One Hit Away: The Cruel Reality of Contact Sports

NFL, Alex Smith, Joe Theismann, Lawrence Taylor, American football, injury
Joe Theismann (center) and Lawrence Taylor (left) enjoy each other’s company, but in 1985, the two were involved in a play that ended Theismann’s NFL career. The type of injury Theismann suffered then draws some eerie parallels to an injury suffered by Alex Smith in mid-November 2018. Image taken via screenshot. (Video)

Players in contact sports are one hit away ­— from a lost season or the end of their career. Fans of particular sports, especially American football, are reminded of this every year. My reminder came twice this year. One came earlier this year as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went down with an ACL tear (albeit it was a non-contact injury). The other reminder came a week ago yesterday.

On Sunday, November 18, 2018, Alex Smith, the quarterback for the Washington Redskins, suffered a catastrophic injury during his team’s loss to the Houston Texans. Although this post is a little late, I wanted to talk about the injury and how I feel about it and the 2018 season overall.


What Happened to Alex Smith

During Week 11 in the 2018 NFL season, the Washington Redskins played the Houston Texans and Alex Smith was hurt in the third quarter of that game. Smith was sacked by Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson and defensive end J.J. Watt. Smith’s tibia and fibula (in his right leg) were broken in the process.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Smith also suffered compound and spiral fractures in his right leg. ESPN reporter Stephania Bell added that Smith was rushed to surgery due to concerns about a potential infection and compartment syndrome. The injury was successful, so that was a relief.


The Eerie Parallels to Joe Theismann’s Injury 33 Years Prior

On Monday, November 19, 2018, Joe Theismann went on Tiki and Tierney — a CBS radio program hosted by former NFL running back Tiki Barber and radio personality Brandon Tierney — to talk about what he saw the previous day. Theismann happened to be at Washington’s game against the Titans, and upon seeing Alex Smith’s injuries, Theismann turned to his wife and remarked how similar it looked to his own injury in 1985. Theismann had also said the same on Twitter:

Theismann said that it was hard for him to sleep that night. At that moment, everything he had experienced in that game 33 years ago (including the smells and sounds) all came flooding back to him. Theismann also said that his heart went out to Smith.

Theismann also told Tiki and Tierney about the many other similarities between his and Smith’s injuries, as well as some coincidences. For example:

  • Smith was injured around the opponent’s 40-yard line, which was where Theismann was when he was injured.
  • The final score (23-21) was the same, although Washington won in 1985.1
  • That Sunday’s game from Smith’s 166th and Theismann was injured in his 167th game.2
  • Theismann was tackled by a three-time Defensive Player of the year (Lawrence Taylor) and so was Smith (J.J. Watt).
  • Theismann’s Pro Bowl left tackle (Joe Jacoby) was not in the game due to injury. This was the case with Trent Williams this year.
  • Theismann has a 33-year-old nephew named Alex Smith.

This is so weird.


The Immediate Reactions

Of course, the first reactions of note came from the players on the field and those behind the broadcast of the game. CBS decided not to replay the footage of Smith’s injury during the broadcast3 and players from both teams reached out to Smith as he was being carted away. As Thomas Boswell wrote for The Washington Post, the injury the players experience each “evokes a deep emotional empathy” because players know the risks of participating in their sport and each injury cuts into the small window most of them have in that sport.

This principle was at work with Texans QB Deshaun Watson, who said that the game was like a brotherhood, so he knew how important it was for him to show his support for Alex Smith. Watson himself suffered a season-ending ACL injury in his rookie year.

I also looked for reactions online. The first place I looked was Twitter, where I first learned of Smith’s injury. 4 There were some stupid jokes by people who were using one movie reference in particular and some people took the time to say that they thought Smith sucked, but most of the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

Another place I looked was Arrowhead Pride, a sports blog for Smith’s previous team, the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s where I saw one of the best comment’s I’d ever read:


The Prognosis for Smith

The lingering questions after Alex Smith’s injury are:

  1. How will Washington fare for the rest of the season?
  2. Will Smith be able to play in 2019?
  3. Does Smith want to play again?
  4. What will Washington be able to do with its cap situation?

The first question will be answered in the following weeks, but we will have to wait months for answers to the other questions.

Smith has a rough road ahead of him, especially at his age (34). It might take weeks for his leg to heal, but the most important part of his rehab will be regaining full motion of his right ankle and full strength in his lower right leg. On that note, Smith may take 8 to 10 months to fully recover from his leg injury.

Smith might not be able to start Week 1 of the 2019 season, but if he cannot play at all during that season, his base salary of $15 million is fully guaranteed. In the meantime, backup QB Colt McCoy was expected to start the rest of the season.


How I Feel About This Injury

If you have been following this blog for a while, you might know that I am fond of Alex Smith (as I am of many other 49ers players), although Smith never had elite numbers. That might be the homer in me, to a degree. But most importantly, I admire him as a human being, so what happened last week was pretty damn depressing.

Smith never had a spectacular career, but he was a hard worker, and as TE Vernon Davis once said, Smith was one of the most resilient people ever. The quarterback had to deal with a lot of hardship early on in his career, and he played despite the lingering negative narratives against him. So, when I heard that he had a career-threatening injury, I was saddened and a little pissed.

It was like the cherry on top of a crap sundae, at least where NFL football is concerned. Not only is Smith sidelined, but so is the quarterback of my #1 NFL team, the San Francisco 49ers. Now, there are some Niners fans who like the prospect of the team getting the #1 pick in the 2019 draft, but I’m not one of them. I want the team to try to win and I have no interest in any team tanking. That’s not to say that is what the team is doing, but they really suck right now.

Also, to Be Perfectly Honest …

I am rather unimpressed with the NFL right now. Since 2017, I have been noticing a sharp drop in the quality of play on the field. Even when certain teams were winning (and I wanted them to win), watching those games wasn’t as fun. I think part of the reason might be the rule changes, especially those that handicap the defense.

Many of the changes supposedly concern player safety, but they were really designed to increase the scoring. The truth is, there is no way to eliminate injuries from football. Ultimately, it all comes back to the nature of the game.

The game of (American) football is violent, and the league is still reckoning with the effects of concussions, albeit haphazardly so. Ever since more attention was given to concussions, I have struggled with that reality whilst watching these games. I’ve also juggled the truth that any player can be taken out of the game with a gruesome injury.

As the poster in that AP thread said, every player is just one hit away. Some players may be very durable, but anyone can lose time or their career after taking one hit in any game.

All that said, I feel for Smith and I wish him the best, whatever he chooses to do. I would just hate for his career to end like this, though.

Additionally …

Is it about time for the Redskins to change their name? I would honestly like to see a name change because the team name is offensive. Maybe it’s cursed, too.


Footnotes

1. The Washington Redskins were playing on Monday Night Football on the night that Joe Theismann suffered his gruesome injury.

2. The game in which Theismann suffered that horrific injury was his last, but it remains to be seen if Smith will be able to come back from his injury. Theismann said that regardless, he knew that Smith would give it his all to come back.

3. The decision came from up high. Harold Bryant, the senior vice president of production at CBS, made the decision from the control room. He had made a similar decision in that capacity in 2013 when CBS was airing NCAA tournament games and Louisville guard Kevin Ware broke his leg. During the HOU/WAS broadcast, Greg Gumbel and former NFL quarterback Trent Green (he also played for the Washington Redskins at one point in his NFL career) were the announcers. They had no problem with the decision and Gumbel announced that they would not show the replay of Smith being injured on air.

Compare that to the opening for NFL on CBS on Thanksgiving, when there was a voiceover that talked about Adrian Peterson being thankful for his health, in contrast to what happened to his teammate (Smith): “but the same can’t be said for the Skins’ centerpiece, who broke his drumstick.” CBS was rightfully put on blast for that.

4. Every time I saw that Alex Smith’s name was trending on Twitter, it was always bad news. November 18 saw the worst news. The good thing about Twitter is that Smith does not have an account there. Why would he, given the amount of abuse that would be heaped on him?

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