"We didn't know how the story would end."
A single sentence from ESPN's Stephania Bell summed up the uncertainty surrounding Alex Smith when production began on the network's upcoming E:60 episode, Project 11. The documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look at Smith's recovery from the severe leg injury he suffered in November of 2018 over the course of 18 months.
Bell, a senior writer and injury analyst at the network since 2008, was approached about the project by Washington Redskins team physician Dr. Robin West on behalf of Smith and his wife, Elizabeth. "They had decided they wanted to document his story and a big part of the reason for that is that, when he was looking around for a model to follow to get through this, she had said to him that didn’t really exist," Bell told The Big Lead. "There was no other athletes and certainly no one in the NFL who had had an injury with the consequences he had. [West] and I know each other professionally through my years in sports medicine, and she recommended me to them. They agreed, it started with a phone call, and the rest was history."
Before she entered the sports media world, Bell earned a Masters of Science in physical therapy from the University of Miami and held several teaching positions all over the country on the subject matter. She had also helped produce about a dozen similar projects for Outside the Lines, Sportscenter, NFL Live, and Sunday NFL Countdown. As a storyteller and expert in the medical field, Bell was uniquely qualified to share Smith's story, making her a natural fit for the project.
"I brought the story to ESPN and pitched it. I’m very appreciative they agreed [because] we didn’t really know where it would go at that point," Bell said. "[Smith] had only just been released from the hospital about a month before. I brought it to Andy Tennant at E:60 because I thought that was a good match for what we were trying to do."
Despite her experience with documenting injuries, Bell didn't hesitate to admit that this journey was unlike any other she had embarked upon. Not all injuries are made the same, of course, and Smith's in particular was an extremely unique situation. But his story came with factors Bell hadn't previously experienced in producing similar features. "Most things [like this], when you embark on them, you have an idea of how things are going to roll out or what your timeline is going to be," Bell said. "I give ESPN a lot of credit: We didn’t know how the story would end. Alex was just out of the hospital and faced a really uncertain future. I wanted to be able to commit to them that, if we were doing it, we weren’t doing it to fit our timeline. We were doing it to do the best story possible. We didn’t know how or when this would end."
The subject matter isn't for the faint of heart. Smith had to undergo 17 surgeries on his leg in totality through the stages of his recovery process, and Bell was by his side for just about every step. Even with her medical background, seeing firsthand the damage that was done stunned her. "I have a medical background so I’ve seen things before that perhaps other people wouldn’t have," said Bell. "But that also gives me a certain level of experience in knowing this is not the typical outcome of an orthopedic injury. I heard details about it before I saw pictures. When I first met Alex and we started talking, I still hadn’t seen the images.
"By the time I actually saw the pictures, I had a pretty good understanding of how significant the loss [of the interior compartment] was. But still, when I saw the images, I was floored. At the point I saw the images, I was seeing Alex up and moving around and walking and starting to do some training, even in the external fixator. But I couldn’t match up the picture I had seen of him, the most graphic thing that we show [in the documentary], to what I saw happening in front of me."
As the driving force behind the documentary, Bell said the process was difficult, but rewarding. Her medical background not only gave her an strong grasp on Smith's injury, but also an understanding of how best to tell a story like his. "In medicine, you’re taught that you get the best information from your patients when you listen to their story. Interviewing skills are important when you’re trying to treat patients, just like they are in features," Bell said. "In this case, one of the things I’m most proud of in this piece is the people, I believe, tell the story more than I needed to. You’re really just trying to get out of the way of them sharing their story. The challenge is editing it down and trying to hit all the right parts and make it complete and be true to what happened over the course of a year and a half."
When asked what part of the process she found gratifying, Bell was quick to note how thankful she is to the Smiths for letting her and the rest of the crew into their lives during such an uncertain period. "What I’m so grateful for is being able to be the fly on the wall, if you will, along this path," Bell said. "I saw so many different moments for Alex. The first time he touched a football again after the injury-- which organically happened in this one place we were filming, we had no idea that was going to happen that day. When I saw him at the practice facility doing some of these drills. I could feel myself feeling excited for him because it was the first time he was doing these things and you think I wish everyone in the world could see what this guy is doing because I know where he’s been."
While Bell and her team didn't plan on airing the documentary during a time when nobody has anything to do but watch television, she believes the timing couldn't be more perfect. They had loosely planned on releasing it around the NFL Draft, the 2020 edition representing the 15-year anniversary of Smith's selection by the San Francisco 49ers at No. 1 in 2004. Bell feels the story will strike home with audiences of all shapes and sizes, even if most haven't had to go through anything like the physically and psychologically taxing challenge Smith undertook over the course of a year and a half.
"It is hard for those of us who haven’t had this experience to imagine. But I think everybody has their own experience where they felt like they were going to lose everything. And that uncertainty of things being taken away from you, not knowing if you’re going to get them back," said Bell. "So many people are going through something like that right now with the uncertainty of the world. It seems serendipitous that the timing of this is now because I think Alex and Elizabeth are inspirational.
"They faced uncertainty, they had no idea what the path would be. The way they draw strength from each other, the inner drive Alex has, it makes you want to root for him and them. People can have some experience in their lives when they were down and out and really had to draw from strength of family or close friends to get over it. I think that will resonate with the viewers."
Project 11 will air Friday at 7:30 ET on ESPN.