The NFL quarterback position is very unique in sports. It is one of the only spots where the back-up typically gets almost no playing time. Being a back-up QB can significantly test the character of a player — and especially his ability to put the good of the team ahead of his own personal interests. On their GameChange podcast, Thru the Tunnel, Jack Baric and Paul McDonald tell the story of how NFL veteran quarterback Alex Smith passed this test, not once, but twice. They explain how the strong character he exhibited was later called upon to get him through a trial that was infinitely more important than making it onto the field during a game.
Smith was the overall first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, chosen by the San Francisco 49ers to be the quarterback of their future. It did not start out well. Smith struggled for six seasons at quarterback all while the 49ers had a dismal record of 37-59. However, in 2011, the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh as their head coach and everything changed. The team finished 13-3 and entered their first playoff game in 9 years. In that game, versus the New Orleans Saints, Smith led the 49ers to two long touchdown drives, capping one with a 28-yard touchdown run, and the other with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis to give San Francisco a 36-32 victory.
Although the 49ers lost the 2011 NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants, they were on track in 2012 to have a championship season. The 49ers started the season with Smith at starting quarterback, but in the ninth game of the season he suffered a concussion and Colin Kaepernick replaced him. Although Smith was having the best season of his career, and was the third-rated passer in the NFL, Kaepernick caught fire and kept the job.
There is an unwritten rule in sports that players who lose their starting spot because of an injury will typically get it back when they heal. Smith could have raised hell and demanded his job back. He was playing really well before he got hurt. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he supported Kaepernick and the team. Coach Harbaugh would later say that Smith was a great coach to Kaepernick during that season. The coaching paid huge dividends as Kaepernick led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 18 seasons.
The following season Smith was traded by the 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs were coming off a terrible 2-14 season and had only made the playoffs in two of the previous nine years. Under new coach Andy Reid, and with Smith at quarterback, the Chiefs immediately turned things around, going 11-5 in their first season and making the playoffs.
Going into the 2017 season, the Chiefs had made the playoffs in three of the four years that Smith was their quarterback and he was elected to the Pro Bowl twice. In 2016, Smith had the best season of his career, leading the Chiefs to a 12-4 record before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. However, in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chiefs chose quarterback Patrick Mahomes with their 1st Round pick.
The Chiefs did not select Mahomes to replace Smith for the 2017 season, but they did pick him to become their quarterback of the future. By 2017, Smith had already been in the NFL for 12 seasons and the expiration tag on his career could easily be considered fast approaching. Smith led the Chiefs to another playoff appearance and, off the field, he took Mahomes under his wing to teach him the ropes. Smith did this even though it meant that he was helping to groom the guy who would replace him. Smith rejected the temptation to have a scarcity mindset.
So, what exactly is scarcity mindset?
People who have a scarcity mindset tend to focus obsessively on the things they don’t have and this often leads to poor decision-making, which negatively impacts their long-term success. For example, if you don’t have a lot of money, the obsession with being poor causes you to be trapped in a mindset that ultimately keeps you in poverty.
We live in a society where we are often taught that everyone is battling for their piece of the pie, for their place or position on this planet. The belief is our world is finite and there is only so much to go around, so you better get yours before it’s gone. It’s a “dog eat dog”, “survival of the fittest” mindset where life is a win-or-lose game. This belief breeds anxiety, fear, anger, and ultimately, unhappiness.
Is this the only way to live? It’s not. The opposite of a scarcity mindset is an abundance mindset. In an abundant mindset, we have faith that there will always be enough food to eat or that new opportunities would come our way. Alex Smith’s story is the textbook example of having an abundance mindset. When another quarterback on the team’s roster emerged above him, he could have pouted and focused on what he no longer had – he could have obsessed with being seen as a back-up, but he stayed positive and kept coming to work to support his team.
At the conclusion of the 2017 season, Smith was traded by the Chiefs to Washington. Although Kansas City did not see him as the quarterback of their future, Smith’s positive attitude and refusal to have a scarcity mindset was rewarded with a massive pot of gold in Washington. The team signed Smith to a four-year $94 million contract!
Smith immediately proved that Washington’s faith in him was correct. In the five seasons prior to Smith’s arrival, the team had a 31-48-1 record, but in his first nine games as a starter, Smith led Washington to a 6-3 record with a clear path to the playoffs in front of them. And then in Smith’s 10th game with Washington, disaster struck.
The Houston Texans arrived in Washington for a match-up of two 6-3 teams. With a little under eight minutes left in the third quarter, Smith was sacked by Houston’s J.J. Watt and Kareem Jackson. The pain etched on Smith’s face indicated something really bad had happened and scores of players from both teams came to his side as he was carted off the field.
Smith suffered a compound, spiral leg fracture that extended from his ankle all the way up to his knee with bone protruding through his skin. When Smith arrived at the hospital, he went straight into surgery. It was the first of Smith’s 17 surgeries, but even as bad as that number sounds, it was far from the worst of it. Infection from Smith’s injury caused flesh-eating bacteria to ravage his leg and he was not responding to the antibiotics that the doctors were giving him. He was in danger of going into septic shock, which could cause death, and amputating his leg was being considered.
Fortunately, the doctors were finally able to get Smith’s infection under control and prevent amputation. Smith’s injury was so severe that he went to be examined by military doctors that typically treat battlefield injuries. This is where Smith began his rehab. The expectation for the extent of his recovery was fairly limited. As he started to heal, just taking a shower and the chance to play with his kids was something Smith was incredibly grateful to have again.
Gratitude allows us to live life in a more relaxed state of mind and to let things come naturally to us rather than obsessing over what we don’t have. This obsession shows a lack of belief and belief plays a massive role in living an abundant life. First, you must believe it is possible to receive abundance.
As Smith’s leg bone began healing and his rehab progressed, the strong inner drive, that he always possessed, began to kick in and he start thinking, “Football might not be out of the question. Can I go play quarterback again?”
Although Smith wanted to give football another shot, he also never lost sight of the fact that he was fortunate to be alive and able to freely move about again. In an ESPN interview with Scott Van Pelt, Smith said, “It’s all icing on the cake right now. I can play with my kids. He added, “It’s all gravy now. But my mentality’s no different, I’m chasing just as hard.”
Miraculously, Smith did return and made it back to the Washington squad as their quarterback. His sense of abundance, gratitude, and belief was rewarded with a chance to play on the greatest stage again. His story is an amazing reminder that we should never give up and keep going for it again and again. What a great way to live your life!