FRISCO, Texas — It's a Wednesday night in early December, the Dallas Cowboys are rolling, and Jaylon Smith is the toast of the town. The moment he steps into Dee Lincoln Prime, a hush knifes through the Christmas music on the speakers and adoring eyes dart his direction. The second-year NFLer strides past a gaudy wine storage room, his sparkling blue suit coat a beam of a light in this dimly lit restaurant.
Moments after Smith lounges atop the firm leather seating that overlooks the room, a waiter arrives, and he orders Malbec, an easy choice for him. Smith cradles the neck of the glass with three fingers and swirls. And stares. And swirls. And stares. He truly started developing his wine palette last June and likes, no, "luhhhhhves" Malbec. This grape, to him, is a perfect blend of dry and sweet.
Smith parked his vehicle right in front of the restaurant, so one employee jets over and offers to move it for him. Smith hands him his keys.
Soon, shots on the house will be served.
Soon, a woman will interrupt to snap a photo with Smith.
The Cowboys are on the cusp of a division title. Smith is the face of one of the NFL's best defenses.
Life is good.
"It's different when you win for the Cowboys," Smith says. "It's a totally different feeling in the world."
This is the life Smith envisioned when nobody else did.
You remember the horror story. A star at Notre Dame, a legitimate candidate to be a top-three overall draft pick, Smith played in a meaningless bowl game and his leg snapped at the knee. His career burnt to ashes before it even began. Just the name—Jaylon Smith—quickly came to represent one of our generation's most tragic football stories. People spoke of his name as if he were dead.
Nobody in the first round would touch him because nobody had a clue if he'd be able to put weight on his left foot again—if the nerve in his knee would regenerate.
It did, so here he is. Sipping wine. Ordering Japanese wagyu that isn't even on the menu. Hunting quarterbacks and mauling running backs. He's the reason to think that amid an offensive revolution, a team can still back-alley brawl its way to the Super Bowl. His energy in the locker room is infectious, and his personality in this restaurant is magnetic.
Out of nowhere, a Dee Lincoln manager named Tony beelines to the table and puts an arm around Smith. They act like lifelong friends even though Smith's been here only once before—when he came with Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith.
"Do you need anything?" Tony asks, before answering for Smith. "A shot of tequila?"
Of course. Smith loves tequila. Don Julio 1942 with a lemonade chaser sounds about right.
Moments later, shots 'n' chasers in hand, Tony raises a glass.
"Cheers, brother," he says. "The NFC East is yours."
The tequila burns smoothly down Smith's throat, and he doesn't squint or flinch. He only smiles and soaks in the moment. Nobody could've expected this swift of a takeover, but here he is, a 6'2", 245-pound missile of a middle linebacker aiming to announce his presence to the world this postseason. Cowboys headquarters, the Star at Frisco, is basically its own city with bars and restaurants and shops surrounding the Cowboys' practice facility.
Everyone knows all Cowboys players walking the sidewalks around here.
And right now, Smith is obviously the king of this city.
He likes the sound of that.
"It's my defense, man."
He has arrived. Finally. Smith is himself again, and what a glorious feeling that is.
There's no disputing that this is his defense. That he's become one of the league's best linebackers. That he's a player with the kind of speed and punch and venom you'll find in Canton.
Yet the tequila and Malbec won't cloud his vision tonight. Not after nearly losing everything.
"None of that s--t matters if we lose," Smith says. "We've got to keep perspective."
He looks around the restaurant.
"They don't care about none of that if you lose."
One game, one play can change everything.
Smith knows this better than anybody.
So now he's leaning forward in his seat and staring blankly ahead as if a projection screen has suddenly unfurled from the ceiling and is replaying the worst moment of his life: the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. He's right back in the moment.
He details falling down once on the play, popping back to his feet and thinking, in that exact moment, I'm not falling again. I'm going to catch myself. So when Smith was dinged from behind again, he tried staying upright, and he hyperextended his knee.
He wants one fact clear.
"I got pushed in the back after the play was over. Whistle blown. All of that. Pushed in the back."
Four more times in the next 15 seconds, Smith repeats he was shoved "after the play." Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker and Smith reconciled by phone after, but it's obvious Smith forgives but never forgets. That day, he tore his ACL, LCL and suffered severe damage to his peroneal nerve, the nerve that sends sensors to the foot. Smith hopped eight strides on his right foot before finally collapsing in pain and slamming the turf. He left the field on a cart, in tears, thinking, Why now? over and over again. Why now? He had never suffered an injury before, period, his entire life.
Three months before he was set to make millions of dollars, he couldn't walk.
"A lot of people thought I would never play the game again," Smith says. "I couldn't lift my foot up! I literally could not lift my foot up. For an entire year. Seriously. Before I started getting any movement. ... It's all God's timing. There's nothing I can do. There's things that can 'promote' it. But nerves come back when they want to come back.
"I knew there was a chance I'd never be able to lift my leg up again."
Sometimes, he was told, the nerve never regenerates. The Cowboys gambled the 34th pick on the hope it would. The man who did Smith's surgery, Dr. Daniel Cooper, is the team's physician. Still, the unknown lingered. His only option? Be patient. "Embrace" his predicament. He waited days, weeks, months. He watched the Cowboys rampage to a surprise 13-3 season, powerless when Aaron Rodgers KO'd them in the playoffs.
All the while, Smith's days consisted of rehabbing (popping outside in the 100-degree heat when the rest of the team was indoors); attending every meeting; and getting into real estate development, venture capital opportunities—all things business off the field.
Smith had no clue what the future held, but he refused to get trapped in his own mind. He refused to entertain the notion of never playing again.
"Because there were so many people thinking that way," Smith says. "I couldn't allow myself to do that.
"It just drove me. I figured, the more I'm frustrated, the less reaction I'm going to get. So I stayed even-keeled."
One memory pops into his head and Smith pulls out his cell phone to tap words into the Notes app. He says he's writing a book and doesn't want to spill all the details quite yet.
Spoiler alert: The nerve did regenerate, but...ever...so...gradually.
By the spring of 2017, Smith could lift his toes. That fall, he returned to rack up 81 tackles (50 solo) and one sack. This season, he has taken over games, with 106 tackles (72 solo), four sacks and two forced fumbles through 14 games.
You see the numbers. You see the highlights.
But central to the rebirth is the mind. The possibility of never putting weight on his foot again when he was that close to a childhood dream had to shatter his sanity. So he's asked this question in every possible way: How did you not go freaking crazy? Smith ran the numbers, estimating he lost about $17 million on draft day. To Smith, it's not that complicated. He had already prepared himself for this adversity. As a college sophomore, he vividly remembers asking himself aloud, "What defines Jaylon Smith?" and wanted the answer to be someone who impacts lives beyond football.
On the spot, he created a mantra he repeats to anyone who'll listen: "Clear Eye View." Maintaining a clear eye view is the key to life, he says, and is built on three pillars: a focused vision, determined belief and earned dreams.
He knew he'd play again, so nothing else mattered. Granted, several college stars have since skipped their bowl games because of him, because his story's so tragic. Smith acknowledges, "I have affected college football history forever!" He made it OK to skip bowl games.
If he could hop in a time machine, of course Smith would opt to sit out that Fiesta Bowl, pocket $17 million, avoid this hell completely...right?
"Obviously I thought about it..."
Right when he's ready to make a point, Smith is interrupted by a woman named Erica, who wants to take a picture. Smith doesn't hesitate—"We can take a selfie!"—re-gathers his thoughts and is interrupted again. It's Tony. The manager's back to tell Smith that the folks sitting at a table nearby work for Jagermeister and want to buy him a shot. Rather than play telephone, Smith shouts their direction, "I've been on 1942! ... I'll be an investor, though. Can I get some equity? What's the minimum investment? What does it taste like?"
Tony doesn't want Smith to end up face down in his own dinner, so when he brings back three Jager shots, most of Jaylon's is poured into, uh, his dinner guest's glass.
"It's minty!" Jaylon yells to them. "Minty!"
Then, he picks up where he left off.
Smith genuinely loves that prospects today are making a business decision. As an entrepreneur himself, he loves that nobody feels obligated to play in a bowl game. But to truly understand how Smith's mind works—how he persevered, why he's different—understand this: He would play in that Fiesta Bowl again. Really. The chance to play in a game with 13 projected first-round picks, to meet Ezekiel Elliott in the hole, to be seen by so many scouts in the press box and a national television audience and, above all, to fulfill the duty he felt as a team captain for Notre Dame.
His adrenaline pumps all over again thinking about that game.
To Smith, it was simply "value over cost."
"I would do it again," says Smith. Then he says it again. Louder this time.
"I would do it again."
And it's clear. The Cowboys aren't here, on the cusp of burgeoning greatness, without that injury either.
There's a ravenous look in Smith's eyes as he imagines a new scene on that virtual projector.
A NSFW scene.
Those one-man blasts that change games every Sunday.
"The difference about me is I'm a playmaker," Smith says, "but the plays that I make, they energize the team."
So many Smith collisions have sent the Dallas sideline into a frenzy this season. Take his hit in Houston. On 4th-and-goal— playing spy—Smith sprinted 35 yards to the sideline, head bobbing, arms chopping, dreads flowing, to absolutely wallop Deshaun Watson.
That one still has teammates in awe.
Then, there's the chilling 3rd-and-17, helmet-to-helmet hit on New Orleans RB Alvin Kamara.
The blow unbuckled Kamara's chinstrap, made him stammer back onto the turf after trying to get up and, yes, cost Smith $26,000.
Anyone with a pulse who saw the play knows Smith should've been flagged on it.
Not that he sees it that way.
"He turned his head and his shoulders at the last second while I'm already going to hit him," Smith says. "Mind you, he's a running back. I could see if it's a quarterback or a receiver that's catching the ball, defenseless. ... In the tenth of a second, he turns his body and lowers his head—toward my striking point! It's football. I can't worry about that stuff."
He's appealing the fine. He expects it to be reduced. Whatever Smith ends up paying will be worth it because, well, value over cost.
"He's Kamara. All-Pro guy. But I'm nice, too. I was able to exemplify that on the play.
"We were able to put the world on notice that night. Because everybody was watching. Everybody thought we were going to get blown out. We believed in each other. We knew what type of team we had. We just have to go out and prove it every week. That's the beauty of the NFL. The only thing that matters is what you do now. And as a competitor, you love it, because you have to go out each and every weekend and prove that you belong and, individually, that you're one of the elite."
That game, Smith asserts, proved he is elite.
"And if you still have doubts about me? Then, s--t..." he says with a chuckle. "That's cool. I can deal with that, too.
"I believe in myself. I believe in myself."
This belief this season has been contagious in Dallas. Each hit, each speech, each conversation Smith initiates is galvanizing, electrifying, because everyone on this roster remembers that Fiesta Bowl. They saw him pound the turf, then saw him rehabbing every day. The injury is a part of Smith and, absolutely, a part of these Dallas Cowboys. His energy has become their energy.
Cornerback Byron Jones vividly recalls Smith limping all over the facility with a bulky brace over his knee. Jones wondered when the day would come where Smith would appear down, depressed, defeated. He was ready to console, to help heal. And he never needed to.
Smith never stopped smiling.
"Everyone counted him out," Jones says. "Now, he's one of the biggest stars in the NFL. His unwavering belief that, 'I'm going to come back and be a badass linebacker,' you could see that from Day 1. He never was doubting himself.
"It's a respect thing. We respect where he came from."
Corner Jourdan Lewis went to a ton of the same football camps as Smith growing up in nearby Detroit, a couple hours away, and detected an "I was born to do this" resolve then. Today, he says, everyone gravitates toward Smith. Imitates Smith. They want to be the worker he is behind the scenes.
With flags flying at a ridiculous rate in today's NFL and quarterback play better than ever, it can feel like a defender's back is forever stuck against the wall.
Smith's presence in Dallas takes such gloom and doom and dread and tosses it in the trash.
His back was against the wall. And here he is.
"The way Jaylon plays," Lewis says, "that's how you have to think. You have to be like, 'Whatever. The odds might be against us but we have to go out there full speed and attack.'"
Adds linebacker Chris Covington: "When he makes one play, it's turnt up. It just takes one play."
So, no, it's not a shock when multiple players note that a huge fight broke out at practice recently. Nobody will dish names, but this is exactly the kind of cutthroat environment Smith has helped create. The middle of December feels like the middle of August.
Smith says he wants this defense working its ass off, daily, relentlessly chasing perfection. Many practices, he'll stop everything to redo a play. He demands all 11 players know exactly what they're seeing and what they're doing.
He had the passing-the-torch conversation with veteran Sean Lee long ago. This is his time.
He's the one telling everyone where to go on the field, play to play. He relishes the pressure of wins and losses resting on his shoulders.
"The defense doesn't succeed without me," he says. "I'm a born leader. It's innate."
He points to his heart.
"People can feel it—in here."
So quite possibly, he's the one uniquely qualified to crash the party this postseason. The weapon who can carry America's Team back to the Super Bowl for the first since in 23 years. Jerry Jones has tried everything since he last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. The answer may be a player the entire league passed on.
Smith believes he was destined for it.
He points to an ability to relate to any player of any race from any background, having grown up on the south side of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, the rough side, before attending a Catholic high school and Catholic college. In frigid Indiana winters, kids either hooped or bowled—he did both. Smith calls himself a Kevin Garnett-like threat on the court—with the ability to run the floor, mind you. He knows he'd be in the NBA right now if he was five inches taller. At the lanes? Smith owns a 210 average, and when he's informed that rookie Shaquem Griffin can bowl too, Smith assures, "I'd kick his ass."
No wagyu will distract Smith from the reality he once worked at Burger King to pay for his own gas in high school.
No rise to stardom will make Smith forget he was once lost in his brother's shadow. Rod, now a backup running back in Dallas, was "Big Smooth." Rod was the hometown hero rushing for nearly 7,000 yards in high school. As the overlooked "Little Smooth," Jaylon was driven to be his own man.
He's a savvy businessman, turning that "Clear Eye View" life credo into a brand. Until that second contract, expect to see Smith spam your social media feeds with CEV eyewear products. Ah, yes, that beautiful second contract. ("Jerry's going to bless me," he says, smiling.)
He's inquisitive. He turns a conversation about football into a conversation about relationships and life and love for a good 25 minutes. His girlfriend's back home in Indiana. Smith's always learning.
He's forgiving. With every reason to be vengeful, Smith gets that teams needed to make their own business decisions and insists everyone in the NFL is rooting for him. That's fine, but shouldn't teams have gotten to know him as a man through those 26 interviews at the combine? They should've gotten to know what he just pointed to, his heart.
"It was going to take one team to believe."
As "My Favorite Things" to "O Come All Ye Faithful" to all the Christmas classics play, Jaylon Smith sneezes and a waitress serving another table turns to say, "Be careful. Please do not be sick!" Then Tony re-re-reappears to offer one more shot on the house.
"S--t," says Smith. "Why not?"
"Be right back."
"I got you! I got you!"
Three minutes later, glasses are tipped and Tony assures Smith he'll always have his back here. The two exchange numbers, and it's clear Smith will be back for more 1942. And yet Smith's words this night about taking this season one day at a time would go on to prove prophetic. Four days after this dinner, Dallas would proceed to get shut out by the Indianapolis Colts with its offense as potent as that lemonade chaser on the table.
One week, Dak Prescott lights up Philadelphia in an overtime thriller. The next, he posts an 0-fer. The clear eye view for the Cowboys couldn't be clearer: The defense must carry them through January. And that's fine by Jaylon Smith. Fine by everyone on his side of the ball. He's not afraid.
Not of Drew Brees, of Sean McVay's brilliance, of Russell Wilson's wizardry, of anything...including a check that should pop both of his eyes out of their sockets. The bill at Dee Lincoln Prime arrives, and Smith's 22 ounces of wagyu apparently cost north of $800. He can't remember the waiter's warning, but apparently this stuff goes for $40 an ounce.
Smith stares at the bill, shocked for about 2.3 seconds, then shrugs and pays for his portion of the meal.
He doesn't stress. He tells the waiter the steak was "delicious" and "perfect" and one of the best he's ever had in his life. No use going ballistic, no use racking his brain around insanely high steak prices. That's not how the king of this city would act.
Smith grabs that blue coat and his leftovers, and as he walks back outside into the 58-degree air, he apologizes for not giving up more details on the year his football career was in peril.
He's trying to save a few stories for his book, for one. And Jaylon Smith also knows this: His career is truly just now beginning.
He still has hundreds of pages fill.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.