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Jaylon Smith never wavered in his long road back from a devastating knee injury that threatened to end his professional career before it even started.
Smith was on the verge of becoming a top selection in the NFL draft. Dominant, with elite playmaking ability and natural football instincts, he was a consensus All-American at Notre Dame and 2015 Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker for a reason.
But in a matter of seconds, in his final game as a college player, Smith’s future crumbled when his knee hyperextended under him. What started with a simple shove from an Ohio State lineman resulted in a torn ACL, LCL and, most significantly, nerve damage in Smith’s left knee.
Fearful he wouldn’t recover from the nerve damage – one report stated it was 50-50 he would ever play again – teams passed on him in the 2016 draft, and the tackling machine fell all the way to the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th overall pick.
It was a seemingly devastating turn for a 20-year-old, but unlike his knee, Smith never crumbled.
“I’ve taken care of a lot of pro athletes,” Dr. Dan Cooper, the Cowboys team physician, told Yahoo Sports, “and Jaylon Smith stands out as the No. 1 person in having an unwavering positive attitude.
“I never saw Jaylon down in the dumps, never saw Jaylon without a smile on his face. He calls it the ‘clear-eyed view.’ I never saw him waver. He just stands out.”
By picking him in the second round, considered a reach at the time, Dallas was betting on Smith’s character as much as his talent, knowing full well he would have to redshirt his rookie season.
The trauma on Smith’s leg mostly impacted “his lateral movement and transitions back into [pass] coverage,” Cooper said.
Smith had a year-and-a-half of tedious daily exercises in his injury rehab, including what Cooper describes as an especially brutal first six months when mobility is equally limited and painful. Remember, this was not just a normal ACL injury. Smith hyperextended his knee, tore his ACL as well as everything on the outer side of his knee and stretched his nerve to a degree that it degenerated and caused significant atrophy, according to Cooper.
This is why Cooper came away so impressed with Smith’s mental makeup and frame of mind. He repeatedly noticed how Smith stayed the course, believing that his daily regimen would ultimately become a conduit to his full recovery.
“It’s really about the player,” Cooper said. “I do think that some medical staffs wrote him off. I think they just saw him at the very bottom. There were some [medical staffs] that were convinced he had no chance of getting it back. There were some that probably just weren’t willing to take the risk. … It was a gamble on the part of our ownership and management, for sure. But it was an educated gamble. We knew that he had probably better than a 50 percent chance of getting most of his function back.”
Smith’s determination came from missing the game and a desire to be the player the Cowboys hoped he could be. There was also the fact that he never considered an alternative. Returning to the field was not merely something he wanted; returning to field was a necessity.
“I never had the opportunity to think about any type of doubt whatsoever,” Smith said, “because any type of doubt or misconception would have hindered my growth in where I am today.”
Seventeen months after being drafted, in September 2017, Smith made his professional debut. He played in all 16 games last season, starting six. As a “rookie” coming off a potentially career-threatening injury, he amassed 81 tackles, and on just 17 pass rushes, forced four hurries, two fumbles and one sack.
Despite his success, though, Smith was still not himself. He had more in his arsenal.
“I wasn’t 100 percent or even close it, but that’s no excuse,” he said. “I was out there. I learned from the bad and the good.”
Now comes 2018, a year of experience under his belt, another year of healing for his knee. And already Smith is showing signs that the Cowboys’ gamble will pay off. Smith has been stellar during the preseason, flying around the ball and the type of fluid transitions that only a steady, healthy knee permits.
“I know I’m back,” said Smith, now 23. “As far as moving like it, feeling like it and being the playmaker that I’ve always been, I’m back.”
There is a resolve within Smith that’s impossible to ignore. He exudes passion and appreciation for football, maybe one that only someone who has endured such a seesaw of emotions can. He talks humbly about digesting film concepts to shorten his growth curve. He considers the value of gaining trust from his teammates and his immense responsibility to help the Cowboys achieve greatness. As daunting and frustrating as his time away from the sport was, his injury granted him a new, refreshing and even intrepid perspective on the game.
“To have the game taken away from me like that, on that devastating stage – my last collegiate game – it was very humbling,” Smith said. “It taught me a lot about myself. It made me a better man. I’ve always understood that was one of my threats – was getting hurt. I don’t fear that anymore.”
The kind of injury Jaylon Smith suffered can break even a strong person emotionally, said Cooper. The road back is (was) long, painful and comes with no guarantee of reaching a certain destination.
“Everybody that’s worked with him, they will all tell you – he’s unbelievable,” Cooper said. “Every day he shows up. Every day he’s willing to do the work. Every day he embraces it. I think he just had a very unusually mature and positive approach to the day-to-day grind of this. … I think Jaylon has a mental capacity to remain positive and focus on the task at hand every day. … Nobody deserves it more than him.”
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Jordan is also the co-host of the new podcast, “Pull Up,” with star Blazers guard CJ McCollum.