SAN DIEGO — Bill Walton, the basketball great from San Diego, has said he’s forever grateful to the surgical team that alleviated his chronic back pain. The La Mesa Helix High alum, who also praised a San Diego surgical supplier, said life had become close to unbearable before doctors rescued him.
“Amen, brother,” might be the response of another Helix alum, Alex Smith, an NFL quarterback who’s fortunate to still be walking.
Surgical teams have performed 17 surgeries on Smith’s right leg, which was at risk of amputation after complications stemming from an injury late in the 2018 NFL season. The injury’s fallout also threatened to kill Smith.
The ordeal began with a gruesome football injury in November 2018 that snapped a bone in his lower leg, puncturing skin.
Germs — some of them atypical — invaded the leg.
Two of the four types of bacteria that breached Smith’s bloodstream warded off powerful antibiotics and began to devour muscle tissue and skin, imperiling not only the leg but Smith’s life.
As the infection tracked into Smith’s thigh, doctors engaged Smith’s parents and wife in a discussion that bordered on surreal. Amputation was raised as an option.
“So now we’ve got this lower leg that’s ravaged and deformed, and (doctors are) not even sure we can keep it and maybe we shouldn’t,” said Doug Smith, Alex’s father. “Doesn’t it make some sense, maybe, that life would be better without it?”
These details and others from Smith’s harrowing yet inspiring journey come from an ESPN film that aired Friday on the network’s E60 series of special programs.
Titled “Project 11” in reference to Smith’s jersey number, the well-crafted film shows Smith playing for Helix in La Mesa and includes interviews with his dad, his mom Pam, and wife Elizabeth.
The 45-minute film isn’t for the queasy, but brings home a powerful truth worth contemplating, not only amid today’s coronavirus pandemic but day-to- day life in so-called normal times: “We’re in this together” isn’t a hollow slogan.
Even for an individual as rugged as Smith, described by a former coach as “tough as a two-dollar steak,” it was already easy to appreciate the interconnected realities of life.
Smith’s belief in education led him to create a foundation that has helped 23 San Diego foster children go on to attend San Diego State and earn a degree.
The third of four children, Smith fell for football, a team sport, as a boy. A brother eight years his senior who played quarterback for Helix inspired him to pursue a similar course.
Rightly so, football players call their sport the “ultimate team game” because so much rides on teamwork.
Take, for example, the third-down pass play that sent Smith to a Virginia hospital.
A missed blocking assignment put the quarterback in prompt danger, leaving him unable to fully brace himself from the blow of two Houston Texans pass rushers, one of them unblocked by a Washington Redskins teammate.
Orthopedic surgeons set Smith’s two fractured leg bones with plates and screws. No concerning effects showed up that night or the following day.
The flesh-eating bacteria would announce its presence on the third day.
It fell on a team of medical workers and family members to support Smith through an arduous recovery that also took him to the Center for the Intrepid, a treatment center near San Antonio, where he conversed with soldiers who had lost limbs.
The leg was preserved, but it wasn’t until August 2019 that Smith could try to walk without external assistance.
With Elizabeth standing next to him and the ESPN camera rolling, Smith said he wasn’t an emotional person, but as he contemplated the immense help he’d received from several medical workers and family members, he choked up with emotion.
“It’s just a lot,” he said. “So many people, I feel, put into this, most of all (Elizabeth), but, like, all the docs. And time. I never thought this day would actually come.”
Orthopedic surgeons had removed muscle to help stave off infection. In other surgeries, they attached muscle from his right calf and from his left thigh to exposed bone in the front of his right leg. Also, they fortified the leg with a titanium rod.
While Smith said he is optimistic he can play again in the NFL, former Chargers team physician Dr. David Chao said this week the player would be the first to return to the league after such a “free flap” surgery. Chao added: “If anyone can do it, Alex Smith can.”
Smith, who’ll turn 36 next week, is under contract for three more years. He has earned many millions of dollars since going first in the 2005 NFL draft to the San Francisco 49ers.
If it turns out that his final football play was the one that threatened to take his right leg and his life, he doesn’t seem like he’ll be too broken up about it. He said he’d be thrilled just to walk as he ages, and be able to play with his three children.
He reported having “why me?” moments in his recovery, but when bedridden and unable to do much of anything without assistance, he also spoke of gratitude.
“Do you know how many people would love to trade positions with me?” he told his wife. “Do you know the things and blessings we have? And we can’t take it for granted, not even a minute.”
That’s not a call he seems likely to change, whether or not he returns to the line of scrimmage.
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