Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith realizes a dream, then passes it on

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

As Jaylon Smith is illuminating how a couple of long-term dreams were coming to life, there’s the clanking of spoons and pans providing dysrhythmic percussion in the background.

“Sorry,” the regenerated 23-year-old star linebacker explains into the phone without prompting. “I’m cooking food for my dog.”

It’s not like multitasking is new to the former Notre Dame All-American and current rising stalwart in the middle of the Dallas Cowboys’ defense — or apparently daunting, either.

While preparing for his third playing season and fourth under contract in the NFL, Smith spent the last four months back in South Bend securing his Notre Dame degree in film and television with a flourish of 21 credit hours, comprising seven three-hour classes.

He walked with his recalibrated graduating class of 2,025 new degree-holders on Sunday at Purcell Pavilion, an 11th-hour venue change from Notre Dame Stadium prompted by the weather. In the process, he becomes the fifth three-and-out Irish football player of 17 to come back and complete his unfinished academic business.

Troy Niklas and Josh Adams embarked on the same process this past semester as well, but have more work to do. Stephon Tuitt enrolls this summer. Julian Love, a 2018 All-American who left after his junior season, has penciled in next January as a return.

“Coach (Brian) Kelly knew I was going to make this a reality,” Smith said of his head coach from 2013-15 and a promise he made him and Smith’s parents. “The moment I entered the (2016) draft, we talked about it. It’s just a dream come true that it’s actually happening.”

Now he wants to pass that dream along to others.

On July 12 at Parkview Field in Smith’s hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., Smith will stage a showcase for The Jaylon Smith Minority Entrepreneurship Institute. An invitation-only audience of 100 minority families will look on as five contestants compete for three opportunities to receive resources to fuel their ambitions and partner with Smith.

“It sounds like a Shark Tank type of deal, right?” Smith said. “The three winners will get three things — financial planning, mentorship and strategic planning. The people who will be in the audience, a lot of them will be young minorities who desire to be entrepreneurs, so for them to witness greatness by people who look like them, that’s the goal.”

The plan for next year is to stage the event in Dallas, then move it around the country in subsequent years.

“I want to start off in my hometown, because I’m a Hoosier,” Smith said. “I’m an Indiana guy.”

He’s also an entrepreneur at heart, even if his ND major didn’t overtly reveal that. He’s regularly in contact with Tom Mendoza, after who Notre Dame’s business school is named.

“We texted last week,” Smith said. “Great guy. We’re hoping to meet for lunch this weekend.

“I studied film and television because I wanted to learn about the billion-dollar industry. We all watch television at some point. So I just wanted to learn the business behind it and the history behind it as well.

“Outside of football, I’ve always wanted to be involved in business. And then slowly, I’ve just developed a passion for being able to help my peers. The NFL obviously helps that from a financial standpoint and also just from an access standpoint to quality networks.

“I’m always finding myself in the room with somebody that I want to know. Football, using the platform to help that, it’s been wonderful, man.”

And it’s been wonderful having football back in his life, which wasn’t a given when Smith made the decision to leave ND and enter the 2016 NFL Draft.

In Smith’s final college game, a 44-28 Irish loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl to cap the 2015 season, Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker shoved Smith as he was getting up from being blocked on the play.

Smith tore both the ACL and LCL in his left knee as he awkwardly tried to maintain his balance midway through the first quarter.

More significant was peroneal nerve damage in the knee that many thought could truncate Smith’s NFL career before it even started, or at least transform him into a much less dynamic player than he had been at Notre Dame.

But the nerve eventually regenerated and so did Smith’s promising future. After sitting out the 2016 season, he was a part-time starter in 2017. Last season Smith finished 13th in the NFL in tackles with 121, with four sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

One of those fumble recoveries, Smith returned 69 yards for a touchdown in a 27-20 victory over Tampa Bay, two days before Christmas.

“I think up until that play, a day didn’t pass when I wasn’t asked about my knee,” Smith said. “After that, it dimmed down. People got to see I could run.

“It’s been a long journey, but I’m back — and better.”

Former Notre Dame All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith picks up his Notre Dame degree recently roughly three years after being drafted by the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.