From an early age, Jaylon was always thinking ahead, and was doing everything within his power to make sure his plans, his goals, became a reality. While the majority of kids are simply trying to make it through the day, have fun with their friends, hit the candy store, Smith was telling teachers, relatives and friends in second grade that he was going to play in the National Football League.
When he was coached by the legendary Tom Macon for the Outreach Rams of the Metro Youth Sports, Jaylon was taking mental notes that he references to this day. Again, while his teammates were just trying to finish the practice, Jaylon was thinking how Macon’s lessons could help him down the road.
“Outside of my family, he’s been one of my greatest influences,” Jaylon said. “The man has won 40 Super Bowls in Fort Wayne. But it’s not even the legendary teams, it’s these deep and ever-lasting bonds with the kids he coaches. He taught me to always play with a passion and that to be great, you have to be willing to dedicate yourself to the fullest and just as importantly be coachable. That’s what I’m still doing today.”
One of the biggest questions going into the 2017 season is whether or not Jaylon Smith will be ready to play. If his attitude and work ethic are any indication, he’s got a good chance.
Another example of planning ahead came at Notre Dame, where, while earning All-America nods, he majored in TV, Film and Media. He even interviewed former Irish head coach Lou Holtz and took part in multiple internships.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could about a billion-dollar industry,” Jaylon said. “I want to be an entrepreneur someday, and for me, that was the direction to take. It’s about setting up future opportunities and where I want to go in life, what I want to accomplish after football.”
Rod and Jaylon were super competitive growing up, from video games to athletics, and with the age gap, the older brother usually won. There were arguments, a few physical tussles here and there, but their father also coached and trained them together, which just pushed Jaylon to keep up with Rod.
More times than not, the younger athlete in any group, siblings or not, who are pushing themselves to compete on an even playing field end up excelling against their own age group. This was certainly the case with Jaylon.
“As Jaylon grew older, he started figuring out how to win,” said Rod. “Each time we played, we were trying to go to
There is another concern that hasn’t been mentioned, at least publically, and that’s fatigue. Not only because it’s been 20 months since Smith has been on a football field wearing pads, but due to the nature of the nerve damage, he will more than likely tire quicker than normal. Other parts of the leg and body will overcompensate, which is an issue that could be a short- or long-term problem. Again, there’s simply no way of knowing in the here and now.
Thus, the $64,000 question becomes, will Smith be the football player and athlete he was before Jan. 1, 2016?
“I’m not going to say no. We still have three months. We have to go through contact,” Brown said. “We also have more seasons ahead. The nerve could regenerate more after this coming season. No one can predict that. We’re in a good place right now.”
Outside of rehabbing with Brown on a daily basis, Smith spent the majority of his rookie season two ways. First, he seemingly agreed to every charity and outreach request that was thrown his way, signing every autograph and taking more photos than the Statue of Liberty. And in each one, the smile on his face couldn’t have been more genuine.
“I love kids, and we have a special opportunity to have an impact on their lives,” said Jaylon. “I love seeing them smile. That, for me, makes me as happy if not more so than them. So any chance I have to take a photo with kids or sign an autograph, whatever I can do, I’m not passing that up.“
There’s nothing like seeing a kid smile and looking up at you and thinking back to when you were that age. It’s a cycle, and now it’s my opportunity to give back. There is no greater privilege and honor.
Adds older brother Rod, “We didn’t have many role models growing up that went the distance, that accomplished their dreams. We were the first to go the distance, and to see what it took for us to get here growing up, we want to be the best men we can be for the next generation.”
Sticking With the Plan
football. And we can both watch film for hours and just talk football and schemes and scenarios. Spending this last year with him, even though I wasn’t on the field, it’s definitely been a tremendous education for me.”
During the course of a 30-minute interview for this story there were only two questions Jaylon was somewhat uncomfortable answering. Initially, he wasn’t interested in participating in this profile, figuring it was just more about the injury in which he has answered the same questions on countless occasions since being drafted. Told that it was more about his back story, his upbringing, who he was as a person more than a football player, Smith agreed.
Question No. 1: It’s well known that his father is a lifelong Cowboys fan, yet Jaylon has posted pictures on social media of himself wearing a Tom Brady jersey and offering support for the Patriots.
“I’m better off not talking about this,” said Jaylon with a laugh.
When pressed, he sighed, chuckled and said, “Yeah, I was a Patriots fan going back to 2004, when I was 9 years old. They were my team. Obviously, that’s changed now. Honestly, I was a fan of all the Boston teams, the Red Sox, the Bruins and I am a huge Celtics fan going to back to when Kevin Garnett was traded there.”
Question No. 2, posed verbatim as it was to Brown: When Jaylon
returns to the field, assuming that’s in the opener on Sept. 10
against the Giants, will he be the same or perhaps an even better
athlete and football player than he was when the Fiesta Bowl
Family and Sports
There has been seemingly an endless barrage of verbiage these past 15 months about Jaylon Smith. There has also been seemingly an endless barrage of misconceptions, misunderstandings and misdiagnosis by both actual medical experts and those just playing the part, i.e. talking heads, knights of the keyboard and water-cooler pessimists.
For starters, there’s the brace the 2016 second-round pick out of Notre Dame has been wearing on his left leg. It’s not an AFO (ankle/foot orthoses) brace, which has been widely reported. It’s actually a custom-made Richie Brace, with plastic, bendable, hinged sides, much like an air-cast for a high-ankle sprain.
“I’ve heard some doctors and trainers, who haven’t ever seen Jaylon, say that there’s no way he could play in the NFL with an AFO brace, and they’re right,” said Cowboys associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation Britt Brown. “With the brace he is wearing, Jaylon can take his natural linebacker stance and come off the ball the same way he would without the brace.”
That said, while Smith has exceeded the expectations of where Brown and the other members of the training staff thought he would be a year ago, there’re still several hurdles to clear before he’s running around making plays against the New York Giants in the regular-season opener on Sept. 10. There is reason for optimism, though. His surgically repaired left knee is 100 percent healed from the torn ACL that he suffered against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016. That injury has more or less been forgotten by the majority because of the focus on his peroneal nerve damage and the related drop foot.
As for the feeling in Smith’s left foot, just in the last few weeks he has progressed to being able to pull his little toe up and down, which means the nerve continues to regenerate. In April, he reached a huge step in the process by flexing his toes and lifting his foot. Smith also took part in OTAs and minicamp, although he didn’t practice full speed on back-to-back days, a trend that will continue in at least the early stages of training camp.
“I hoped he’d be where he is right now 12 months ago, so I feel really good about how he’s done and how he’s going to do,” Brown said. “We’re talking about a kid who has worked as hard and been as positive as anyone I’ve dealt with in my 25 seasons in the NFL. I also think it’s unfair to Jaylon for anyone to say exactly where he’s going to be this season as a football player.
“I don’t want to temper the hopes, but he’s a rookie player first off, and it’s going to be 20 months without being out there with the pads on. Any player, I don’t care who they are, making that jump from college is hard, especially at his position. Some positions are easier than others and linebacker isn’t one of the easy ones. There’s an adjustment period for him and we have to understand that the football expectations have to be monitored just a little bit, taking away the injury and all that.”
Taking away the injury, like if it never happened, Smith would have been a top-five pick. In fact, on the Cowboys’ initial draft board in mid-December of 2015, Smith was indeed their fifth-ranked player overall.
Know what, though? Enough about the injury for the moment. That’s been the dominant narrative for the past 18 months, rather than the young man himself, who has exemplified perseverance and resiliency beyond his 22 years.
by Jeff Sullivan
Smith grew up on the south side of Fort Wayne, Ind., the second-largest city in the state with a population just higher than 250,000. Like for the majority of his family – his father (Roger), uncles, older cousins and his brother (Rod, three years his elder) – athletics were the focus of Jaylon’s youth.
“We knew what parts of the city to avoid and more importantly, when to avoid them,” said Rod, who is in his third year with the Cowboys as a fullback. “Sports also took us away from some of the problems that existed in our world. That enabled us to be sheltered. We didn’t have to deal with a lot of stuff in Fort Wayne that maybe some other kids did.
“The city itself helped raise us in a lot of ways, through youth sports and our family. There’s a lot of love there.”
Jaylon grew up as an admitted momma’s boy, saying, “My goal from a very early age was to never hurt my mother. And both my parents really did a fantastic job of teaching us core values.”
His mother, Sophia Woodsen, has said that she doesn’t recall Jaylon ever being in trouble. She actually didn’t want her 7-year-old to join in the family tradition of taking to the gridiron but was eventually talked into it. There were always other sports along the way: basketball, baseball, really whatever was being played. Still, “from that first practice, football was my first love, I just love watching, talking and playing football,” Jaylon said.
And from that first practice, like just about every other member of his family, Jaylon was a natural, one of the better players on the field. That, of course, never changed, from Village Elementary School to Bishop Luers High School, where he was named the best high school linebacker in the country, to Notre Dame, where he won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
Also, from the beginning Jaylon was a natural leader, the kid organizing teams at recess and on the playground. The kid other kids went to with their problems. The kid trying to calm down a teammate or offering an encouraging word. That, too, hasn’t changed.
“I always had the knack to lead others. I’ve always felt an accountability to lead by example,” Jaylon said. “And then as I’ve grown older and been given more responsibility as a team captain, I’ve learned that you need to treat different teammates, even different friends and family members, differently. You can’t treat everyone the same and expect to reach them. One guy may react better to be pulled aside, away from the group, and have a quiet talk, just you two. Then someone else might respond better to you being in his face.
“Being a leader is a never-ending learning process and one that I take with the utmost seriousness.”
Second, Jaylon more or less became a shadow to Cowboys’ All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee, who has missed entire seasons with ACL tears at both Penn State and with Dallas in 2014. Even at minicamp this spring, from the moment practice started, on the field, on the sidelines, there was Lee and there was Jaylon. Then they were walking side-by-side into the locker room, off to position meetings and film study. No one watches more tape than Lee, although multiple coaches at Notre Dame said they have never seen a player watch more than Smith.
“To be able to have a relationship, a friendship, with someone who has performed at the highest level and has dealt with the adversity of missing an entire season, and see his response, to see his approach, that means a lot. That means so much to me,” said Jaylon. “And we have a knack for one another. We have a lot in common. We both share a definite love for the game of
another level. I wanted to always show I was the older brother, but at the same time, I was impressed and proud as he raised his level of play and competed with me. That was cool to watch as we grew older.
“Our family has a lot of natural athleticism so sports came easily to us, but we also learned to put in our work, to push ourselves. So we had the best of both worlds. Our dad coached us, took us in the backyard, made us run suicides and hamburger drills, but he was never a yeller or controlling. Looking back, it was a healthy competitive atmosphere. And we enjoyed it.”
Jaylon always played linebacker and running back, and always wore No. 9 because that’s the number his uncle, Ryan Smith, wore. When he was drafted by the Cowboys and couldn’t take the digit for several obvious reasons, his first thought was, “five plus four equals nine so 54 sounds pretty good.”
Like many highly recruited players, Jaylon didn’t choose his position as much as the position chose him. Running back was his preferred gig, and he was pretty darn productive there, rushing for more than a combined 2,500 yards as a junior and senior in leading his high school to back-to-back state titles. Well, Jaylon actually won a state championship all four years at Bishop Luers. And he received several big-time scholarship offers as a running back, but the consensus was linebacker, and eventually he came around, the thinking being, “I like initiating the contact more than taking all the hits.”
When the Cowboys phoned Jaylon Smith at Fort Wayne’s Lakeside Golf Club and Bowling Center – where about 200 family and friends gathered for a draft party – in the moments before his name was called as the third pick of the second-round of the 2016 NFL Draft, there was an outpouring of emotion. The reasons were twofold. Not only was he accomplishing a near lifelong dream, but he was doing so less than four months after many thought that dream might have died a most tragic ending.
Here’s the thing, though: While coaches, trainers, teammates, family, friends and complete strangers felt the deepest empathy, Smith was the one raising everyone’s spirits. There wasn’t even a fleeting moment of feeling sorry for himself. After just a season with the Cowboys, Jaylon’s positive attitude and outlook on life is being discussed as much as his return to the field.
In reality, he wasn’t going to see any game action in 2016. Yeah, he was running as fast downfield as many of his fellow linebackers at training camp, and later in the season, as the playoffs approached, he even declared himself ready to play. But again, that’s his outlook, positive thinking.
“He was never playing last year,” said Brown. “He was close. He wasn’t ready, though. We have to weigh risk against reward that late in the season. Our goal, and I’ve told him this, is to return him fully so he can play 10, 12 years in this league. It does no good to put someone out there with risk to shorten their careers. The main goal was for 2017 and feel good about it. And we couldn’t feel any better about it.”
Like with any injury recovery process, there wasn’t a definitive plan. And this wasn’t just any injury.
Only two NFL players have returned from something similar. Running back Robert Edwards missed three full seasons after tearing up his knee in a flag football game at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii following his All-Rookie campaign with the Patriots in 1998. He only rushed for 107 yards in 12 outings with Miami in 2002 before calling it a career. And there’s linebacker Sean Spencer, who tore his ACL and PCL and damaged the same nerve as Smith during the preseason of his rookie year with the Steelers in 2012. After missing two full seasons, he returned in 2014 and has played in 46-of-48 games the last three years.
What was extremely helpful for the Cowboys was that one of their own, Dr. Dan Cooper, performed Smith’s surgery.
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After asking for the question to be repeated, Jaylon said without hesitation, “I’m ready to play for America’s Team. I have a clear-eye view and I want to earn my dreams. I want to put the time in to make those dreams a reality. I couldn’t be more super excited.”
Like Brown, Jerry and Stephen Jones, the team doctors, his teammates and the majority of the fan base, there is guarded optimism in Jaylon’s answer.
There are also no guarantees.
“He’s one of the best knee doctors in the country, and I don’t know who made the decision on Jaylon’s end to have him do the surgery, but they are geniuses for making that call,” Brown said. “I know that’s who I would have do surgery on my knee if the time ever came.“
Look, every injury is different. There was no exact plan. I have people question me all the time, at seminars or whatnot, ‘What’s your protocol for an ACL reconstruction, week-by-week?’ And I tell them, there is no week-by-week formula. We have set ways we do things. We have goals we set for two months, three months, four months, at certain stages through six and 12 months.”
Still, it’s unpredictable. He can show up one day and there’s swelling.
“In Jaylon’s case, we treated it as an ACL reconstruction and the knee has done really well. Everyone forgets about the ACL. All anyone wants to talk about is the foot and the nerve, but the reality is, he tore his ACL. And we did everything as normal as we could as if there were no issues with the foot. We can’t control that.”