Ex-Utah QB Alex Smith follows on miraculous comeback by signing on with ESPN

He’s still a Utah man — although he’s happy to take advice from a former Cougar.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah quarterback Alex Smith looks for a receiver as the Utes play against the North Carolina Tar Heels Saturday, Oct. 16, 2004.

Former University of Utah quarterback Alex Smith retired from the NFL after 16 years, but he isn’t leaving football behind altogether. On Monday, ESPN confirmed that the former No. 1 draft pick has signed on as an NFL analyst.

Smith will bounce from show to show, appearing occasionally on “Monday Night Countdown,” “Sunday NFL Countdown” and “SportsCenter,” sometimes from stadiums, sometimes remotely. And that’s the way he wanted it.

“I’m not going to be on one slot on one show, doing the same thing over and over. I’ll get to experience a lot of different things with a lot of different people, and that definitely excites me,” Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune. “A lot of the other things out there were really kind of all or nothing.”

(He was in talks with CBS and Fox about becoming a game analyst.)

He said a “big determining factor” in taking the ESPN job was that “they were really open to any kind of striking a balance with home life and family.” Alex and his wife, Elizabeth, are the parents of two sons, Hayes and Hudson, and one daughter, Sloan.

“This is a game that I love, and I look forward to my next relationship with it.” Smith said. “But at the same time, my family has sacrificed so much over the course of my career. And I also look forward to being at home more.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) shakes hands with former Utah QB Alex Smith, who was an honorary captain for the Utes tonight, before the Alamo Bowl football game, between the Utes and the Texas Longhorns, in San Antonio, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019.

Still a Utah man

Smith hasn’t spent a lot of time in Utah since he graduated, but that has more to do with his NFL career than anything else. He said he would’ve loved to attend some Ute games.

“My oldest is 10, and my boys love football, but it’s hard on a bye week to ask my family to go to do more football,” he said with a laugh. “But I do look forward to getting my wife and kids back to Utah a little bit more now.”

He is “really close” with Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham, and he’s followed the Utes from afar. Smith was 21-1 as a starter for the Utes, and led them to a wins in the Fiesta and Liberty Bowls and back-to-back Mountain West titles, half a decade before Utah joined the Pac-12. And he’s at least a bit wistful about that.

“I mean, when you grow up in the West Coast [La Mesa, Calif.], my dream was to play with the Pac-10. But we didn’t have that opportunity,” he said. “And I think we definitely carried that with us” as motivation. “But we’re proud knowing that we helped make the program what it is.”

AFC quarterback Alex Smith (11), of the Kansas City Chiefs, looks to pass, during the first half of the NFL Pro Bowl football game against the NFC, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Turning to TV

It was, Smith said, “a pretty easy decision” to sign on with ESPN. During the week, he’ll spend time Zooming with colleagues, players and coaches — doing “a little less travel sometimes” and having “more time for home life.”

His goal as an analyst is to offer “digestible insight.”

“I look forward to talking ball so that everybody can understand it,” Smith said. He’s looking forward to “being able to talk to people that love football, just like I do, and giving them some level and insight into the game … in a manner that everybody can take in. Not a bunch of jargon, not surface level.”

His start date hasn’t been finalized, but expect to see him about the second week of September, when the NFL season kicks off .

Houston Texans strong safety Kareem Jackson (25) reaches for Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith (11) as he leaves the field after an injury during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018 in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

A hero for everyone

Smith’s life took a sudden turn in November 2018 when he suffered a gruesome leg injury — a compound leg fracture. After surgery, an infection turned out to be sepsis and necrotizing fasciitis — flesh-eating bacteria — which threatened his life and nearly resulted in having his leg amputated. He underwent 17 surgeries before a rehab that, miraculously, brought him back to the field for the Washington Football Team.

“It changed my life. How could it not?” Smith said. “I mean, I wake up every morning and my life is different. You cannot go through an experience like that and not be changed — and, for me, for the better.”

He’ll bring that experience with him when he interviews current players for ESPN.

“Absolutely,” Smith said. “It was something I wouldn’t wish on anybody … but you learn when you go through something like that. You learn about yourself and what’s important.”

He knows what it’s like to be second-guessed. Many questioned his resolve to return to the NFL. “But for me, it was always about more than football. It was about the rest of my life with my wife and kids.”

“I don’t think I would be where I am today if I didn’t pursue playing again. As hard as it was to get back on that field, that it was going to be better for me for the rest of my life.”

FILE - In this July 25, 2019, file photo, injured Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith, left, walks to a cart as he talks with former quarterback Joe Theisman, right, as he leaves the practice field during the first day of NFL football training camp in Richmond, Va. Alex Smith is not only active and back on the practice field but actually taking some second-team snaps in team drills at Washington's training camp 21 months after breaking his right tibia and fibula, a gruesome injury that required multiple surgeries and threatened his career. Now the veteran quarterback seems close to completing an improbable comeback. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

His long, tortuous recovery won him the Comeback Player of the Year award. It made him a hero.

“I’ve felt love from so many people across the country,” Smith said. “I feel it from Utah nation anywhere I go. And I love hearing from other Utah graduates and people from Utah.”

Smith and his family recently moved back to the San Francisco Bay area, where he’s clearly beloved. He attended a Giants game on Friday, and got a standing ovation from the baseball fans.

“I do think certainly the injury was a lot bigger than football,” he said.

Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith (11) scrambles against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

No NFL dreams

The last person who thought Alex Smith would have a 16-year NFL career with three teams (San Francisco, Kansas City and Washington) and make the Pro Bowl three times was Alex Smith himself.

With the exception of his final game as a Ute — 35-7 win over Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl — Smith “played every game in college never thinking or expecting that I would ever even have a chance to play professional football,” Smith said. “It’s not something I thought about as a kid. It’s not something I thought about as a high schooler. And it’s not something I thought about in college.”

His dream was to play college football and get an education. After that, he planned to “move on with my life and figure out what I wanted to do with my degree.”

(He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in just two years at the U., and was working on a master’s degree when he was drafted.)

“I lived out my dream of playing college football,” he said. “Utah gave me that opportunity, and I cherish it dearly.”

Steve Young, left, and Matt Hasselbeck talk during ESPN's Monday Night Countdown before an NFL football game between the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Smith and Young

Among those Smith turned to for advice about a career in TV is another former All-American quarterback who played college football in the state of Utah — former BYU star Steve Young, who’s been an ESPN analyst since 2000.

“Absolutely, I talked to Steve,” Smith said. “He’s somebody that I’ve been close to ever since I got drafted by the Niners. Talk about someone who can provide a unique perspective for me on my life, not just when I played quarterback, but certainly here post-career.”

Smith praised Young “for how he’s balancing his life and family during football and off the field career. So he’s someone I think a ton of, and I really value his opinion.”