- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2020

ASHBURN — It was an injury so catastrophic a life was at risk, so gruesome that many who saw the play assumed a football career was over. So it’s little wonder Alex Smith’s amazing return to NFL action, two years after his right leg was shattered, feels in many ways like a movie fantasy.

Smith’s story is a real-life drama ripe for the Hollywood treatment, say screenwriters who know firsthand what translates to the big screen.

An epic journey full of cinematic moments — from the tension of life-or-death surgeries to the painful struggle of rehabilitation to the drama of suiting up and stepping back into the huddle — Smith’s comeback is a tale with all the right ingredients, said Scott Rothman, the co-writer of 2014’s “Draft Day” with Kevin Costner.

The key elements are all there, Mr. Rothman said. There’s a likeable character with an impossible dream who has to fight through obstacles in his way. There’s a dangerous, difficult journey — a hero’s quest — with a clear beginning, middle and end.

“Alex Smith, as a character, is a great example of that, of what he was willing to do,” Mr. Rothman said. “He could have very, very easily done what I probably would have done and packed it in after such an injury like that.

“Instead, he went the absolute other way. That makes him very special, both as an athlete and as a person.”

For a Smith movie to work, Mr. Rothman said the audience needs to see what makes the quarterback tick and delve deep into the impact of how the path he chooses affects those around him. Rattling off “Rocky” and “The Blind Side” as examples, Mr. Rothman noted that most sports movies try to appeal to the widest audience possible — and often benefit from showing the hero at both his best and his worst.

Those who have followed Smith got to see some of those moments in ESPN’s “Project 11” that aired last spring. A graphic documentary that covered the quarterback’s 17 surgeries and his rehabilitation, the film included images of Smith’s infected leg practically hanging off the bone after multiple debridements. Filmmakers also captured the duress those closest to Smith were under, as when his wife, Elizabeth Barry, asked doctors if they should just cut off the leg to save her husband’s life.

“Project 11” would serve as good source material for a screenwriter to adapt, said Brad Riddell, who co-wrote “Crooked Arrows,” a 2012 film about an American Indian high school lacrosse team. Mr. Riddell noted that plenty of documentaries become the basis for dramatic versions of real-life stories. As an associate professor who teaches screenwriting adaptation at DePaul University, Mr. Riddell said Smith “presents a lot of what we’re looking for” when choosing to adapt a nonfiction story.

Smith, Mr. Riddell said, makes for an intriguing subject for a simple reason: He’s often been an underdog.

Since being taken first overall in the 2005 draft, Smith’s NFL career has been anything but smooth, and there’s little doubt the lowest point came when he developed an infection that threatened his life after breaking his leg.

“That in itself is incredibly dramatic, it’s the stuff of ‘ER’ episodes or ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’” Mr. Riddell said. “But then there’s the recovery: The element of saving his leg and then saving his life is basically the first act of the movie, right?

“Then the second act — the most important part of the story and the hardest part of the story — is the recovery.”

Angelo Pizzo, the screenwriter behind the classics “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” said every great sports film has to have an appealing protagonist — and a strong emotional element.

“To be kind of blunt about it, unless somebody cries in a sports movie, it doesn’t work to some extent,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Pizzo isn’t sure the Smith story — already explored in-depth in the ESPN documentary ­— would translate to the big screen.

“I think it’s a movie moment,” Mr. Pizzo said. “Not an entire three-act story.”

Mr. Rothman said that, in the wrong hands, a Smith adaptation could very well turn into a Hallmark or TV Movie of the Week given all the drama involved. But there are ways around that — particularly if the script goes beyond the surface and figures out Smith’s motivations.

He used the most recent season of Netflix’s “The Crown” as an example. The story of Prince Charles and Princess Diana has been beaten into the ground, right? Well, that didn’t stop Mr. Rothman from being hooked, despite being familiar with the material.

“The series does a great job of showing you all the parts of their story that we didn’t know,” Mr. Rothman said. “That’s what you want to see in the Alex Smith story.”

There are other complicating factors. Casting is key. To sell the believability of a movie, the audience must buy in to the actor actually being an athlete. Certain casting choices can derail a film. “I mean, Tony Curtis couldn’t throw a baseball!” Mr. Pizzo said.

That prompts the question: Who would be best suited to portray Smith? He’s been told he looks like Ryan Gosling, the quarterback said in October.

Mr. Rothman suggested Chris Pratt or Chris Evans — two members of Hollywood’s so-called Chris Club. Indeed, Mr. Pratt portrayed Scott Hatteberg in “Moneyball” and Mr. Evans is best known for “Captain America.” Mr. Riddell said that Jake Gyllenhaal has the acting chops and the physicality to portray the quarterback.

Of course, the writing is the most important element. Does it matter if Smith’s story isn’t over just yet?

After all, Smith — if he isn’t sidelined by a lingering calf injury to that same surgically repaired leg — could add another cinematic flourish to the story by leading a Washington win against Philadelphia on Sunday night, ensuring a trip to the playoffs.

But the fact that Smith even stepped back onto a football field could be enough, Mr. Riddell said.

The adaptation of “Moneyball,” after all, didn’t rework the film to have the Oakland A’s win the World Series. “Draft Day” takes place all before the Cleveland Browns even step on the field with their draft selections. “Rudy” ends with just a two-play sequence.

For his part, Smith said he couldn’t ask for “anything better” than having the chance to earn a playoff berth in the final week of the season. The 36-year-old said he’s doing everything he can to suit up.

As for a movie about his journey? Well, Smith has a different idea.

“Heck no, I wouldn’t watch it,” he said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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