OXNARD, Calif.– It speaks to the magnitude of the moment that Jason Garrett was actually willing to discuss preseason playing time on Wednesday morning.
The Cowboys' head coach is notoriously tight-lipped about who will play in preseason games, or how long they'll do so. But in the unprecedented case of Jaylon Smith, Garrett was willing to make an exception.
"If everything goes well today and tomorrow we do anticipate him playing," Garrett said. "The specifics of how much he will play, we haven't decided yet. But he's certainly on schedule to get some action."
In 99 percent of circumstances, that's not exactly news. Players all over the league – from starters to scrubs – take part in the preseason, either honing their skills for the coming campaign or auditioning for a job this year.
It's a bit of a different story for Smith, though. After all, if he suits up against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night, it will have been 596 days since he last played in a real-deal, competitive football game.
"It's just a great feeling, a relief," Smith said Monday. "I'm really looking forward to being able to contribute."
It's not even a slight exaggeration to say that Smith's progress has been one of the biggest stories of training camp. For that matter, it's been one of the biggest storylines surrounding the Cowboys since he was drafted No. 34 overall in May of 2016.
It seems doubtful that any Cowboys fan is unfamiliar with Smith's story by this point, but just in case: the all-star Notre Dame linebacker suffered a horrific injury in his final college game, played on Jan. 1, 2016. Smith tore both the ACL and LCL in his left knee, and the injury damaged the peroneal nerve in the knee, hindering his ability to pick up his left foot.
The 18 months since then have been all about recovery. Smith had surgery – performed by Cowboys physician Dr. Daniel Cooper – and he wowed the organization during the draft process. And however impressive he might have been before he joined the team, Garrett continually stresses that he's been even better in the time since he was drafted.
"I say this, and you guys will probably laugh a little bit, but he literally has not had a bad minute since he's been here," Garrett said. "And clearly somehow, someway he's had obstacles to overcome and his mind has probably been affected at some point but he never demonstrates that."
Long before he ever took the field, Smith's positivity and determination have been infectious. As early as late season, both Smith and Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones insisted he could have contributed to the team's playoff run if he had been eligible to join the roster from the non-football injury list.
"He comes to work every day with incredible spirit and he's just so much fun to be around and everybody is pulling for him and he's worked very hard," Garrett said.
That hard work has taken a tangible form in 2017. Smith began working his way into OTAs on a limited basis, and he has cleared every hurdle in the months since. The Cowboys' athletic training staff is still keeping a close eye on him. He started training camp by taking every other day off, but he has since improved his workload – sometimes practicing two or three days in a row.
If it's a step-by-step process, then Smith has cleared all of them so far with glowing reviews. Now comes the next step – playing in a game.
In a fitting coincidence, it's not a game against just any team, either. It's almost too strange to be true, but Smith's first NFL contest is shaping up against his home state Indianapolis Colts, who play just two hours away from his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind.
"For me, growing up in Indiana, I actually played in Lucas Oil Stadium about five or six times – we were state champions four years in a row at Bishop Luers High School," Smith said. "So it would be a great feeling to be able to play against the Colts."
Assuming all goes well these next two days, that's exactly what's going to happen. After a seemingly endless wait, Smith will have his moment on an NFL field. It's just another step in an ongoing process, but it's a moment that's well-deserved.
"If he can come out and contribute and have the success that I know he would have – nobody deserves it more," Jones said. "Hard work, real hard work and preparation and really overcoming his challenge – nobody would deserve it more than Jaylon. He's put that in and earned the respect of everybody he's associated with, with the Cowboys."