The Athletic: Jaylon Smith, Dallas’ least understood Cowboy, is ready for his next step


One-armed Knife Sharpener
Staff member
Apr 7, 2013
By Mike Piellucci

If you’re familiar with Jaylon Smith, you almost certainly have an opinion about him. It is inevitable after the 25-year-old linebacker has spent more than a half decade awash in football’s spotlight.

You are aware of the catastrophic injury he suffered in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, how horrific it was to watch. Of how it dropped him out of a likely top-five selection in that year’s NFL draft, and that some doctors believed he’d never play professional football. How the Cowboys’ decision to take the Notre Dame linebacker in the second round stunned the football world, and that Smith’s resurgence from athletic ruin into one of the NFL’s best defensive players of 2018 represents one of the game’s great comebacks. Those are obvious checkpoints in Smith’ journey. They are known and agreed upon.

What happened next is murky. Complicated. Smith’s 2019 season was a disappointment that mirrored that of the Cowboys’, and it drew scrutiny for reasons beyond his play. You’ve read about the contract he signed before the next season. And you’ve seen him talk up his businesses and his brand while his play declined, as well as celebrating big plays while his team was trailing by a wide margin and an opponent lay on the field injured.

To some, Jaylon Smith is self-involved – more interested in off-the-field success than triumphs on it. And yet, as Brian Kelly, Smith’s head coach at Notre Dame points out, “the great example of Jaylon Smith – if, in fact, he was about himself, why does he play in that bowl game?

“Why does he do what he does in that bowl game and play when he’s told by everybody, ‘Don’t play?'”

Consensus is gone. It makes Smith a complex, fascinating figure ahead of a pivotal season in Dallas, one that could cement him among the game’s great defensive stars or cast doubt on just how bright his future might be. But who is he, really? The best way to answer that question is through facts – nine of them that, taken together, provide understanding about arguably Dallas’ least understood Cowboy.

1. Jaylon Smith is an entrepreneur.

He has equity in four businesses, ranging from a distillery to a cryotherapy outfit to a manufacturing conglomerate to an entrepreneurial operating firm, in addition to founding his own eyewear line. He’s into real estate, holding a stake in three real estate properties on top of his investment in a real estate development company. Smith’s an influencer, too, one who has cultivated his own brand built around his longstanding mantra, “Clear Eye View,” and has partnered with companies including Trojan Condoms, DirecTV, Draft Kings and Reliant Energy.

These are only the first dividends of a plan implemented long before he arrived in the NFL in 2016. He has lofty ambitions on the field — Defensive Player of the Year, the Super Bowl, the Hall of Fame — and the seldom-seen physical gifts to justify them. But his endgame is far greater. “I want to achieve generational wealth,” he says. “None of this matters if I can’t pass this knowledge to my kids, and my kids’ kids, and my kids’ kids’ kids.” Not only them: Smith founded the Minority Entrepreneurship Institute in 2018 to provide venture capital opportunities and financial education to minority-owned businesses. He’s pledged $2.5 million of his own money over the next decade toward the project, and in July helped distribute $600,000 raised at the organization’s second-annual showcase event, which was held in Frisco at The Star.

Smith is young, rich and respected, secure in both his finances as well as his standing leaguewide. He has emerged as a captain, as ballast, on a defense in transition. It’s the kind of terra firma that was so elusive four and a half years ago, when his football future felt tenuous after tearing his ACL and LCL, and severely damaging his peroneal nerve — which provides sensation in the foot — in his left leg during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, his final college game with Notre Dame.

Yet something is amiss heading into his fifth season in Dallas. The ads and promotions that speckled his social media have dried up since the Super Bowl. All mentions of his equity holdings have been removed. He hasn’t dialed back his business dealings, but for the time being, he’s keeping a low profile in hopes of snuffing out a line of criticism he’s heard for the last year.

“Sometimes last year, we heard things like, ‘Focus on football. Quit doing this stuff,'” says Michael Ledo, Smith’s business manager. “The perception that’s been written that we want to readjust is that he’s a self-promoter.”

Ledo and Smith’s relationship transcends work. They’ve known one another for half of Smith’s life, ever since Ledo first coached him in 7-on-7 football as a high school freshman. Coach and player evolved into mentor and protege, then into something more familial. When Smith got hurt, Ledo hopped in his car and drove from their mutual hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to South Bend to be there when Smith got back to his dorm. Once Smith turned pro, he tapped Ledo, who had founded a management consulting company called RISE Sports Advisors, to coordinate his business affairs. Perhaps no one outside of the linebacker’s immediate family knows him better.

And right now, Ledo is concerned. Things changed once Smith inked a five-year, $63.75 million contract extension last August. His injury-blighted road to NFL stardom, his off-field interests and, perhaps above all, his immense potential always invited scrutiny, but the tone shifted once the new deal kicked in — more vociferous, less forgiving. “I mean, shit, you go from paying him $1 million a year to $13 million, (people say), ‘I want different results,'” Ledo says. And, despite making his first Pro Bowl, Smith didn’t deliver them in 2019. While his raw numbers went up — Smith’s 142 total tackles tied for seventh-most in the NFL last season, while his nine passes defended more than doubled his career high — the eye test showed a less explosive player, one who failed to disrupt opposing offenses as he did in his breakout 2018 campaign. The underlying data seems to agree: Smith’s Pro Football Focus grade plummeted from an 84.0 overall grade in 2018 (one of the game’s best marks at his position) to 70.2 in 2019 (merely a good one), with a particularly evident drop off in his coverage.

The Cowboys’ fortunes spiraled with him, squandering a 3-0 start en route to an 8-8 season. As the weeks dragged on, Ledo watched the chatter bubble up, often less about Smith’s play itself than the optics surrounding it. It percolated as the weeks dragged on until, finally, everything boiled over on a brisk Thursday night in Chicago.

“The Bears game,” Ledo says, “was a tipping point.”

2. Jaylon Smith recovered a fumble with 3:01 remaining in the third quarter of Dallas’ Week 14 game against Chicago last season.

By then, the 6-6 Cowboys were listless and treading water, trailing 24-7 to the 6-6 Bears in a game both teams needed to keep their flagging playoff hopes alive. It became Smith’s second memorable moment of the night.

The first came with 15 seconds remaining in the second quarter. With Dallas trailing by a field goal and facing second and goal, Smith dove to break up a pass in the end zone intended for Bears receiver Javon Wims, his weight crashing down on Wims’ right lower leg. Smith got up; Wims didn’t. As the receiver writhed on the ground, Smith saluted the crowd, then performed a handshake with teammate Chidobe Awuzie. Later that night he’d tweet an apology, insisting he didn’t realize Wims was hurt and that his own brush with injury meant he “would never wish that on anyone.” The play went viral anyway, germinating through Twitter and blog posts across the Internet.

Then, late in the third, Smith scooped up a fumble from Bears running back David Montgomery near midfield. He stumbled forward 6 yards before he was brought down and the play was whistled dead. Three seconds later, he squirmed free from the pile, bounding forward with the ball raised high above his head. He turned to look at the scene behind him, then pivoted back upfield, before releasing the ball with a spin. Finally, the coup de grace: a lunge forward as he dragged his fingers across Soldier Field’s grass, then back up as though he were releasing a bowling ball. It’s called the swipe, and it’s been Smith’s signature since his time at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne. For nearly a decade, it’s accompanied almost every impact play he’s made, no matter the conditions, opponent or score.

Social media was not amused. Smith’s Twitter mentions from that night are a potpourri of anger. There were Cowboys fans enraged at his performance in a 31-24 defeat far less flattering than the final score indicated. There were Bears fans furious at what they perceived to have been taunting an injured opponent. And there was a separate category altogether: a collection of people less concerned with Smith’s actions in the game than their context in a larger story.

You completely missed why fans objected, and that’s unsurprising given the obvious priorities of you and your compatriots this year. Brand before wins

You need to stop celebrating when we’re down 24-7 man. Idk what happen to you this year but once you got paid n started all your other businesses you haven’t played well

To clear the air, you got paid handsomely and turned into a walking example of what has ruined this season. My ClearEyeView sees you have zero self-awareness, and are almost a complete liability on the football field. I’ve seen more bad angles from 14 year olds with a protractor.

All about himself out there , that’s the issue with this defense . Too many individuals trying to market themselves and a terrible unit . Bad news moving forward .

How about this…be the individual we all know you are. Stop worrying about celebrating (when you’re losing) and marketing yourself. You are THE FACE of what is upsetting fans this year. It pains me to feel this way because I’ve always thought you were a great guy.

Dude was swiping when the team was being blown out. Surprised he wasn’t promoting his eyewear at the same time.

This anger was deeper-seated — more personal. It was a referendum on everything Jaylon Smith is building. It was an indictment of who they believe he is.

3. Jaylon Smith invented the swipe as a high school sophomore in 2010.

When prompted, he can rattle off the opponent (Wayne High School), the scoreline (7-0, after Luers gave up a kick return touchdown) and the exact play (a third-down sack) that led him to slide his finger across the grass for the first time. “It was adrenaline,” he says. “I don’t know how it happened, but it happened.” When he made it back to the sideline, his teammates were buzzing. The Knights tied the game on the very next drive, then went on to win the battle of undefeated teams. “So from there, I’ve been doing the swipe ever since,” he says. To Smith, it was simple cause and effect. The mood changed, and then his team won. “It’s just all about eradicating anything negative that happened in the past and moving on,” he adds. “The people that think it’s taunting and all of that good stuff, it’s something bigger than that.”

That, he believes, is what everyone missed in the Bears game: the intent. In his mind, it was precisely the time and place for the swipe — when the energy was low and his team needed a boost. “You grow up, and you hear coaches say your whole life, ‘Don’t look at the scoreboard. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Play hard,'” Ledo says. “Well, this dude is like, ‘I’m swiping in the first quarter, fourth quarter, if we’re losing.'”

The celebration was a means to an end. He was only trying to help.

4. Jaylon Smith is a Gemini.

“He loves his sign — he’s all into that,” Ledo says, and those who know Smith best see a man perfectly emblematic of his horoscope: a man composed of dualities. There is the extroverted twenty-something drawn to loud clothes and louder music, bombastic on the field and a social chameleon off of it, whose “gift,” Ledo believes, is “going into a room, making people smile and building relationships.” Then there’s the introspective businessman with a Notre Dame degree who delves into financial models and hops on conference calls with Silicon Valley venture capital firms. Perhaps the quality Kelly most admires about that Jaylon is how the linebacker leads through listening. “He really hears what you’re saying,” he says. “And, man, more people could certainly do that.”

There is the football junkie so ravenous about self-improvement that Mike Elston, his recruiter and position coach at Notre Dame, believes Smith made him a more attentive coach purely because “you really had to watch every single clip of him to give him something” and who became the only player in his college position group able to keep pace in the film room with Joe Schmidt, a walk-on who clawed his way to team captain. There’s also the cultural omnivore equipped with what his father, Roger, terms a “sponge mentality” — an insatiable curiosity to familiarize the unknown. That’s the Jaylon who curated a pen collection as a child, has decided to someday name his first daughter “Cattleya” after a genus of South American orchid and whose latest obsession is tea, which he got hooked on by way of Tyrone Watts, his cousin and trainer.

Ledo says there have been times when prospective business partners try to deduce Jaylon’s truest self: “Alright, is he this ‘Clear Eye View’ guy and all this, or is he the guy going with his teammates to the club, looking like a normal 25-year-old?” But that line of question invariably misses the point because it implies a binary — that Smith can only be one thing or another at any given time. In reality, he’s all of it.

The real dichotomy lies in how two groups of people process the same set of facts.

While Smith is guarded about who he lets into his circle, he is remarkably transparent about his values. He intends to achieve massive success on the field, accrue life-changing wealth off it and marshal the accompanying resources to help those in need. While he’s quick to point out that football sits atop his list of priorities — “I keep the main thing the main thing,” as he’s fond of saying — he refuses to apologize for not stopping there. “You’ve just got to recognize that there’s always going to be somebody that has something negative to say,” he says. “But the biggest thing is staying true to yourself and understanding that you know you’re more than an athlete.”

What that means depends on who’s watching. From childhood to high school to college and beyond, each person interviewed for this story describes someone whose motives are every bit as magnanimous as he claims them to be. “Honestly, I can’t see why you wouldn’t want this guy’s poster in your kid’s bedroom,” says Schmidt. Except in Dallas, many people don’t. The public frustration after the Bears game was palpable enough for at least one media outlet to run a story questioning whether the swipe was appropriate. When Smith posted consecutive tweets a week later urging fans to vote him to the Pro Bowl, the replies mostly chastised him for believing he’d earned it. This offseason, when The Athletic surveyed readers on a variety of Cowboys-related topics, a pool of nearly 1,500 respondents named Smith the team’s most overrated player. Dissonance like that goes beyond Smith’s work on Sundays. It means something has gotten lost in translation.

Nothing epitomizes that tension better than “Clear Eye View,” which he coined during his sophomore year at Notre Dame. It’s a three-part credo: focused vision, determined belief and earned dreams. Together, that formula helps him — and, he insists, can help anyone — synthesize what to accomplish and how to get there.

“Clear Eye View” is ubiquitous in Smith’s life. It is a frequent reference point in conversation and a highlight in any story of length that’s been written about him. He deploys it as a hashtag on Twitter, he scribbles it into autographs and he’s used it to greet television cameras, taking care to pull up his helmet so his face is in full view. It’s displayed prominently in three different spots on the homepage of his website. It’s the bedrock of his brand identity. Accordingly, there’s also a financial component. At one point, Smith sold “Clear Eye View” gear on his website, while his CEV Eyewear line stands for — well, you guessed it. Which means, taken at its most cynical and for those apt to believe that he is, in fact, a self-promoter: Every time Jaylon Smith invokes those three words, he may be trying to sell you something.

But “Clear Eye View” is also how Smith weathered the aftermath of his injury, which cost him millions of dollars on draft day and 18 months of his career. It kept him sane when he plunged from preparing to take over the NFL into a sea of doubts, uncertain of whether he’d ever regain all he lost. It’s fueled MEI, and his larger mission to bridge the wealth and educational gaps for people of color. He believes so fervently in those three words that he tattooed them across his back. “It’s not just something he’s throwing out there on every Sunday for NBC or whatever,” says his childhood friend, Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III. “It’s something he lives by. It’s his motto, the way he’s going to build his family one day.”

And so there is an impasse, one that boils down to a question of authenticity. One side knows his character. The other doesn’t believe them.

What is the disconnect?

5. Jaylon Smith’s first real job was working the drive-thru lane at Burger King.

By then he was already committed to Notre Dame and regarded as the second-best recruit in the class of 2013 by 247Sports’ composite rankings. He did not need the job for any resume, and while he appreciated the extra money, he didn’t do it for the minimum-wage paycheck, either. Befitting his nature, part of the reason was sheer curiosity; he wanted to understand the mundanities of how it felt to work a job. “As much as anything,” Lindsay says, “he wanted to experience that life of a normal teenager as (much as) he could.”

Kelly remembers when he first learned about his prize commit’s new gig. Smith was in town for a recruiting weekend, and the two were standing on the patio of his office, overlooking Notre Dame’s campus. As they made small talk, the linebacker brought up the job and its real purpose.

“I’m a bit of an introvert, so I want to continue to work on my communication skills and working with people,” he told his future head coach. Starting and completing dozens of conversations each day, one directly after the other, would be a surefire way to squeeze in reps.

Kelly laughs as he recalls the exchange — this is not normal teenage behavior. It does, however, typify Smith, dating back to his choice of high schools, a decision that would help mold him into who he is today. His childhood home sat equidistant from two high schools on the southeast side of Fort Wayne. One was Paul Harding, the public school where his older brother, former Cowboys running back Rod Smith, was already a Fort Wayne icon heading into his senior season. The other was Bishop Luers, a private Catholic school and athletic powerhouse whose alumni include former Cowboys pass rusher Anthony Spencer and current Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. Luers was hardly the ritziest private school in town, but it offered a far more diverse demographic than Smith’s predominantly Black middle school, Prince Chapman Academy. “I was pretty much around Black people my whole life,” he says. “(I) really learned a lot, being able to understand what this world’s about and how to interact with people that don’t necessarily look like me.”

And he succeeded. Smith evolved into who he is today — the archetypal Gemini — by being adaptable, and Luers was where he first learned to acclimate to unfamiliar terrain. “It probably helped him, going to the private school, with how well he can communicate with anybody and everybody,” says Bates. “A lot of athletes, maybe sometimes they’re always being themselves, which is fine … but being able to connect with not just one similar group (is important).” Sure enough, Lindsay says, by the time Smith graduated, “Kids of all different cliques in high school, the overwhelming majority, if Jaylon would walk in a room, they would feel comfortable in conversation with the guy. They would look at him and have nothing but positive thoughts.”

Smith’s teachers attribute that to who he is, not how he speaks. But it’s also true that Smith made a point of learning how to tailor a message for the exact audience he’s addressing. Ledo calls Smith strategic insofar as he has “an intentionality about his personal growth off the field, on the field and his impact in the community.” Everything is deliberate. Yet there’s a fine line separating intention from calculation — thoughtful from conniving. The further removed an audience is from the person walking it, the more difficult it becomes to parse which gestures fall on what side. “People think he’s not authentic because he’s strategic,” Ledo says.

That’s especially true in the moments when Smith, who can articulate so well, chooses not to.

When Smith talks about MEI, for instance, he can quote key growth points down to the number: He volunteers that this year’s showcase received 147 applications from 37 Texas cities. Not “around 150” and “about 40” — 147 and 37. He provides a nuanced, cogent explanation of “Clear Eye View” off the cuff, to say nothing of the aforementioned reconstruction of the swipe’s origin story (an abridged version of which can also be found on his website). Ask him about his brother, and Jaylon gushes, a brick of his walls tumbling down with each effusive word about Rod.

“My brother is my idol,” Jaylon says. “He’s someone that I wouldn’t have been able to become myself if it wasn’t for him. If you know anything about Indiana football and Fort Wayne … he was just a legend. He was the guy that everybody knew that this dude will make it — this dude is going to make it. This guy, he was like the chosen one, you know? And me being his little brother, it motivated me because I didn’t want to be the little brother that was just average. He forced me — I had to be great because of him. Had to be legit because of him. And I watched him, and I learned. He gave me fuel. There’s no way that I could ever repay him.”

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. He mostly shuts down questions about his injury; that topic, he promises, will be explored in the autobiography he’s writing. “There’s a lot of people who want to know the real behind-the-scenes of what I endured,” he says. In the meantime, he parries a line of inquiry regarding whether he is, in fact, fully recovered with, “I can always grow, and I can always get better.” He replies to another, if he’s tired of discussing it nearly five years after the fact, with, “I mean, it’s a blessing.” He answers a question about whether the Cowboys brand aids players’ off-field interests — a claim owner Jerry Jones has made more than once and Doug Hendrickson, Smith’s agent, agrees with — and the role it may have played in his contract extension with, “I just wanted to be a Cowboy for life.” When asked about the biggest misconception about him, he offers a friendly stiff arm in return. “Can’t give you that much, man,” he says before slipping into a warm, booming, baritone of a laugh.

It is Smith’s prerogative to answer or not, to enlighten or not, to creak open the door or bolt it shut. But being discerning with his words also invites more speculation as to his motives, especially when the insights he does provide are often rooted in topics tied to his own brand. It hollows out his message.

Ledo believes there’s a reason for that. In December 2018, Smith agreed to be profiled by Bleacher Report. He was engaging, gregarious, unguarded — “the most authentic Jaylon has ever, in his life, been in an interview,” Ledo says. According to him, once the story dropped, a high-ranking Cowboys official summoned Smith to his office and issued a reprimand. The manager’s cell phone rang soon after. “Man, they don’t want the real me,” Ledo says Smith told him. “That’s kind of why he is the way he is.”

The official is no longer with the organization, but the damage was done. It isn’t that Smith enjoys being opaque. “I don’t think he feels like he’s in the position of leverage to take the necessary risk,” Ledo says. Until he does, the Smith the public sees is cloistered off, a fragment of himself.

6. Jaylon Smith ran the 4 x 100 relay during his senior year of high school.

It was a detour from his usual athletic pursuits. Football always came first, then basketball until he gave the sport up following his junior season. Growing up, he was also a standout baseball player, a natural talent who could miss practice but walk into the lineup and bash home runs anyway. During his free time, he’d sharpen a longstanding hobby by practicing with Luers’ bowling team; at his best, Smith says his average score sat around 210, with a peak of 279.

Sprints, however, were not in his wheelhouse. Then he learned that his friend Charles Gaston set a goal of making the state meet in the relay but didn’t have a strong enough team to get him there. So Smith slipped on a singlet and devoted his final semester before college toward learning the nuances of sprinting and baton passing. It was hardly his forte, although his natural gifts were enough to make him excel. He lettered in a third sport and eventually ran in that state meet, but individual success was never his priority.

“The whole point of doing it was to help somebody else, and that seems like his personality,” says Heather Briggs, who helped coach the relay team. “He wants to do things for other people.”

This was the other way Bishop Luers impacted Smith. The years when he learned how to strategize and adapt were the same ones in which a wider community came to know his heart for the first time. It was when an unfamiliar environment welcomed him and embraced him for who he is.

Smith was a starter on a state championship team as a freshman and already a college prospect when they repeated his sophomore year, yet he never carried himself with the presumed status that accompanies the top athlete in school, much less one who would blossom into the second-best football player in America. He was kind to the students who were awed by him, and he implored his teammates to join him at girls’ sporting events, at plays, at show choir recitals because as Diane Karst, his math teacher, says, “every single person worked as hard as he ever did on their teams and their activities, and he respected that.” When the track team went out to dinner the night before the state meet, he was so moved by how the waiter took care of them that he insisted on adding what little had in his own pocket — “like, a couple of bills and a handful of change,” Briggs says — to the mandatory gratuity the coaches paid as a gesture of appreciation. And when the senior class was assigned an elementary school pen pal for Valentine’s Day, Smith threw himself into decorating, pouring on extra glitter to make sure his recipient got the best card. This is not normal teenage behavior, either.

In a word, he was empathetic. Still is. The Jaylon Smith who roamed their hallways is the same one who, for everything he gleaned from the Burger King job, says his real greatest lesson was how “everybody’s going through something. If you can give them great service, maybe they’ll leave a little more happy, a little more satisfied.” He’s the one who brought in Gaston to help run CEV Eyewear so they could grow together, who is connecting Watts to website designers to develop a digital presence for his personal training business.

Smith graduated seven years ago, but a part of him never left Luers’ low-slung brown building. “It’s a huge part of my life and something that will always be dear to my heart,” he says. The week after he got drafted, Smith returned to campus to address the student body, taking care to name drop the teachers who propelled him toward his dream. He’s appeared at “Luers Night,” the school’s annual fundraiser, and a couple of years ago he popped up at a basketball game wearing his old letter jacket, then plopped down in a bewildered student section to cheer on his alma mater. During the summer between his first and second pro seasons, he surprised the football coaching staff by appearing at the school’s youth camp in his old black and red, No. 9 jersey. Even a quick speech would have made the kids’ week. Smith stuck around the entire day.

All of this, says Pat Shifley, Smith’s speech and creative writing teacher, is why Luers hopes the rest of the world can one day understand him as they do.

“That he would want to come back and relate to his schoolmates and would be willing to come back to our fundraiser, that he’s never too proud to stop and have a picture taken with any kid that asks him, and he wants other people to achieve their dreams — how could you not believe in somebody like that, and believe in their goodness, and think, ‘I want more people to see [it]?’”

7. Jaylon Smith recognized he would be an early-round NFL draft pick during his freshman year of college.

He’d had designs on a pro career long before then, of course. He says he was seven years old when he first expected to play on Sundays, and “from the time I was nine years old, I knew who my agent was going to be” — his cousin, the late Eugene Parker, who paved the way for African-Americans in sports representation. For most that would amount only to bravado, a child coolly drawing a line from a nearby connection to a faraway dream. Then Smith grew older, bigger, and the idea took on an element of prophecy. So much has happened in the past half-decade of his career that it’s easy to forget exactly how talented he is: how efficiently his 6’2 frame stacks muscle on bone, how rapidly his synapses fire, how adroitly he pivots and shifts and redirects at tight angles with minimal drag. “(If) you’re building a linebacker, you’re building Jaylon Smith,” says Elston.

But Smith didn’t truly internalize it until after arriving at Notre Dame in 2013, where immediately he distinguished himself among some of the best athletes college football had to offer. Within two days of summer workouts, Paul Longo, the team’s strength coach, pulled him from working out with his fellow freshmen, who were on a reduced workload, to join the returning players. Less than a week later, Schmidt and Dan Fox, Notre Dame’s starting middle linebacker at the time, gawked at a shirtless Smith — “(with) muscles in places that you don’t even realize people have muscles,” Schmidt says — motoring through a workout in a sandpit as though they were observing a member of a different species. “Like, this guy should be in the NFL now,” a baffled Fox told Schmidt. Smith broke camp atop the depth chart at weakside linebacker, becoming the first Irish freshman linebacker to start a season opener in 18 years. He soon cemented himself as the next great star in South Bend.

Now the NFL was inevitable. And so, for the next two and a half years, Smith planned. He made reading lists (Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” became a college favorite), and he asked Ledo to walk him through a SWOT analysis, an organizational strategy exercise that breaks down a subject’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Parker, who became Smith’s agent but passed away three weeks before the 2016 draft, taught him how to analyze value over cost. He took stock of his goals and his values, then formulated “Clear Eye View” to map his decisions to them. Smith’s high school years may have been when he learned how to think, and how to feel, but college was when he learned how to meld his head and his heart ahead of the first phase of his professional life — one that, if done correctly, would allow him to fulfill his every ambition while simultaneously paying it forward.

“I always knew he wanted to build this better life for himself and everyone around him through football,” Schmidt says. “It was both this life he wanted to build and the value he wanted to bring his community … He came up with (the specifics) later, but it was always pretty apparent this was the stuff he wanted to do as an adult member of society. I think we would constantly talk about, ‘This is what we’re going to do now so that five years from now, we’re set up or you’re set up for that.’”

That, above all, is the disconnect. None of Smith’s off-the-field pursuits in Dallas are byproducts of his success. They’re entwined to it.

8. Jaylon Smith believes each of his professional seasons has a theme.

The first year, which he spent as a professional redshirt shuttling between home, team meetings and physical therapy, was focused on rehabilitation. During his free time, he dove into studying entrepreneurship, nourishing his mind as he nursed his leg. The second, when he finally suited up in the NFL to play his first game in 18 months, was “Dream come true.” It didn’t matter that he was only 70-percent recovered on the high end, his brain unable to will his once-indomitable body to do its bidding. He’d made it back. The third was the breakout — “really achieving those elite numbers and (getting) trust from my teammates that I can go out there and ball and become that elite player again,” he says.

Smith’s fourth season was defined by two personal endpoints: the contract and the Pro Bowl. Though the extension was announced just weeks before the 2019 season kicked off, Hendrickson began laying the groundwork in February at the combine, where he made it known in a conversation with Cowboys EVP/COO Stephen Jones that Smith was interested in a long-term deal. Smith still was under contract for the next two years, but he, better than anyone, recognized how quickly one snap could derail his future. “Here’s a guy who lost 20 some-odd million dollars, so he recognized that, ‘If we can get something done, I don’t need to be the highest-paid guy,'” Hendrickson says. It was a long shot; Smith and Hendrickson knew “we were really fifth on the totem pole” behind Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and Byron Jones on the Cowboys’ list of priorities. And that’s how it stayed for the better part of six months.

Then, in August, Hendrickson, who makes his home in Manhattan Beach, California, called Jones, who had joined the team an hour and a half away in Oxnard for training camp, to see if Dallas’ priorities changed. The agent drove out to the South Coast that afternoon to pitch his case. Once he had, Hendrickson recalls, “(Jones) looked at me and said, ‘You know what? We’re not making much head roads with the other guys. Let’s get to work.” That two-hour meeting greased the wheels for an agreement that came a week and a half later, one which guaranteed $19 million up front and more than $35 million over the life of the deal. Smith was elated. At last, he’d achieved security, and he didn’t quite know what to do with it. So he relaxed. “I think there was a part of this where he went through an injury where he was like, ‘Man, life has just been so challenging,’” Ledo says. “I think he got to a point where he just wanted to enjoy life a little bit.”

Ledo likens it to taking a deep breath after a marathon. He’s careful to stress that none of Smith’s bigger-picture goals changed; he never grew disinterested or lazy. But that comedown bled into the season. “I think he was being a little 24 last year,” Ledo says, referencing Smith’s age during the 2019 season. “The fact is he didn’t play his best ball last year. He knows that. I know that.” The wider football world did, too. And while the barrage of social media criticism didn’t dissuade Smith from his plans, it imparted a valuable reminder. “I think that was a wakeup call for Jaylon to realize that, hey, he is making a lot of money,” Hendrickson says. “He did get paid. Expectations in Dallas are different. That city and fan base are starving for a Super Bowl.”

Smith still played well enough to make the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement, which provided a more intimate peek at what was at stake. Smith describes his experience in Orlando as “a surreal moment.” His personal highlight was taking his nieces around Disney World, but the professional one was spending a week surrounded by the very best of his peers, the bulk of whom had achieved far more than him. “Being around all of the great players in the league is kind of that extra motivation,” Smith says, as well as a tease, a small sliver of what NFL accolades feel like. Now he craves more.

“I really think going to the Pro Bowl was a thing where it was like the first bite of the apple,” Ledo says. “‘I want more of that. I want to be one of the elite players in the league. I want to be a defensive MVP. I want to be a Walter Payton Man of the Year.’ And I think he’s like, ‘None of that happens unless you do what you’re supposed to do.’ He knows that.”

The Pro Bowl offered another epiphany. The true hell of Smith’s injury wasn’t the damage to his body but how two years of uncertainty strained his mental health. As Smith regained his strength, the burden evolved, from the helplessness in his voice the night of the Fiesta Bowl — when the first thing he asked Roger was, “Why right now? Why right now?” — to the lingering questions about how well he’d walk, much less run, to the isolation of coming from a family of athletes and yet, as Roger says, “no one can say, ‘I know what it feels like’ because none of the brothers or any of us had been hurt, ever.” Smith persevered by fortifying his mind through prayer and books like John C. Maxwell’s “The 15 Irrefutable Laws of Growth” and Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now,” each buttressing the other until Ledo believes Smith’s wiring fundamentally changed. “Man, that dude had forced positivity,” Ledo says. “It was forced positivity of, ‘I can’t think about anything negative. I can’t allow anything negative. We’re going to come back.'” It was a psychological survival tactic. Even when he returned to the field, Smith never quite shed those impulses. “If I talked to Jaylon, and I asked him, he would probably tell me he’s 100 percent,” Elston says of his old pupil’s health, “but I don’t know if he’d give me the truth anyway because he’s always so positive and optimistic.”

In reality, Smith is still not whole. The greatest culprit is residual damage in his peroneal nerve, which manifests as weakness in his foot. From what he’s observed, Kelly believes the tell-tale sign lies in Smith’s explosion. While the sideline-to-sideline movement “looked like the old Jaylon,” he doesn’t have quite the same burst starting and stopping. Smith, ever adaptable, has learned how to thrive in spite of that. Yet Ledo wonders if the same forced positivity that brought him from the brink almost worked too well, that fixating so hard on the glass half full made Smith forget there’s still liquid missing.

“I think he was, in his mind, forcing himself to ignore it and focusing on what he can control (so much) that he had gotten to a point where he was in denial about it — to where there was a void inside him,” Ledo says. “Like, ‘OK, I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s 100 percent,’ when it’s not. Just don’t deal with it.”

The Pro Bowl did more than just validate the player he is now. It gave him permission to explore what he still could become physically, safe in the knowledge that if this is all there is, then even a diminished Jaylon Smith can suit up among the game’s elite. “I think he was a little too afraid — I’m speaking for him — but maybe a little too afraid or too insecure of going down that road of doubt or uncertainty, to where now his confidence is high enough to face the reality head on,” Ledo says.

This offseason, instead of working around his foot as he had for so long, Smith decided to address it directly. From late February up to the start of training camp, he worked out with Watts three mornings a week near his house in Frisco. The pandemic forced them to be creative. Gyms weren’t safe, so they set up shop at a park around the corner. Workout equipment was limited, so they ran hills and rode bikes. “Taking it back to the basics,” Smith says, except when it came to the peroneal nerve. There, Watts sought to advance things. The primary goal was improving the dorsiflexion in his foot — Smith’s capacity to lift his foot upward. Watts estimates his cousin had roughly 80 percent dorsiflexion when the offseason began; the more Smith could recover, the more mobility he’d recover in his ankle and the easier he’d run, cut and explode. Watts worked in a series of resistance band exercises and inverted toe raises to strengthen the tibialis anterior, the largest muscle on the front of the leg. Then he’d have Smith engage his quadriceps to amplify the effect. He also used a percussive therapy device called a Theragun to massage Smith’s calf, which had overtightened to compensate for less function in his foot and ankle. When camp had begun, he estimates Smith’s dorsiflexion had increased by as much as 10 percent.

That wasn’t all. Smith set a goal of leaning out to better acclimate to a switch to weakside linebacker, so Watts helped him cut 10 pounds. Watts noticed that Smith wasn’t driving his hips high enough when he ran, reducing his acceleration, burst and change of direction, so they worked to alter his stride, with Smith videotaping their sessions and watching them back to break down how he could move more efficiently. Along the way, Watts believes Smith’s footwork “has probably become even more phenomenal than it already was.”

So far, it seems to be working; Smith looked rejuvenated during camp. That sets the stage for the theme that Smith hopes will define his fifth season: winning. Among the more unusual aspects of his football journey is how it has exclusively wound through historically successful, tradition-rich programs, from a 12-time state champion in high school to a university with 11 claimed national titles to an NFL franchise that boasts five Super Bowls. But while Smith won four state titles at Bishop Luers and played in a New Year’s Day bowl at Notre Dame, the extent of his on-field success with the Cowboys amounts to a single playoff victory in four seasons. Even if he achieves those personal lofty milestones, he says he will not be satisfied if he doesn’t win a Super Bowl in Dallas.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much individual success you have if you don’t win as a whole, as a unit,” he says. “I really felt that the most. I’ve been a winner my whole life, so I want to win at the highest level.”

Winning would provide another perk, too. It is hard to envision a successful Cowboys season without an uptick in play from Smith, who along with defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and fellow linebacker Leighton Vander Esch represents the core of a resoldered defense. If he succeeds — if they succeed — then he’ll have insulation. Leverage. Because those in the NFL understand that there are few off-field concerns that performance can’t quell. No one critiques Larry Fitzgerald or Tom Brady, for instance, for amassing business empires far greater than Smith’s because their football resumes are beyond scrutiny. “Nobody cares what the hell you do if you’re playing well,” Bates says.

Perhaps more than anything, then, the greatest benefit winning could offer Smith wouldn’t be accolades or legacy or money, but something ineffable: the freedom to finally be himself.

9. Jaylon Smith knows what he wants his future to look like.

It’s one he has no plan for — at least not yet. Yes, there are the football goals, and the financial goals, and the business goals, but all of them stand in service to a larger conceit. When he tries to envision his life in five years, then in 10, only one thought shines through. “I want to be happy,” he says.

He’s still shaping that idea into something more solid, more tangible. Maybe he winds up there in the next few years, with a Lombardi Trophy in hand as confetti rains down, his reconstructed leg planted at football’s pinnacle after it once led him to his personal nadir. Perhaps it’s after that, when the game is behind him, with MEI a global enterprise and a conglomerate in his name. It could be as simple as fatherhood and building a family. Or what about something else altogether, a heretofore undiscovered passion that he’ll stumble onto and sponge up when the time is right? “I’m not the guy that has all the answers,” he says, “but I’m a guy that wants to search and learn.”

It’s a safe bet that the journey will bring him to each of those places and more, possibly even to all of it at once. He’d be more than OK with that, even that won’t stop him from trying to think his way through what happiness looks like well before he arrives there. “I’m still trying to figure that out, man,” he says, before slipping into that big laugh again. And as the sound fills the air, it’s hard not to take him at his word.


Well-known member
Apr 7, 2013
As I said in the other thread where I mentioned this article, I think his long term plans are admirable but I think he feels like he needs (or wants, as it presumably is much easier) to capitalize on his current NFL fame to assist having some of his businesses take off.

Like, who is gonna buy sunglasses from Jaylon Smith in 2032 when he's been retired for 4 years? Have to try to get this brand some marketplace foothold while people still identify with him as "Jaylon Smith, current Pro Bowl linebacker for the Cowboys," and so in that sense what he is selling is his fame and not his product.

Which seems to me to be 1) a little slimy, and 2) a little bit of a detraction from his football career.

He swears up and down in this article that he can and in fact must do both at the same time, because it's an indivisible part of who he is, but I don't think I buy that entirely.

Don't bemoan that they don't want you to "be yourself," when a high-ranking Cowboy official calls you into the office to reprimand you for unwise use of social media. They are paying you MASSIVE amounts of money to do what they say, not to "be yourself." I don't know if his side endeavors are affecting his play but there should be absolutely no doubt about any of it for $35m guaranteed with $19m up front.

People like Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman parlayed their fame after their playing days were over into being successful businessmen. I know Jaylon is not a QB so he can't count on that post-career fame to continue, but he owes a duty to the team and to the fans to make sure football is first.

If that means his business career starts off slower after his playing days are done, that's just how it has to be, sorry.

That being said I don't care if he wants to own real estate or real estate businesses while he plays. Let a business manager manage all that, that is fine. But when it spills over into needing him to do the promotion, both on the field (he has to keep doing "the swipe," because it's part of his brand, and he is thinking about that while on the field) and off the field (he has to keep marketing himself during his "free time," - if there is such a thing), that's when I see it as a bit problematic.

At least he's realized he has to tone it down some.


Well-known member
Apr 8, 2013
All I know is that if he flounders and doesn't get back to his 2018 form under guys like Nolan (most recently the Saints LB coach where he took on Demario Davis as a reclamation project and turned him into an All Pro) and Edwards (the only position he's ever coached in the NFL is LB's and he just had one of the best duos in the league in Kendricks/Barr for years as a DC) then he won't be around much longer.

The staff moving him to the weakside is already a bit of an indication that they aren't going to cater to him just because of whatever inflated view he has of himself. They saw him for what he was and moved him to the somewhat less notable position to maximize what he does best and hide what he struggles at.

After this season the team could cut him and pretty much break even a far as the cap, after the 2021 season they could cut him and save 5 million, and in all honesty I think that's about as long as he has to prove himself a consistent player.

I'm still optimistic because I think last season was a perfect storm in many ways, for the team as a whole but Smith individually as well with the contract, the business stuff and coming off a breakout 2018. I have faith that guys like Nolan and Edwards will instill some discipline and get his head on straight, and if not, then bye.


Well-known member
Apr 8, 2013
I think the team got more out of Smith than I ever expected when they drafted him, and certainly after watching the first year or two when he flopped around on one leg.

But there are only a few people across all of sports who can promote a business and a brand without it seeming like a distraction during their playing career. Guys like Jordan, Tiger, maybe even Mahomes right now. They've proven they are the best of the best and deserve what comes with that. Smith isn't even close to that, and I find it annoying. At least win something significant first.


Well-known member
Apr 7, 2013
All I know is that if he flounders and doesn't get back to his 2018 form under guys like Nolan (most recently the Saints LB coach where he took on Demario Davis as a reclamation project and turned him into an All Pro) and Edwards (the only position he's ever coached in the NFL is LB's and he just had one of the best duos in the league in Kendricks/Barr for years as a DC) then he won't be around much longer.

The staff moving him to the weakside is already a bit of an indication that they aren't going to cater to him just because of whatever inflated view he has of himself. They saw him for what he was and moved him to the somewhat less notable position to maximize what he does best and hide what he struggles at.

After this season the team could cut him and pretty much break even a far as the cap, after the 2021 season they could cut him and save 5 million, and in all honesty I think that's about as long as he has to prove himself a consistent player.

I'm still optimistic because I think last season was a perfect storm in many ways, for the team as a whole but Smith individually as well with the contract, the business stuff and coming off a breakout 2018. I have faith that guys like Nolan and Edwards will instill some discipline and get his head on straight, and if not, then bye.
IMO they had to limit the damage limited change of direction might cause and reduce the number of plays where he might have to stretch his range.

Still, it’s just a slight tweak really as those positions are very interchangeable on many downs.
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