Quarterback Alex Smith Almost Died — But Instead Ended Up Staging Greatest Comeback of His Career

"I was just playing in a football game and all of a sudden I might be losing my leg. And I'm thinking, 'What's my life going to be like without a leg?' " Alex Smith tells PEOPLE in this week's issue

It was late in the afternoon on Dec. 3, 2018, when a groggy, feverish Alex Smith lay in his bed at Virginia’s Inova Fairfax Hospital, desperately trying to make sense of what was happening.

Fifteen days earlier, the then-34-year-old quarterback for the Washington Football Team (previously known as the Washington Redskins) dropped back for a pass during a game against the Houston Texans when he was sacked by two defensive players, shattering two bones in his lower leg.

Smith was rushed to an operating room where surgeons pieced his tibia and fibula back together with 29 screws and two metal plates. But what doctors didn’t know was that the splintered bones tore through the side of his leg, allowing bacteria from the field's dirt to enter the wound.

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Smith being carted off the field on Nov. 18, 2018, before being rushed to the hospital. Jonathan Newton/Getty

Two days later, doctors were suddenly battling to save his life and talking about amputating Smith's rapidly-blackening leg before the necrotizing fasciitis infection continued spreading through his body and killed him.

“I’m laying there wondering, ‘How does this happen?’ " Smith, now 36, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. “I was just playing in a football game and all of a sudden I might be losing my leg. And I’m thinking, ‘What’s my life going to be like without a leg?’ ”

But the veteran quarterback and married father of three did exactly what he’s done for much of his 16 years in the NFL: he refused to give up.

Smith endured 17 surgeries, muscle and skin grafts to salvage his leg, and then staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL history when he returned to the field this October.

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Alex Smith returns to the field on Oct. 11, 2020. G Flume/Getty

“It’s unbelievable, but if anybody could do this, it’s Alex,” says Scott Turner, offensive coordinator for the Washington Football Team. “It was his will and determination to not let anything stop him. It takes a special type of person to overcome the challenge he faced.”

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Alex Smith on Nov. 10 in McLean, Virginia. Bryan Derballa

Now Smith — who was named the team’s starting quarterback on November 15 — is on a quest to spread the message about what he calls “the power of attitude” and how finding the will to stay positive helped fuel his against-all-odds return to professional football.

For more on Alex Smith, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE.

“I don’t think you totally know how resilient you are until you get tested and this was definitely the biggest test I’ve had in my life,” says Smith, who created a line of t-shirts to benefit the Center for the Intrepid, a San Antonio-based military medical facility instrumental in his physical rehab.

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Smith in rehab at the Center for the Intrepid in Feb. 2019. Courtesy Alex Smith

“There are so many things you can’t control, but every single day you wake up you have the power to control your attitude and how you approach the things ahead of you. That’s something I focused on every day.”

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