The traffic slog up to AT&T Stadium spares no one, rich or poor, gifted or unathletic, because 100,000 people descending on an area near a baseball stadium and a Six Flags amusement park is destined to be chaos. On opening night for the Dallas Cowboys earlier this month, Richard King took a cab as far as he could, then went the rest of the way on foot.
King works security at a hospital about 1,500 miles away in Pennsylvania, and before he left to see his first Cowboys game, he bought a Jaylon Smith jersey. He loved the young linebacker’s story — how Smith came back from a gruesome knee injury in his final college game — and figured the No. 54 shirt would stand out in a stadium full of Daks and Zekes.
As he approached AT&T Stadium, King heard someone yell, “Yo, 54!” from a white Chevy Tahoe. The man behind the wheel was stuck in traffic too. It was Jaylon Smith.
“If you jump in here,” Smith told King, “I’ll sign that for you.”
Smith and the Cowboys will visit the Cardinals on Monday night. It will mark the first time the linebacker takes the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium since he injured his knee during a bowl game there on New Year’s Day 2016.
King thought somebody must be playing a joke on him. But Smith cleared some stuff off his passenger seat, and King hopped in while Smith dug out a Sharpie. He signed the back of the jersey and mugged for pictures with King.
When a couple of Smith’s teammates were told about the encounter this past week, they thought the exchange was cool — up until the part about letting a random fan into the car.
People who know Smith say there’s an innocence about him, an unbreakable faith in people, God and himself. And as King climbed out of the SUV, Smith actually thanked him.
“I didn’t even believe it was happening,” King said.
“He said he was glad to see that people still had faith in him.”
People generally don’t act this way. Jaylon Smith spent 20 months recovering from a shredded knee, and during his rehab last year as a rookie, he smiled every single day. While various media types were writing last year that Smith would never play again, he spoke to about 1,500 men at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas. Pastor James Lee said it was like a scene from the movie “Braveheart,” and by the time Smith was finished, everyone in the building gave him a standing ovation and was convinced he would be back on the field again in 2017.
Smith not only recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a torn lateral collateral ligament and a stretched nerve in his knee; he is starting at middle linebacker for Dallas and currently leads the team with 23 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown.
On Monday night, he’ll travel back to University of Phoenix Stadium, where he suffered the injury 632 days ago that changed his life. Yet Smith said he has put no thought into the significance of the venue for the game between the Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals.
To give you an idea of how little his family has thought about it, his older brother, Rod Smith, a backup running back for the Cowboys, didn’t even remember that the Cardinals’ home field was where Jaylon suffered the injury that dropped him from a top-five pick to completely off the board for some teams.
As of Thursday, there were no plans for their parents to attend the game.
“It’s something in the past,” Rod said. “He’s beaten those odds.”
The Cowboys reportedly had planned to put him on sort of a pitch count in the preseason, but then they wound up in schemes that favored Smith in the season opener against the New York Giants. He looked good, recording seven tackles and a forced fumble. He has progressed enough to take away playing time from veteran Justin Durant.
When asked whether he was surprised that Smith was playing so much so early in the season, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said, “Nothing surprises me.”
“He’s gaining ground with every step. He’s got really extraordinary talent. He’s really fast. He’s learning. He hustles and does all the things right, and he’s going to get better every week.”
Before that life-altering day in Arizona, Smith, an All-American for Notre Dame, had never been seriously hurt. He had never missed a game, never missed a practice, in high school or college. While some seniors or players who are declaring for the draft don’t fly home with the team after a bowl game, Smith rode back with his teammates.
He spent the first couple of days at the Morris Inn, a hotel on the South Bend, Indiana, campus. Michael Bertsch, Notre Dame’s director of football media relations, was one of the first people to check in on him. Bertsch is 41, with a 1-year-old son, and he can’t imagine how he would handle something like that. Smith was sitting on the bed, his leg propped up, and Bertsch tried to console him.
But there was no need.
“I just can’t wait to get started on getting back,” Smith told Bertsch.
Smith would drop 20 pounds from his 245-pound body and vomit from the effects of anesthesia. When he eventually got back on his feet and posted video of himself moving around, it was one of those “That poor guy” moments for his doubters.
He flunked some NFL physicals in February, but even then, Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly was convinced that Smith, who declared early for the draft, would be back to playing football. Kelly told coaches and general managers that, and some listened. Others didn’t. He sat in his office for an interview with ESPN.com in the winter of 2016, predicting that Smith would be a star in the NFL.
Kelly has been coaching for 27 years, and he said he has never seen someone like Smith, someone who set the entire tempo for everyone at practice — a linebacker, no less — someone who so greatly touched an entire team.
“When we talk about this young man, unique’s not even the right word,” Kelly said. “He’s got incredible grit. He loves life, and he loves the challenges of it.”
The Cowboys seemed to be one of the few teams who listened. It helped that their team doctor, Dan Cooper, performed Smith’s surgery just after the Fiesta Bowl. But even Cooper couldn’t guarantee that the nerve would fully regenerate.
Still, Dallas selected Smith in the second round, and the NFL — and a fan base — held their collective breath and hoped.
Rehab can be a place where people might tend to feel sorry for themselves. Injured players keep schedules similar to that of their teammates, arriving at the team facility at 6 a.m., putting in six or seven hours of sometimes grueling work, but knowing they have no chance to play.
Cowboys defensive end Charles Tapper also was drafted in 2016, and like Smith, he spent the year on injured reserve with a bad back. The isolation from the team could be depressing, Tapper said. You’re with the team by virtue of being in the same building, but you’re not really with the team.
Smith, the proverbial long shot of the injured players, was the one lifting Tapper up.
Smith ran through drills as hard and as fast as he could, and soon it became a competition. If one guy came up an inch or two short of the line, they ran again. Tapper said it took his rehab to another level.
“He’s almost like a robot,” Tapper said. “We’d be in the weight room, and … I’m like, man, this guy is not human.”
“I’ve never seen him upset, never seen him talk bad about anybody,” Tapper added. “He never talks bad about anything. I would come in some days and I’d say, ‘Man, I’ve got my mom and my brother and all this stuff,’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, Tap, it’s going to be all good.’ We loved competing against each other, but then we’d come back and sit and talk. Once we did those things, I’m like, ‘Man, this is a real guy right there.’”
Maliek Collins was also part of the Cowboys’ 2016 draft class, also wound up injured last year and also fell under the spell of Smith. At one point, Collins asked Smith how he stays so positive. Smith would tell his fellow injured teammates, “Man, we’ve got the opportunity to still be Cowboys. We can still be great.”
“He just kept faith though the process,” Collins said. “I respect the hell out of him.”
Smith is declining one-on-one interviews right now. His publicist said he wants to focus solely on football but that Smith politely says thank you for your interest. The Cowboys want it this way now, anyway. Maybe they don’t want to put too much on a 22-year-old who has been through so much and is essentially a rookie.
He does not fit into the personality mold of some of his other marquee teammates.
On Thursday, for example, receiver Dez Bryant stood on a cameraman’s ladder, holding court as he acted like a character from “Game of Thrones.”
Running back Ezekiel Elliott deflected the latest controversy, which centered on whether he quit on a play in a loss at Denver.
Smith was nowhere to be found in the locker room. But he was coerced into doing a group interview on Saturday.
“Everything I’ve done has been a part of the plan, you know what I mean?” Smith said. “The rehab, the training prior to getting back out on the field in OTAs, camp, all of that stuff is tougher than going out playing, quite frankly. We work pretty hard, very hard, so the game is all about going out there and having fun.
“We’ve been playing the game since we were 7 years old, so that’s kind of the joy and the relief to be able to go out there and play. For me, I love performing at a high level, so that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
The nerve injury gave Smith a drop foot, which essentially means that he could not pick up his left foot on his own. Smith still wears a brace on the foot, and it’s unclear how long he’ll need it. During training camp, Sports Illustrated reported that his nerve was 80 percent regenerated.
But Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said he “doesn’t mess around with percentages.” He just said he expects Smith to keep getting better as he gets healthier and learns more on the job.
“His attitude is positive, and it’s very contagious,” Eberflus said. “Guys, I think, are drawn to him because of that.”
In some ways, things have worked out. Rod and Jaylon Smith are playing together. They never had the chance to do that in high school or college. As kids in Fort Wayne, Indiana, their dad, Roger, whom Rod calls “Pops,” had them run for five miles around a development called Village Woods. They were 6 or maybe 7 years old. Sometimes, Rod said, they couldn’t have supper until they had run.
The siblings spend a lot of time with each other now. Rod draws the line on living together; a man has to have his own space. Besides, this is Jaylon’s first chance to have his own apartment.
About the only drawback of having Jaylon in Dallas, Rod said, is that it means more reporters want to talk to him.
“I mean, I’m a chill dude,” Rod said.
But Rod loves talking about his brother. He loves being around Jaylon. After the Sept. 17 loss at Denver, Rod sat silently at his locker while Jaylon answered questions about the defense. Then they boarded a bus to the airport together. Getting the chance to be together in Dallas was a big surprise for Rod. A welcome surprise. His brother’s comeback? That wasn’t shocking at all. Rod had faith. Just like Jaylon.
“Me, I expected it,” Rod said. “Injury or not, I just know what he’s about.”