Two years ago was a Thanksgiving that Alex Smith will never forget.
Instead of leading the-then Washington Redskins out onto the field against the Dallas Cowboys in their annual Thanksgiving Day game with the entire nation watching, Smith was fighting for his life in the hospital.
Four days prior to that holiday, Smith tragically broke his leg on Nov. 18, 2018, fracturing his tibia and fibula in his right leg when Houston Texans all-pro defensive lineman JJ Watt sacked him from behind and fell on his leg in an incredibly awkward manner.
So it's fitting that Smith is running out of the tunnel and into the mecca of the professional sports world that is AT&T Stadium in Dallas today of all days — a day that is designated for us to reflect on our lives and give thanks for all that we have.
And for Smith, he has so much to be thankful for.
"Another step, another thing I never thought I'd be doing again," Smith said following Washington's 20-9 victory over Cincinnati last week. "It's one thing to come out and get that first playing time and a whole other deal to play winning football as a starter. It's amazing to get a win."
Smith's story didn't really begin until the night before Thanksgiving two years ago.
After undergoing what was considered a successful surgery at that time, Smith was hoping to be released by the hospital in time to spend the holidays with the family and watch his team from the comfort of his own couch.
"I was hoping to be discharged the afternoon before Thanksgiving. I had my surgery, it had gone well they said," Smith told NBC Sports' Peter King. "Our team doctor, Dr. West, who had left with the team that same Wednesday, she had swung by right before the team had left to see me. That's when I was kind of still in some pain and had a very mild fever.
"She really talked me into staying one more night," Smith continued. "For her, it was like 'What's the rush? Just stay one more night. Why not? You can go home in the morning'."
Smith is blessed that he listened to West's urging to stay that final night in the hospital. According to him, his blood pressure dropped, his fever spiked and he nearly lost consciousness — which led to an emergency surgery that night to help stop the spread of the infection in his leg.
But that emergency surgery wasn't enough.
When it was all said and done, Smith underwent 17 surgeries to control and stop the spread of the infection. He not only nearly had his leg amputated multiple times, Smith was close to losing his life.
Since then, Smith's journey has been well-documented.
He officially received clearance from his own personal medical staff as well as those of the Washington medical staff in mid-August to return to football related activities, nearly 21 months since the injury.
After going through training camp with the team, Smith made the 53-man roster as the third-string quarterback behind starter Dwayne Haskins and backup Kyle Allen. The thought was that Smith could really use this season to get his legs underneath him while serving as mentor to Haskins and Allen, two young quarterbacks in the league.
"Alex is a vet guy. Everything about him is professional. It's everything you want in a quarterback. That guy fought for his life," Washington's Steven Sims Jr. said. "He's just an inspiration. His whole story is an inspiration. I go hard just when he's back there. Regardless of who's back there, I go hard. But it's a different feeling when he's back there."
But that plan hasn't gone accordingly.
After struggling for the beginning part of the season and having other issues, Washington head coach Ron Rivera benched Haskins in favor of Allen, moving Smith to the backup role.
Then two and a half weeks ago, Allen went down with a season-ending injury after he suffered a dislocated ankle and small fracture against the New York Giants. This allowed Smith to take over the starter's role, where has gone 1-1 since doing so.
"You just take a moment when you do to certainly appreciate everything about where we are, certainly as a family how lucky we are," Smith said. "I'm grateful for so many things. Certainly, to be in this position again I didn't think was ever possible for a long time. It is a good reminder to look around at how lucky you are, how lucky I am."
But all of that will pale in comparison to when Smith takes the field this afternoon. It may have been two years in the making, but he'll finally be facing the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day — and with a chance to sit stop the NFC East nonetheless.
After everything he has gone through over the past 24 months, Smith's perseverance and faith is a reminder that we all have something to be thankful for in life. So as we sit around the table with our family and friends and reflect on what 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to us, Smith taking the field today is a reminder that even through our darkest times, we can still come out on top.
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