Up until the moment it occurred, Alex Smith's return to the gridiron felt more like a pipe dream than a possibility.
His motivation and sheer willpower afforded him the chance to not only continue his career but also elevate the Washington Football Team to its first NFC East crown and postseason appearance since 2015. And for that, Smith was officially announced as the 2020 AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year during Saturday's NFL Honors ceremony.
Smith won the award in a landslide, garnering 49 of 50 votes, with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger notching the only other vote.
In all likelihood, a simple gameday activation would've positioned the 36-year-old among the top candidates for the award. But, with every clearance he received on his road to recovery from a devastating leg injury in 2018, the optimism surrounding his ability to play again grew.
That hope was eventually realized in Week 5 when Smith replaced an injured Kyle Allen against the Rams. He completed nine passes for 37 yards and took six sacks in an eventual loss. Though his unbelievable return didn't lead to victory that day, the mere fact that Smith was available and withstood L.A.'s pass rush was nothing short of miraculous.
It would take four weeks for him to see more action, again replacing an injured Allen in a narrow loss to the Giants. Smith was named the starter the following week against the Lions in a game that took place three days shy of the two-year anniversary of his leg injury. Smith logged 38 completions on 55 attempts for 390 yards, all career highs, in a narrow defeat.
With Allen on IR, Ron Rivera named Smith the full-time starter. After beating the Bengals in Week 11, his first win since Week 9, 2018, Smith and his teammates demolished the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. In Week 13, with the world watching even closer than usual, Smith led 4-7 Washington to the unthinkable: a historic road victory over the 11-0 Steelers. He threw for 296 yards and a score in the triumph.
A right calf strain in Week 14 limited Smith to close out the season, forcing him to miss two of the last three regular-season games and a wild-card date against the Buccaneers. It stands to wonder how things could've gone if he stayed healthy but that matters little in light of what the veteran accomplished. In his six starts, Smith compiled 1,220 yards (68% completion rate), five TD and five picks.
Few who witnessed the events of Nov. 18, 2018 could've foreseen what Smith pulled off in 2020. In his 10th game with Washington, Smith suffered a spiral and compound fracture to his right tibia and fibula. The scene evoked memories of franchise great Joe Theismann, who sustained a career-ending broken leg on that same day in 1985.
Less than three days after surgery, Smith found himself battling for his life after developing sepsis as the result of a bacterial infection called necrotizing fasciitis. At one point, doctors considered amputation before finally getting it under control. Over the next nine months, he underwent 17 surgeries; as a part of his strenuous recovery, Smith also wore an external fixation device, a contraption that looked akin to something a war veteran would wear as opposed to a football player.
In June 2019, Smith announced his intention to play in the NFL again. A month later, he shed his external fixator and was back to walking on his own. Fast forward to August 2020 and Smith was cleared by the team to participate in football activities after being placed on the PUP list. He eventually re-joined the team in September.
Overcoming a life-altering injury -- and the life-threatening complications that accompanied it -- could've very easily provided Smith with an opportunity to ride off into the sunset. Instead, he chose to look adversity in its eyes and simply tell it, "You won't win."
It's unclear what the future holds for the three-time Pro Bowler but, for the better part of the 2020 campaign, Smith amazed football fans around the world with a memorable, awe-inspiring run that will live on in the annals of NFL history.