Tonight, ESPN’s E60 tells the riveting story of NFL quarterback Alex Smith, whose leg was badly broken during a game in 2018. The usually-private Smith gave E60 access to document his struggle with post-operative infection that could have killed him, the 17 surgeries he endured and his long recovery and rehabilitation, parts of which have never been revealed. “Project 11” airs at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell, who is a licensed physical therapist, spent more than a year working on the story, her first for E60. She spoke with Front Row about the process:
How did doing this documentary come about?
Dr. Robin West [Washington Redskins team physician] and I have been friends and colleagues in the sports medicine world for more than 10 years. I actually did a feature on her for espnW. She approached me in January of 2019. Alex was not out of the woods. Alex and his wife Elizabeth were asking, as patients or spouses will often do, does she know of someone who’s been through something similar, to follow a road map?
And she said there really wasn’t one – there hadn’t been a professional athlete with his type of injury with the subsequent circumstances. And I believe that’s part of what got Alex to thinking that maybe documenting it and just sharing his story would allow someone, if there was ever to be someone who found himself in a similar predicament, that they could see someone who made it through. As they talked about it, Robin told them she thought she knew just the person to help them, so she introduced us.
There are graphic images of Alex’s leg in the piece – and warnings for viewers. Why was it important to include the images?
It was very important to Alex and Elizabeth that the story be told authentically. Alex wanted us there for the good and the bad. He said it wouldn’t be real otherwise.
What do you hope viewers will get out of this?
Alex is one of the most grounded, relatable professional athletes I’ve ever met. His demeanor is his demeanor. He could be the guy living next door. For all that he’s accomplished, and all that he’s earned, he’s just a very nice, modest human being. His family is just a wonderful family. The other thing that’s really important to Alex and Elizabeth, and I think this comes across in the piece, is that they have such gratitude for their medical team. And they kept articulating that when we would meet with them. They wanted it to be very clear that they had nothing but appreciation and respect for everyone who took care of them.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the video below, Alex Smith tells SportsCenter’s Scott Van Pelt why he reached out to Stephania Bell to document his comeback, what his recovery has been like and more.