The NFL is one of the most popular entertainment outlets in America. Last week about 55 million people tuned into the NFL draft, to watch names of college players being read off cards.
Part of the appeal is violence. We can appreciate the majesty of Odell Beckham Jr.’s athleticism or the ability of Patrick Mahomes and still enjoy a big hit.
Yet there’s probably not enough appreciation for the players and the dangers of their job. You see it whenever there’s a holdout or anyone signs a big contract. Some fans — not all — will yell about greed and how players aren’t worth the money.
Maybe ESPN’s uncomfortable look at Alex Smith’s leg injury will start to change how people view NFL players.
Alex Smith’s life was in danger
Details of the “Project 11” documentary showing on ESPN on Friday night have been trickling out over the week. On Friday, a post by Alex Smith’s wife Elizabeth offered details about Smith’s injury and recovery that hadn’t been revealed before. The story was equally gruesome and frightening.
Smith suffered one of the most devastating injuries in NFL history in 2018. He was sacked and his right leg buckled. He suffered a compound fracture with the bone piercing the skin. The ESPN story said he had a spiral fracture, which starts at the ankle and spirals through the tibia to the knee. Smith needed screws and plates inserted.
Then he almost died.
In the days after his injury Smith’s fever spiked and his leg turned black. Doctors had a hard time pinpointing the issue. He had sepsis. Skin and muscle tissue was removed. According to Elizabeth Smith’s story doctors said Smith had necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacteria. Doctors fought to save Smith’s leg, and his life.
According to Elizabeth Smith, Redskins team physician Dr. Robin West told her: "Elizabeth, we're doing the best we can. And right now, our first priority is we're going to save his life. And then we're going to do our best to save his leg. And anything beyond that is a miracle."
Smith had 17 surgeries with four hospital stays over a nine-month period. The story on ESPN.com goes into further details about Smith’s medical treatment and recovery. We’re sure to see a lot more of it on the ESPN documentary, and it will be graphic.
Smith’s story will be memorable
Smith is an extreme case. Not all NFL injuries end up with a life-threatening infection. But it’s not like we don’t hear about other frightening injuries: Ben Roethlisberger’s rib dislocation that could have punctured his aorta, Chris Simms’ ruptured spleen that could have been fatal, Ryan Shazier’s neck injury and many others.
Every NFL player understands the risk. Aside from the non-life threatening but still serious injuries like torn ACLs, and the cumulative effects of concussions, any of them can suffer an injury like Smith. The play in which Smith was hurt didn’t look unlike any other play you see on an NFL Sunday.
It appears that ESPN’s Stephania Bell got remarkable access and the Smiths didn’t hold anything back. They wanted the world to see what the aftermath of a devastating injury looks like, long after the spotlight goes away.
More people than usual will be watching a Friday night show on ESPN. The graphic images and disturbing stories are going to stick with everyone for a long time. That’s not a bad thing. Perhaps some fans will remember Smith’s story when they cry about how good NFL players have it.
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