ARLINGTON, Texas – Jaylon Smith never questioned whether he'd return from the career-threatening knee injury he suffered in his final college game nearly three years ago.
"So many people doubted me that I couldn't afford to," he said Sunday after the Cowboys clinched their second division title in three seasons.
Smith, the team's 2016 second-round pick, was rehabbing from the injury the last time the Cowboys won the NFC East. In Sunday's 27-20 victory over Tampa Bay, he continued to show just how far he's come since his idle rookie season.
With the Bucs driving inside the Cowboys' 40-yard line, defensive end Randy Gregory hit quarterback Jameis Winston from behind and stripped the ball loose. Smith scooped it up and ran untouched 69 yards down the AT&T Stadium sideline.
"I've been known as a sideline-to-sideline, fast linebacker and athlete," Smith said. "Had I run the 40 (prior to the draft) it would have been somewhere in the 4.4's (seconds) and all of that good stuff. It feels good to be able to open up like that again, and at the highest level.
"I picked one of those up at Notre Dame and I got hauled down and tripped. Immediately as I tucked the ball I told myself I wasn't getting caught. I lifted my knees up and ran as fast as I could."
It was the Cowboys' first defensive touchdown this season, the longest defensive touchdown by a Cowboys player in eight years, and the first fumble recovered for a touchdown by a Cowboys player since Anthony Spencer at Washington in 2014.
Dallas took a 14-3 lead after Smith's touchdown and never trailed again.
Smith entered the game ranked second on the team in tackles (130) behind only Leighton Vander Esch (148). Both players have taken leadership roles on defense with captain Sean Lee dealing with a hamstring injury for much of the season.
Smith added 10 tackles on Sunday, along with two pass breakups and his momentum-changing score.
Just another remarkable chapter in his second season back to football.
"It's a very inspirational story for me," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "Whenever I talk about it right now the hair on my neck stands up on my back. It's a tremendous journey and I give credit to him."