Former 49ers QB Alex Smith’s vision springs to life: from hospital bed to playing Pebble Beach – San Francisco Chronicle

Crystal Hopkins, a longtime 49ers fan who lives in San Jose, takes a photo of one-time 49ers quarterback Alex Smith at the 9th hole in Pebble Beach.
PEBBLE BEACH — As former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith lay in a hospital bed, contemplating his uncertain future after a devastating injury to his right leg — which threatened his life and then raised the grim specter of amputation — he closed his eyes and pictured himself playing again.
Not football. Golf.
Smith’s concerns stretched deeper than flinging passes in NFL stadiums. He pulled off that improbable, inspirational comeback in 2020, but for a period of time he worried more about the rest of his life. Golf is one of his favorite hobbies and passions. Would his leg allow him to walk 18 holes again?
The vision always included Pebble Beach. So, in some significant ways, Saturday’s third round of the AT&T Pro-Am marked a milepost in Smith’s new life. He made the looping, picturesque stroll around one of golf’s most storied courses — just like he imagined in the hospital bed.
Alex Smith reacts after sinking a putt on the 10th hole on the Pebble Beach Golf Links at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022 in Pebble Beach, Calif.
“I really did visualize this walk,” Smith said afterward, standing behind the 18th green. “This is one of the greatest walks in golf, and I thought it was gone. I thought I would never be able to do this. … I’m pinching myself out here.”
Smith’s stirring comeback resonated with sports fans throughout Northern California and beyond, as he was often reminded Saturday. On the No. 9 tee, after smacking his tee shot, he posed for a photo with Crystal Hopkins, a longtime 49ers fan who lives in San Jose.
Hopkins wore Smith’s red, No. 11 jersey (now autographed) from his 49ers days. She spoke of how “genuine” Smith seemed when he played for San Francisco and how she cried while watching a powerful “60 Minutes” segment on his injury and comeback.
Later, as Smith walked to the No. 18 tee, a tournament volunteer approached to say how proud he was of Smith. The man works as a mental health life coach, Smith said after the round, and specializes with people who have gone through trauma.
He told Smith his story made a profound impact on a lot of people. Smith listened intently and thanked him.
“The focus is always on the physical,” he said later. “But it wasn’t until I dealt with a lot of those mental things that I was able to make progress and start attacking a little bit. It’s hard, and I’m grateful for the people who helped me.”
Alex Smith studies his putt on the 9th hole on the Pebble Beach Golf Links at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022 in Pebble Beach, Calif.
Smith announced his NFL retirement nearly a year ago, in April 2021. He had proved to himself he could come back and play football — a monumental achievement, given the severity of his injury — but he was ready to move on to the next phase of his life.
As the past three days showed, playing at Monterey Peninsula (Thursday), Spyglass Hill (Friday) and then Pebble Beach, this phase is going well. Smith recently went skiing with his wife, Liz, and their three kids (ages 10, 8 and 5). He throws the football with the kids and plays golf with them.
Smith’s leg still bothers him at times — he described it as “permanent damage” from the compound fracture, which ultimately led to 18 surgeries and forced him to learn how to walk again. He adapts the moment he gets out of bed each morning, as he put it, but the leg also doesn’t stop him from doing the things he loves.
That mattered more than football, really, because he’s only 37. Old in NFL years, young in real life.
Crystal Hopkins, shows an autograph of Alex Smith on her 49ers jersey that he signed at the 9th hole at the Pebble Beach Golf Links at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022 in Pebble Beach, Calif.
“There was always an end in sight with football, but there were things we talked about doing, hiking or going on walks,” Liz Smith said. “Golf is one thing we can do forever. So to see him out here walking 18 holes for three consecutive days, and coming home and not being in pain, yeah, it’s incredible.”
This is incidental in the big picture, but Smith is doing more than merely walking. He and his pro partner, Mackenzie Hughes, combined to shoot 62 in the pro-am competition Saturday and stand at 23-under-par for the week, one stroke off the lead heading into Sunday’s final round.
Smith, playing to an 8-handicap, contributed five shots at Pebble. One of those came on No. 8, a difficult par-4, when he made par (net birdie). On other holes, Smith struggled and eventually picked up his ball.
A view of the 6th, 5th, 17th and 18th holes at Pebble Beach Golf Links at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022 in Pebble Beach, Calif.
But those are small details compared with Smith’s presence here, given his tumultuous journey. He was injured Nov. 18, 2018, when his leg bent awkwardly. Smith later went into septic shock, putting his life at risk.
Once doctors stabilized him, amputation loomed as a real possibility. Smith decided to keep his leg, endure all those surgeries and fight through arduous rehabilitation. He ultimately played in eight games for Washington in 2020, including six starts.
That was the first step in Smith’s long-term journey to a normal, healthy life.
“I knew if I could play football, I could do anything,” he said. “I don’t take any of this for granted — walking 18 holes in an event like this is really special.”
Ron Kroichick covers golf for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ronkroichick
Ron Kroichick has worked at The San Francisco Chronicle since 1995, when he came from the Sacramento Bee. Kroichick is The Chronicle’s golf columnist, covering the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and all major championships in Northern California (including the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and 2020 PGA Championship at Harding Park). He also writes features on the Warriors during the NBA season, and on various other topics – ranging from the 49ers/NFL and major-league baseball to college football and basketball – the rest of the year. In 2016, Kroichick and photographer Michael Macor earned “Best Sports Feature” from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, for their series on Antioch High running back Najee Harris, the nation’s No. 1 college football recruit. In spring/summer 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, Kroichick moved to Metro to cover higher education and general-assignment news.