Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was widely considered a top-10 draft prospect before tearing the ACL and LCL in his left knee on New Year's Day in the Fiesta Bowl. Now, the reigning Butkus Award winner's draft stock is unclear. After months of rehab, he's scheduled to have the knee examined Thursday, the results of which will determine whether he falls to the mid first round, late first round or later.
Heading into those pivotal tests, Smith spoke to Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski about how he's dealt with his first major injury—and how he plans to come back stronger than ever. This is his story presented in his own words, edited for length and clarity:
The first thought to go through my mind after the injury: "Bad timing. This can't be real."
As I laid on the field, I threw my arms in the air and took off my helmet. The immediate adversity of it caught up with me.
I didn't know who pushed me in the back to cause the injury at that point. All I knew was it came after the play. Anyway, the damage was done, and that's part of the game. It's football. Injuries are inevitable. For me, it's a lesson I learned the hard way. Laying there, I didn't focus on any of that.
I concentrated on my knee.
I had desperately looked forward to playing and dominating in that game—possibly my last collegiate game, and against a great program like Ohio State—and then I knew the opportunity was being pulled away from me.
The low point came later, when team doctors took X-rays and I heard the results. That's when I realized what was in front of me. They explained the severity of the injury. Realizing how bad the timing was and having to simply accept it—that was the most devastating part of it all.
When I finally saw my mother, I bawled. I didn't want her to see me injured and upset. She said it was OK. She was also kind of laughing, crying and repeatedly told me it was OK—that everything was going to be all right. Having her there at that point was a huge comfort to me.
But I didn't have any more time to weep and moan. I had to move on and deal with it.
Fortunately, I never reached a point where I thought about football being completely out of my life. It had been taken away from me temporarily, yes, but I've known all along that it was only a matter of time before I'm back to putting on my cleats and giving it my all.
This isn't the end. People might think the possibility exists, but everything will play itself out.
My surgery took place on January 7 in Dallas, and the doctor offered some comforting news. He told me it's not a matter of if, but when, I would be 100 percent again.
I had a great three years and started every game at Notre Dame. I performed well and felt comfortable putting that to rest. All my life, I have wanted to play in the NFL, and even with the injury I was ready to live my dream.
Once my family, coaches, agents, teams and scouts understood my perspective—where I'm coming from and where I want to go—they saw it was a no-brainer to forego my senior season and pursue an NFL career.
Next, it was time for rehab. There are some things you can't control, but I can control my effort, intensity and how hard I work. I kept telling myself that I could dominate in rehab.
The most difficult part of the process was the beginning: being off my feet for six weeks. I couldn't walk and had to use crutches or rely on people from a physical standpoint. As an athlete, you normally don't need to rely on anyone physically. You become vulnerable as a result. It definitely humbles you. It's served as a learning experience, because it slowed everything down to me.
By the time the NFL combine arrived in Indianapolis, I weighed 223 pounds—which shouldn't be surprising to anyone due to the severity of the injury. I only lost 20 pounds, but it easily could have been 40. Every pound I lost came from not being able to walk. My upper body is great.
I got to the point where I could bear weight, walk and work with machines. I've been in the weight room, doing upper body and getting stronger in my lower body with squats and leg presses. I'm adding mass—I currently weigh 230 pounds—and feeling great. (Editor's note: original interview conducted several weeks ago. Smith reportedly weighs 240 pounds today, via Twitter). Going from not being able to walk to walking with a limp and now squatting: It's something I can cherish.
Now, it's really about getting healthy. That's the No. 1 goal. Football comes first, and everything else will take care of itself. I'm focused on developing my character and doing so with a clear-eye view. It's the way I'm currently living and preparing.
I understand all the concern over my knee everyone expressed at the combine. I was six weeks post-op and had only been walking for a week. No one should have expected me to be walking 100 percent normally; but regardless, I don't have anything against anyone because of their concerns over my health.
All I can do is control what I can control and let the rehab speak for itself.
Obviously, plenty of talk centers around the nerve damage. All of the team doctors know exactly what my situation is. It's going to take care of itself. I'm not hiding anything.
While my body recovers, I'm continuing to learn, study and cherish the game of football. Those are the things I'm doing right now.
At this point, the doctors still don't have a timetable. I could be ready to start the season, or I could miss the entire season. Anything more definitive is just speculation. What I do know is this: Once I'm 100 percent healthy and feeling comfortable, I'll be back on the field and dominating.
There's beauty in the struggle. When you face adversity, you have an opportunity to persevere. You slow down. You get a chance to see things from a different perspective. You can go one way or the other. There is beauty in the fact you have this choice.
It's about keeping yourself humble and doing it the right way.
OBJ's Trade to Cleveland Has the Browns Hyped
Le'Veon's Power Move Pays Off After Signing Massive Deal with Jets
WR Metcalf Looks Ready to Destroy NFL Combine or Take Down Thanos
Friends to Foes, Ex-UGA Teammates Meet in Super Bowl
Cooks Gave a Super Gift to This Rams Employee
Mahomes Loves Ketchup as Much as Torching Defenses
Bears Hoping to Ride Club Dub to the Super Bowl
The Worst Fantasy Football Punishments for Last Place
NFL Players Bring Soccer Traditions to the NFL
JuJu Is a Man of the People
Bills Superfan 'Pancho Billa' Continues to Inspire
Happy 26th Birthday to OBJ 🎉
Mahomes Is 'Showtime' Off the Field Too
Thielen's Ride from Underdog to Record-Breaking WR
Shanahan and His Son Carter Are Hyped for Carter V
Browns Winning Off the Field with Community Service
Conner's Journey from Beating Cancer to Starting RB
Does Donovan McNabb Deserve Your 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame Vote?
B/R Fantasy Expert Matt Camp Gives His Picks for Keep or Release After Week 2
Does Hines Ward Deserve Your 2019 Pro Football Hall of Fame Vote?
Basically, I want everyone to know I'm OK. This injury is a minor setback that comes before a major comeback. I will be 100 percent again. It's a marathon, not a sprint.
I'm the best player in the draft. I just didn't get the opportunity to show it as far as the combine and draft process. Watch the film. Any game. It speaks for itself.
Whichever team drafts me, I'll be happy. One team will believe in me, whether it's as a top-10 pick, Mr. Irrelevant or an undrafted free agent.
I want this story to be inspiring not simply for others, but myself as well. It's my first time being severely injured. I'm enjoying every step of the way and attacking each day. I'm not worried about tomorrow or the next day anymore. It's about making the most out of every day.