Dallas Cowboys provide emotional rescue for ND's Jaylon Smith

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

He cried.

Real tears, real emotion, all impaling the composed veneer Jaylon Smith since mid-January had been so persistently peddling as fervently as his new T-shirt line.

“Just everything I’ve been through thus far,” explained the former Notre Dame All-America linebacker and currently the biggest convalescing curiosity in the NFL. “It’s been the most challenging time of my life, but at the same time it’s been the best time of my life where my dream has just come true. I’ve been wanting to play in the NFL since I was 7 years old. For 13 years.

"It’s just a blessing.”

It went from protracted heartache to blessing three picks into the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft on Friday night, at least 25 picks later than he likely would have gone had he carried a clean bill of health into the draft process, but several rounds earlier than doomsday predictors projected because of lingering nerve damage in Smith’s surgically-repaired left knee.

Even with the injury-induced drop, Smith, at No. 34 to Dallas, went four picks earlier than fellow Irish All-America linebacker and current Smith confidante Manti Te’o went in 2013 to San Diego.

And only three Notre Dame linebackers came off the board earlier in the 81-year history of the draft — John Panelli at No. 12 in 1949. Myron Pottios at No. 19 in 1961 and Bob Crable at No. 23 in 1982.

Four Irish teammates followed Smith Friday night — with center Nick Martin going to Houston in the second round, and cornerback KeiVarae Russell (Kansas City) and running back C.J. Prosise (Seattle) following in the third.

Combined with first-round selections Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, the six picks from ND in the first three rounds ties for the second-most ever (with the 1967 and ’93 draft classes), behind only the 1994 draft class (7).

Smith’s $5 million loss-of-value insurance policy did kick in at the start of the second round, but he’ll realize only $900,000 of that to add to whatever guaranteed money he can negotiate with the Cowboys.

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli on Friday night found himself answering as many medical questions as football ones. That included whether he was certain if Smith’s damaged nerve would ever completely regenerate.

“I can’t answer that,” he said. “We just go by what the doctors say.

“Any guy you pick in the draft can be a risk, in different ways. Guys fail, whatever. I have a tendency to look on the upside that he is going to be — because the inner strength of this man is impressive. I think when you meet him you will see it. You are going to enjoy talking to him.”

Smith, an avid bowler, on Friday night was watching the draft at a bowling alley in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., 1,025 miles away from his questioners sitting in North Texas on a conference call and prodding the newest Dallas Cowboy for his take on the uncertainty that continues to swirl around him.

With Smith Friday night, was his older brother Rod, one of four other Smiths on the Cowboys roster and a 24-year-old undrafted running back out of Ohio State whom Dallas plucked from the waiver wire last October to fill a third-string role.

As fate would have it, the two had never before been teammates. The one time it was most feasible, Jaylon enrolled at Catholic school Bishop Luers as a freshman while Rod was finishing up as a senior at public school Harding.

Jaylon pointed out the two actually played against each other that season, and that Luers won on its way to an Indiana state title. Then he outed his brother in another unflattering way — with regard to his bowling prowess.

“He’s horrible!” the younger Smith said.

Another familiar face in Dallas beyond his brother and former ND teammate Zack Martin is Dallas head team physician, Dr. Daniel Cooper, who performed the surgery in January to repair the torn ACL and LCL Smith suffered Jan. 1 in ND’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.

“For me it’s just progressing each and every day,” Smith said of the knee. “I’ve been running for three and a half weeks now. It’s just a process, and time is definitely a place where you have to be patient. I’ve been killing it.

“There’s no recovery time, because this is a process where we’re relying on God to do his work. We have to be patient and you know the nerve can come back tomorrow. It’s just a timing thing. Whenever it wants to come back, it’ll come back.”

NFL linebacker Sean Spence knows exactly where Smith is coming from.

The recent free agent acquisition of the Tennessee Titans suffered an almost identical injury to Smith’s in the final game of the preseason his rookie year (2012) with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Torn ACL. Torn LCL. Nerve Damage. The difference for the third-round draft choice out of Miami (Fla.) was that the nerve specialist he spoke with told him there was a good chance he’d never play football again. And that’s he’d have to wear a special boot just to walk.

“Tell him to keep the faith,” Spence said of Smith. “Tell him to continue to trust God, because that’s the only person who can fix it for him. Man can’t do nothing for him. Put his trust in God, and everything will work out.

“Work hard. Do what he can do. Control what he can control, which is getting up and rehabbing every day. Making sure the knee is completely fine. Once his nerve comes back, he’s not going to notice it anymore.”

Spence cried. Many times, in the six months that it took before there was any sign that specialist was wrong.

It started with him being able to wiggle a toe. Then the next day he could wiggle another. Within a week the whole foot had sensation in it.

“Before that happened, I used to constantly try to pull my foot up,” Spence said, “even though I knew it wouldn’t move. I constantly tried to pull it every second of the day. Any time, any chance I made sure I pull my foot up.

“I used to slap the side of my leg, do anything to try to wake that nerve up. Eventually it worked out for me.”

And today, Spence says he’s physically as well off as he ever was. He missed only the 2012 rookie season because of the knee, but he sat out the 2013 season because of a broken finger, before putting together impressive seasons on the field in 2014 and 2015.

Spence said he has watched video of Smith’s injury many times. And he planned to watch the draft until Smith’s wait ended.

“I was in his shoes, and it was a bad place to be,” he said. “I just want to encourage him.”

Marinelli, meanwhile, is encouraged by the player Smith could be if/when he is fully healthy.

“He just leaps off the screen,” said the Dallas defensive coordinator, who first met Smith last spring while taking in an Irish practice while speaking at the ND coaches clinic. “He is really good. He is really athletic in space, great hands, great tackler, great blitzer. He is just a real ball player.

“He fits anybody, but in our system with the way we will use him, he will be pretty special.”

"How about those @dallascowboys?"

Jaylon Smith. Heading to Big D. What a pick. #NFLDrafthttps://t.co/0KGKampcTx

— NFL (@NFL) April 29, 2016

Best player in the draft just got drafted!

— Jamir Jones™ (@Jones__24) April 29, 2016

Yeah smooth!!!!!!!!!!

— CJ Sanders (@TheLifeofCeej) April 29, 2016

Yesssss SMOOOOOOOOOOOOOTHHHH

— Avery Sebastian (@JimThqrpe4) April 29, 2016

Welcome to the family brother @thejaylonsmith

— EzekielElliott#⃣1⃣5⃣ (@EzekielElliott) April 29, 2016

LETS GO JAY!!!

— Drue Tranquill (@d_TraNquill) April 29, 2016

Congratulation to the Dallas Cowboys you have never made a better decision. Great things do happen to great people #NDinTheNFL#GoIrish

— Mike Denbrock (@MikeDenbrock) April 29, 2016

Literally getting updates through my phone but I'm so happy for my bro @thejaylonsmith !!! Dallas bound!!!

— Jarron Jones™ (@Who_GotJones94) April 29, 2016

Congrats to my man @thejaylonsmith!! Real pumped for him & can't wait to see him flying around the field again ☘☘

— James Onwualu (@J_Walls) April 29, 2016

Smoooooooooothhhhhh @thejaylonsmith!!!!! Congrats bro, God is watching over you and you gonna be straight fam!!! Congrats

— John Turner (@Jayyt31) April 29, 2016

That boy Jay!!! True BALLER #Blessings

— SC (@Shaun20Crawford) April 29, 2016

@thejaylonsmith love you babyboy!!!! Way too happy for you my brother

— Keivarae Russell (@Keivarae1) April 29, 2016

CowBoys got a once-in-a-generation talent in Jaylon.

How many guys won Butkus in both HS & College?!#NDinTheNFLpic.twitter.com/swgfkDsTQ3

— Brian Kelly (@CoachBrianKelly) April 29, 2016

Congratulations my brother! @thejaylonsmith You did it, love you man. @dallascowboys just got the best player I have ever seen #warriors

— Joe Schmidt IV (@joeschmidtiv) April 29, 2016

Like a proud little brother for my guy @thejaylonsmith !!!

— Brandon Wimbush (@WimbushB12) April 29, 2016

Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith (9) jumps in the air to celebrate a fourth down stop for the Fighting Irish during first half at Notre Dame Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in South Bend. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ