At the turn of the century, the U.S. military had a problem.
Soldiers who injured their legs in blasts were treated much the same way they had always been — with amputation.
Johnny Owens, who at the time worked at the Center for the Intrepid, a rehab facility for military members in San Antonio, took on the problem. By the end of the decade, his team was not only avoiding amputation, but had returned members of elite groups like SEAL Team Six and Delta Force back to the battlefield.
In 2018, Owens received a call about Alex Smith.
The Washington Football Team quarterback had just suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in the history of football, and would ultimately require 17 surgeries to fix his right leg.
But first, Owens was on the phone with Smith’s wife, Elizabeth. As doctors considered amputating Smith’s leg, he advised against it.
Two years later, Smith isn’t just the beneficiary of Owens’ research, he is the new poster child for it.
“For the next conflict, not only do we have our publications and research telling service members, ‘We’ve got your back,’” Owens said. “Now it’s, ‘Hey, have you ever heard of Alex Smith?’”
Once Smith made the decision to pursue rehab, the work began quickly.
Owens, who is the founder of Owens Recovery Science in San Antonio, said the problem for many patients is the erosion of muscle while the body is inactive — in this case, while Smith was in a hospital bed or a wheelchair.
“Strength comes from weightlifting, and that’s hard to do, especially in the early phases of rehab,” Owens said. “And early is when you lose everything. The muscle goes away real fast.”
The solution? Using tourniquets to restrict blood from entering the limbs. From there, even slight movements tax the body as weightlifting would, activating the muscle fibers and preparing Smith for the next step of the journey.
At the same time, Smith made a decision that he acknowledges was out of character for him.
He allowed an ESPN film crew to follow him during his rehab, which was later turned into the ”Project 11” documentary, and an anticipated sequel. Smith signed on before knowing if he would be able to walk again, let alone play football.
“I think the uniqueness of the injury, and the rehab ahead, as scary as it was at the time, is what made it hard to turn down,” he said. “There had really been so many advances that was giving me this opportunity. I felt like I was the beneficiary of those, and really wanted to document this for anybody coming after me.
“I watched a lot of videos, countless hours, of service men and women at the Center for the Intrepid do workouts that hopefully I was going to be able to do one day. ... There were definitely people that provided that same inspiration for me when I was going through it. You hope to pass that on.”
Once Smith’s rehab had progressed to the point where he was out of his wheelchair, he flew to the Center to continue his work and pay his respects to the soldiers there.
Celebrities and notable politicians visit the facility regularly, but this particular situation was unique. Smith had to receive special authorization from the defense secretary’s office, because the training at the Center is off limits to civilians.
“He was received extremely well, as you can imagine,” Owens said. “These guys see him as someone who is not only at an elite level, and a celebrity, but someone who’s got the same type of issues they were dealing with, which is empowering.”
Football and the military share a number of similarities, but Smith was blazing a new trail — a football injury that was more like a war injury.
In leaning on the military expertise, Smith was able to get back to the point where he spent part of the 2019 season with Washington. He was only a spectator, but for the players who didn’t know Smith before, they got a peek at his character.
“He was helping guys as much as he could on the iPads on the sidelines during games, or in the film room or practice fields,” receiver Terry McLaurin said. “He has that veteran approach. You feel like, good or bad, we’re going to be OK.”
The past year has brought a whirlwind of activity. The documentary debuted, providing an often stomach-churning glimpse into what Smith went through. Then a series of injuries led to him taking the field against the Los Angeles Rams.
“First there were goosebumps,” Owens said. “Then a ‘hell yeah!’ Then a little bit of, ‘Oh crap, don’t break on us.’
“It’s similar to the military. You think you’ve got them 100%, but you can never ever test for the battlefield or the game in a lab or a clinic.
“So yeah, I was nervous, but my phone was blowing up. Our group that worked with him was on a group text, super excited to see it. Not only feeling good for him, but good for his kids and his wife — they struggled worse than anyone with this.”
From there, Smith has only improved, and has the chance to lead the Football Team to first place in the division with a Thanksgiving victory in Dallas.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Washington running back J.D. McKissic said. “He’s a legendary quarterback.”
With the holiday has come a surge in interest in Smith, who was featured in People magazine this week and has become one of the year’s best feel-good stories.
Smith is working to turn the attention into further inspiration. He’s launched a clothing line with the “Attitude is Free” brand, with proceeds going to the Center for the Intrepid.
“One thing you can say about Alex is he never makes it about him,” McLaurin said. “He has every reason to be like, ‘Look at my comeback story; look what I’ve done,’ but he makes it about the team.
“To see him come back and get a win as a starter, that’s not only a motivation to us as players, but I feel that’s motivation to everybody that has watched that.”
With the comeback has been the question — after coming all this way, why risk another injury on the field?
On Sunday, Smith watched as the opposing quarterback, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, suffered a season-ending injury of his own.
“This is a physical game,” Smith said. “Injuries are part of this game as unfortunate as they are. I think even within that though, it is part of the job and I know that’s what drew me to the game — that physicality, the edge you have to play with. I think the feeling that we all get even watching it.
“I mean it is real, it’s part of the game, it’s what makes it so special.”
Smith is still authoring the end of his story, which will end with him receiving the comeback player of the year award at season’s end — one of the few times that award has seemed somehow not significant enough to note what has transpired.
McLaurin said he watched the documentary recently.
“It kind of takes you back,” he said. “But the next thought you have is, man, if this guy is still playing — you don’t have any excuse to not come out and practice hard.
“Alex had every opportunity to walk away from the game, and nobody would think twice. For him to be so resilient shows the world what you can do if you put your mind to something.”