ARLINGTON, Texas – Jaylon Smith waited more than 19 months for that moment Saturday night.
Not just his first game back on the field. His first tackle, too.
In the first quarter of the Cowboys' preseason game at AT&T Stadium, Smith raced in to stop Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle on third down and force a punt – the highlight of his dozen or so snaps working with the first-team defense at middle linebacker.
It was Smith's first game action since his devastating injury Jan. 1, 2016, in his final college game at Notre Dame: a torn ACL and accompanying nerve damage that still requires the use of a brace on his left foot.
Saturday, Smith used his signature "Swipe" celebration after his milestone tackle.
"It's a blessing," he said. "It's a blessing to be out here. It's a blessing to be playing for America's Team. I'm so honored just to play the game I love.
"From day one, I've believed in myself, and I thank all the supporters everywhere, even everyone who doubted me."
Earlier this week, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said Smith would likely be on a pitch count in his NFL debut. He played in the Cowboys' first three defensive series, starting in place of Sean Lee as the All-Pro linebacker rested a hamstring injury.
Smith's debut was the latest step in his return to the field after the 2016 second-round pick spent his rookie season on the Non-Football Injury list. The Cowboys and the athletic training staff have been deliberate with his recovery process, and he took scheduled rest days during the team's padded practice work in Oxnard, Calif.
"It was great to see him out there," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "He's worked so hard to earn this opportunity to go play. He looked like he was around the ball, looked like he played with a great spirit. We'll check out the tape to see how he actually played, but it was fun for all of us to see him out there."
It's been nearly two years since Smith got ready for a game at any level, but he said he didn't treat it any differently. Same pre-game routine: Take a lap and line up at the 9-yard line for stretches.[embeddedad0]
"I wore (No.) 9 my entire life," he said. "(No.) 54, five plus four equals nine."
What went through his mind as he took the field for his first play as a Cowboy?
"'Jaylon, be you. Just be you,'" he told himself. "So, going out there, the thought process of was to get the call and have a sense of urgency. Once I aligned correctly, then go through my assignment in my head and read my keys and just do my job.
"The rest will take care of itself. And that's what I did. It was a great feeling."