’re all sort of taking it in that he’s been able to do as much he can.”

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