Alex Smith figuratively climbed a mountain to return from a life-threatening leg injury to play football again. So it was only appropriate, then, that the moment the quarterback knew he was done came on a snowboarding trip with his family.
He was literally on the side of a mountain.
“I still feel like I have other mountains out there,” Smith said on ESPN. “It does come back to being a father and a husband. And I want to go do it with them.”
The former Washington starter announced his retirement Monday, bringing to a close a 16-year career that began when he was taken with the first overall pick in 2005 and included one of sports’ all-time great comeback stories.
Smith made the announcement on social media with a two-minute video that featured the quarterback thanking fans, coaches and teammates.
His decision comes more than a month after Washington released him. The 36-year-old, who turns 37 next month, said he would take his time to determine whether he wanted to play football next season. And while the three-time Pro Bowler hinted in various interviews that he was interested in returning, Smith ultimately concluded that now was the time to stop.
“Even though I’ve got plenty of snaps left in me, after 16 years of giving this game everything I’ve got, I can’t wait to see what else is possible,” Smith said in his video. “But first I’m going to take a little time to enjoy a few of those walks with my wife, and my kids have no idea what’s coming for them in the backyard.”
Smith’s legacy will be defined by his improbable recovery from many saw at the time as a career-ending leg injury. When Smith went down with a broken leg in November 2018, he developed an infection so severe that doctors considered amputation. He was hospitalized and needed 17 surgeries — putting his football future in serious doubt.
Smith, though, didn’t give up. He spent part of his rehab at a military complex intended to serve veterans who have suffered combat wounds, building up strength in his leg. He consulted with doctors and looked at other athletes’ injuries, finding a brace that allowed him to take the field.
After missing all of 2019, Smith finally accomplished his goal last season. He first made an appearance in October against the Los Angeles Rams and then, more surprisingly, he captured the starting job a month later. Washington went 5-1 with Smith as a starter — a streak that resulted in the team’s first playoff berth since 2015.
“I want to congratulate Alex Smith on a great career,” coach Ron Rivera said in a statement. “He was the ultimate professional and one of the finest leaders I’ve ever had the privilege to coach. … He is an inspiration to me personally and to the countless others who followed his journey these past few years.”
Owner Dan Snyder added that Smith represented the organization “with class and dignity on and off the field.” Smith arrived in Washington in 2018 when the franchise traded for him to replace Kirk Cousins.
Befoe retiring, Smith flirted with the idea of reuniting with Urban Meyer, Smith’s former college coach now at the helm of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The reunion, though, didn’t happen as Meyer admitted last week that Jacksonville’s doctors were “very concerned” about Smith’s health.
Smith was hampered down the stretch of 2020 with a bone bruise on his surgically repaired leg that caused him to miss multiple games — including the playoffs.
Smith began his roller-coaster football journey as an under-recruited college prospect who went on to become the first overall pick in 2005. With the San Francisco 49ers, he went from savior to bust to reliable NFL starter — all within a few years. His greatest success came in the 2010s, starting for the 49ers, the Kansas City Chiefs and then Washington.
As a quarterback, he was often dismissed as a “game manager.” But coaches valued his intellect, ability to protect the football and above all, his leadership. Smith notably mentored former 49ers star Colin Kapernick and Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes — even though both eventually displaced him as the starter. With Washington, players were amazed by his resilience. “He’s an inspiration for all of us about never giving up,” All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff said after the season.
Smith finishes with 35,650 passing yards, 199 touchdowns against 109 interceptions, and a career 99-67-1 record as a starter.
Smith said Monday that after his injury, he wondered if he would ever walk again. The thought of playing football, he said, “was the farthest thing on the back of my mind” — until he started tossing a football during his recovery.
“I don’t know what it was, but all of a sudden I felt stronger, more driven, and what once seemed impossible began to come into focus,” Smith said. “And the truth is, over the course of my life, that’s what this game has done for me.”