“It’s great to be talking to a Dallas Cowboy,” the team owner and general manager said moments after drafting the linebacker with the No. 34 overall pick in the second round.
On Tuesday, three years later, Jones hurriedly flew back from NFL collective bargaining talks in Chicago to be by Smith’s side in announcing a five-year extension that is worth $64 million and includes $35.5 million guaranteed.
3 and a half years ago on Jan 1st, 2016,
Tears in my eyes,
My life changed forever.
I embraced each moment.
I had a focused vision, determined belief and now I have earned one of my dreams! #ClearEyeView | #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/xqNDGFNSFS
— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) August 20, 2019
When the Cowboys drafted Smith, they did not know if he would be able to play because of two torn ligaments and nerve damage in his left knee. More than a year into his time with the team, he could not lift his foot on his own.
The Cowboys’ draft-night gamble was an all-important backdrop to Tuesday’s announcement.
“Going into the draft night back in 2016, not knowing if I would be drafted at all, not knowing if I would ever play the game of football again, a lot of people didn’t know,” Smith said. “But I knew. And the Cowboys knew.”
Dr. Daniel Cooper, the Cowboys team physician, performed Smith’s surgery and gave positive reviews. Director of rehabilitation Britt Brown, who helped Dan Marino recover from a torn Achilles tendon many years ago, worked endlessly with Smith.
Smith has played in every game over the past two seasons. He started every contest last season, finishing with 150 tackles, according to the Cowboys coaches’ count. He filled every major statistical category except an interception. There were only two NFL players last season who registered 120 tackles, at least four sacks and multiple forced fumbles: Smith and Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, who was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Smith said the emotions he felt in signing the extension were similar to that of draft night in 2016.
“Understanding what I’ve been through and a lot has transpired since the injury. I couldn’t lift my foot for a year and two months, and that entire time these guys didn’t have to pay me full salary my first year,” Smith said. “They were able to show their true belief in me. I was in every meeting. Every home game. Stayed after while they were practicing I was with [Brown], who’s like my second father, getting right and rehabbing the knee. The thing about nerves regenerating — the doctors say it’s supposed to grow a millimeter a day. But really, it’s on God’s time. It comes back when He wants it to. So all of us knowing that, it was just a matter of time.”
As Jones spoke about Smith on Tuesday, his chin quivered with emotion. He knows the work Smith put in just simply to play. At the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony in Canton, Ohio, earlier this month, Jones spoke with Hall of Fame linebacker Ray LeWIS.
“What I said was, ‘You know about him [Smith]. You know what he can do on the field. You know what he can do there, but what I will tell you is that there’s internal brightness,'” Jones said. “He glows. I said, ‘You’ve got that, Ray, and it lifts your team. Michael Irvin has it. He’s got it.”
The Cowboys knew Smith wouldn’t play as a rookie, but they were willing to take the chance. Without the knee injury, Smith would have been a top-five player on their draft board.
Dallas executive vice president Stephen Jones said “everything has played out to plan.”
“It will go down as one of the great picks that this organization has ever made,” he added.
The injury will always be part of Smith’s story.
“If I could go back, I would do it all over,” Smith said. “I mean, it’s just a true testament to my clear-eye view, which I’ve always talked about having. A focused vision, determined belief, earned dreams. I mean it really fuels my fire. My injury was televised publicly throughout the country. Everyone knew about it … God was able to work through me and for people to really be able to see that you can persevere.”
The lasting effects of the injury played a part in Smith signing the extension now, when he was under contract for two more years.
“Understanding business and that cash is king,” Smith said.
But he also yearned to be a Cowboy for life.
“I wanted to be part of the most prestigious brand in the world. I recognized that,” Smith said. “And I’m a team guy, as well. I’m a leader. Eventually, I’m going to be a captain for the Dallas Cowboys. I know it and I feel it and really be able to exemplify greatness on and off the field.
“And in order to win, you need guys, and I view myself as one of those guys.”