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Washington QB Alex Smith: 'I couldn't sleep at night' if I didn't try to return

It's difficult to believe that anyone thought Alex Smith would take an NFL field again after his compound fracture and ensuing complications that nearly cost him his leg.

Yet, Smith was activated from Washington's physically unable to perform list Sunday and is on track to return to football activities.

Some might question why Smith, who has three young children, would want to attempt such an unlikely comeback. At 36, the former No. 1 overall pick has accomplished plenty, and earned millions more. At this point, this isn't about bringing in lucrative checks.

"I know that's kind of the easy thing to think," Smith said of those doubting the decision to return. "I've had a lot of people tell me you've played a long time, you've made a lot of money and why not ride off into the sunset. I know that in the NFL world I'm an old guy, I'm a dinosaur but in the bigger aspect of life, I'm 36 years old, I have three little kids, I have the rest of my life in front of me.

"And selfishly, I'm even doing this for that as crazy as that sounds. I know if I can go out there and play quarterback, I can do anything else in life. It's one of the hardest jobs in sports, and [I'm] so grateful to have the opportunity to put that jersey on the last two days and go out there and try and do it."

With the help of a team of excellent doctors, Smith already fought off a flesh-eating bacterial infection to save his leg. One could make the fair claim every challenge ahead of him will pale in comparison, including returning to an NFL field.

Smith needs to prove something to himself, though, and it's usually not wise to get in the way of a man operating with a second chance and bent on achieving a specific outcome.

"For me, it's taking on that challenge, I don't think it's something I could walk away from and be able to sleep at night if I did," Smith said of retiring from football. "I don't think I could look my kids in the eye and talk to them about giving it their all and pushing through things. We all face adversity in life and it comes in different forms, and you know, was I gonna talk about it or be about it? And, for me, that's what it is and I know, however this comes out, I'm gonna be better off for it.

"I continue to make gains, I continue to get better even in these last few weeks and so, for me, that just kind of continues to excite me that I can keep pushing on. At some point I'll obviously find out where my limitations are but I haven't found 'em yet."

A key for Smith has been avoiding specific end goals. He didn't mention any ultimate bar set at returning, appearing in 16 games and throwing for 40 touchdowns or anything of the sort. He's more focused on the task at hand, which is really more about starting to get comfortable in a football setting. It's not exactly easy to return from an injury that occurred to Smith's plant leg.

It's been a long journey toward putting weight on the leg and trusting it as his plant leg, Smith said, with such a process requiring Smith to push himself incrementally. He's made strides significant enough to earn him a chance to return to the field.

It's really incredible when you take a step back and look at Smith's career as a whole, and especially his time in Washington. Smith was the former franchise savior who became a successful reclamation project in Kansas City, but was eventually cast aside yet again for a younger, better player. That's what led him to the nation's capital, where he signed a lucrative deal and was ready to finally call a franchise his own in his final decade of professional football.

Then his leg snapped, Smith nearly lost the limb due to the aforementioned complications, he was forced into a complicated contraption of a brace known as an external fixator, and football seemed to be the last thing on anyone's mind.

In a football world that never stops, Washington was forced to move on, drafting Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins and essentially handing him the keys halfway through the 2019 season. Now, Smith returns to a franchise that looks much different than it did when he was carted off the field in 2018 -- so different, even its name has changed.

"I think tough to put into words, all the emotions and thoughts leading up to this, especially once I found out," Smith said of his activation from the PUP list. "Certainly, the last few days, obviously have been really, really special. To dare to think about even practicing 670 days ago, whatever it was, to think about that back then, how scary that seemed and daunting as it seemed not only to attempt but even to put it out there and think about it, and then to finally lace up the cleats, to throw my jersey on again and put my helmet on and go out there was such a good feeling.

"The butterflies, the feeling that you get in your gut going out there, it had been so long since I had felt that. So good to be amongst my teammates on the field again, all the little things. So, like I said, hard to sum up into words but thankful for this next step and really it's kinda what it was. Looking forward to taking this one on just like the rest of 'em."

The next step is unclear. Coach Ron Rivera has maintained Smith would be in the mix for playing time at the position if he was medically allowed to play, though it's pretty clear the future lies with Haskins. Smith could be a highly paid veteran mentor, and perhaps one that pushes Haskins, or he could truly shock the world and win the job.

"I think those two things are not mutually exclusive," Smith said. "I think you can have, in a healthy situation, I think you want competition, especially in the quarterback room. I think you have to have it, I think it has to be a part of your culture, it has to be about what you do day in, day out. Listen, I mean no one's going to win every single time at everything, I think it's about embracing challenge, embracing competition ... for us as well, it's also about supporting each other, whoever is out there, whoever is rolling.

... "When I get my opportunity, I go out there and compete my tail off. At the same time, when I'm not, I try to help these guys. We got three young quarterbacks and they all have a bright future and, for me, I put that hat on as well. I feel like I can do both. That isn't too hard to do."

The future remains uncertain, but for Smith to even have arrived at this point is a massive achievement. It's easy to think anything after this is just a bonus, but it's evident the quiet competitor in Smith isn't content with that.

He is happy to be here, though. Eighteen months ago, that wasn't guaranteed and for that, Smith is grateful.

"I'm going to be honest, the last thing I'm thinking about is my legacy in any of this," he said. "I'm so grateful for so many things in life and certainly to be able to put the jersey on and the helmet on the last two days and kind of continue this. I'm thankful for this opportunity to be able to still go out and do this at this point, as I am about so many things in life. Certainly not thinking about legacy, I'm trying to live in the moment and make the most of this."

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