ARLINGTON, Texas – As the Cowboys' victorious locker room began to empty out, Jaylon Smith exited, smiling, walking beside the teammate he's known his entire life: his brother, fullback Rod Smith.
Sunday's season-opening win over the New York Giants wasn't just Jaylon's long-awaited NFL debut. It wasn't just a culmination of 21 months of painstaking rehab, patience, faith, and finally, incremental on-field reps.
It was also a dream realized: Jaylon and his big brother playing on the same NFL team together, their mom in attendance wearing a custom-made Cowboys jersey with both their numbers (54 and 45) on the back.
"It was very emotional," Jaylon said after the team's 19-3 win at AT&T Stadium.
In training camp, the Cowboys executed a deliberate plan to work Smith back into the defense after the 2016 second-round pick spent his rookie season rehabbing from a devastating knee injury and accompanying nerve damage that has required the use of a foot brace. He has credited the athletic training and medical staff for their support throughout the process.
Smith didn't know his exact play count Sunday, but it was considerably higher than his three preseason appearances. He started at middle linebacker alongside Sean Lee and Damien Wilson and took the majority of the snaps there. Veteran Justin Durant, a late-summer signing and another option to fill in for injured starter Anthony Hitchens over the next few weeks, played sparingly against the Giants as he continues to work his way back into football condition.
Smith was credited with seven tackles (second most behind Lee's eight) and a forced fumble in the second quarter that the defense nearly recovered deep in Giants territory.
"We thought he was going to play a good portion of this game," head coach Jason Garrett said. "He's really handled all the work at every turn. He's been able to handle it and get better through the experience."
Smith politely answers repeated questions about his journey back. He knows it's inspirational to many, including his own teammates. He accepts that it will always be part of his story.
He just doesn't plan on it being the highlight. Sunday night was just the start.
"It's a part of me," he said. "Everything with the comeback story and you guys surprised to see me out there first day (of camp) in full pads, you guys surprised to see me play so early, and now I get a chance to actually do what's my calling. It's a blessing."
As the players made their way into the locker room immediately after the game, Smith could be heard yelling, "The real is back!"
"It's been a long time coming," he explained. "And I'm back."