Sep 22, 2017
Finally on the Field

Knee injuries are an ever-present threat for athletes. Not only can they sideline a player for months, they have the potential to end an athlete’s career. Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith has had to face that prospect head-on over the past year and a half, but his determination to make it back to the field never faltered. After months of grueling rehab, he has now achieved his dream of competing at the highest level.

While playing for the University of Notre Dame during the Fiesta Bowl in January of 2016, Smith suffered a catastrophic knee injury — tearing his anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments and experiencing significant nerve damage. At the time, it was unclear whether he would be able to walk properly again, let alone play football. Nonetheless, the Cowboys took a chance and selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft.

Then began Smith’s incredible journey back to the gridiron, forging lasting relationships and inspiring teammates along the way. The Cowboys’ Team Physician, Dan Cooper, MD, performed Smith’s knee surgery and was committed to helping him regain his full strength. Smith has come to recognize Dr. Cooper as a type of father figure and can’t thank him enough for how much he has helped in the recovery.

“[He’s] someone I entrusted in my darkest moment,” Smith told ESPN regarding Dr. Cooper. “It’s a threat to all players, getting hurt. And me experiencing that, being able to trust someone to get the job done, it’s definitely a great feeling – very, very thankful for Dr. Cooper.”

Along with Dr. Cooper, Smith also developed a close relationship with Britt Brown, MS, ATC, Associate Athletic Trainer and Director of Rehabilitation for the Cowboys. Brown is known for being demanding but caring, and he has stayed by Smith’s side throughout every step of the recovery process. Smith feels that Brown’s commitment has been essential to his recovery and ability to get back on the field.

“Britt is, man, I thank him the most because from day one, he’s been there,” Smith said. “He’s held my hand. He’s seen me when everything was down. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t sprint. He was there. Even now, he’s there. He’s the one who tapes me before practices and the games. He comes in the weightroom and watches me work. He just means so much not only to me but to this team. Britt Brown, he’s an amazing person.”

Even with the support of Dr. Cooper and Brown, it wasn’t an easy road back to the field. Smith has had to work incredibly hard to build up strength in his knee and was heavily limited during training camp and preseason this year, missing five practices and playing for only 27 snaps in two games.

But all that work is starting to pay off. Smith has finally returned to playing form and is now a starter on the Cowboys’ defense. And he’s not wasting time looking back. As of the first two games this season, Smith is leading the Cowboys with 23 tackles.

Image by Jeffrey Beall

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