Before 20+ days ago, it had been 572 days since Jaylon Smith had put on football pads to go out to a football practice. It didn't matter that his first practice was only a mere eight plays, Smith was extremely grateful for the opportunity:
"Just a great feeling, a tremendous feeling to be able to play the game and to really be able to suit up and hit somebody," Smith said. "It's definitely a great feeling. I was excited for that."
By now, everyone is all too familiar with this story, it goes beyond the ligament tears in his knee. Any one who follows this team knows that when the Cowboys made the selection of Jaylon Smith at the top of the second round of the 2016 draft, it was met with a lot of head scratching. After a medical recheck in the draft process, there were teams that determined Smith would never play football again. That's what makes this moment he's living even sweeter than imagined.
Jaylon Smith will see his first competitive football action this Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts in a preseason game. What he’s done to get to this point is nothing short of miraculous. It's something we can all marvel at as there may be no player in the NFL that is having a better training camp considering the circumstances. Smith had football taken away from him and now he’ll finally get it back.
There has always been cautious optimism but now even the most critical guys of his selection are taking notice. Bryan Broaddus told his counterparts on Talkin’ Cowboys that “Smith has done a really nice job of making me look stupid. I should have never underestimated this kid’s incredible drive to play football again. He’s going to play and play well for this football team.” The change in tune comes from everything we’ve seen him accomplish during the offseason program and training camp:
- Jaylon Smith has participated in the majority of the padded practices.
- He’s not exactly challenging Anthony Hitchens but Smith has been given first-team reps quite a few times.
- Even with a “Richie brace” (modified AFO brace), Smith has managed to flash the explosiveness that warranted that chance the Cowboys took in drafting him.
- Jaylon has shown impressive closing speed. On one play, Smith chased down Darren McFadden who was bouncing it outside for what looked to be an easy first down until he finished McFadden. Even nearing 30, McFadden has good speed but Jaylon denied him.
- Smith hasn’t only made some tackles, he went to the ground in goal-line drills without issue. He’s also got involved in gang tackling and even finished a practice with a would-be sack
Live action is the next step as Jaylon Smith is eager to get out there to hit somebody other than his own teammates. Earlier in the week, before he technically knew he was going to play, you could hear the excitement in his voice:
“Of course I’m excited to get out there,” Smith said. “I’ve waited a long time. But I just go when they tell me. I think we’re close. But I’m not going to rush it. They know the best time for me to play. But when that happens, I’ll be ready to go.”
With what he’s shown in the last several weeks, you have to feel an eagerness to see him go to work. Smith has exceeded many of our expectations without getting a single snap yet in the preseason. Before training camp began, I timidly cautioned everyone to just be happy with anything Jaylon Smith was able to do. At every level, Smith has faced some doubts as he’s still quite a few month’s away from full regeneration in that nerve. Maybe everyone is a little guilty of underestimating the power of self-determination. Jaylon Smith has plenty of that for all of us.
There’s a reason that all of Jaylon’s teammates from Sean Lee to Jerry Jones have made statements endorsing the young man. There’s a reason that his attitude has been infectious though he’s really just a rookie about to get his feet wet. Rob Phillips declared that Jaylon Smith has been treated with the excitement of a first-round pick this training camp over Taco Charlton.
The nucleus of this team has watched Smith rehab for a year and change. They’ve been firsthand witnesses to all the times he expressed optimism of returning in 2016, just to be brokenhearted. They have seen every breakthrough in his quest and every low moment.
“Working through this, working back from an injury like this can be challenging,” Garrett said. “It can be lonely. But each and every day he has a great spirit, a contagious spirit that is so positive for the people around him and it makes everyone excited.”
Jason Garrett said at the beginning of OTA’s that Jaylon hasn’t experienced any negativity since returning to practice:
“Not only has he not disappointed, I think he’s exceeded all expectations in terms of the kind of person he is. He hasn’t had a bad minute, let alone a bad day.”
This is a man that refused to accept that he may never do what he loves again. Since being drafted in the second round, Smith has done nothing but defy all the odds stacked against him. We’re past getting excited to watch his debut in a preseason game, we’re beyond elation, at this point, Jaylon Smith is the epitome of what it means to “earn the star.” Although he’ll be limited in this upcoming game, Jaylon Smith’s spirit and work ethic is limitless.