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Special Feature: Smith's Journey Comes Full Circle


We all have a story.

This is a good one. A pertinent one. One of those feel-gooders of how the human spirit can overcome adversity.

This will make you appreciate where one Devin Smith is today, a wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys who seemingly came out of nowhere to take advantage of maybe his last opportunity to carve out a career in the National Football League.

As Dak Prescott himself said of his teammate's journey, "It's an inspiration."

Remember, Smith was signed as what they call in the NFL a futures free agent. That means he was not affiliated with any team at the end of the 2018 season. Also known in the NFL vernacular as a street free agent.

The signing of these types of guys certainly is not met with drum rolls and his was no exception. A one-line release, Jan. 18, 2019: Cowboys sign WR Devin Smith to a futures free-agent contract.

That's it. No press conference. No pictures. Just an opportunity, including a modest two-year contract with minimum base salaries.

Teams normally sign a bunch of these long-shot guys in January, claiming their rights ahead of time, before the rosters expand to 90 on the first day of the league year, normally early March.

But this one seemed to quietly resonate optimism within the Cowboys locker room. See, Devin Smith played his college ball at Ohio State. He was a teammate of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

"When we signed him, Zeke texted me saying, 'Hey, we got a pretty good one. He's been injured, but he's a speedster. He can run.' He gave me the scouting report," said Prescott.

Elliott was spot on, Smith re-announcing himself to the NFL that Sept. 15 afternoon at FedEx Field during the Cowboys' 31-21 victory over the Washington Redskins with a 51-yard touchdown grab, running right past cornerback Josh Norman to get the slow-starting Cowboys offense going in Game 2.

Only his second NFL touchdown, but more importantly, calling attention to his story with his first NFL touchdown since Nov. 29, 2015.

Since that time, in the first five games of the season, Smith had not only totaled five catches for 113 yards and that touchdown going into Game 6 at the New York Jets, but he had even elevated himself into a starting role to compensate for the temporary loss of starting wide receiver Michael Gallup in Games 3 and 4.

"I think about my journey every single game," said Smith, the 6-1, 205-pound receiver from Massillon, Ohio, where in high school he also played basketball and was a state champion in the long jump who qualified for the NCAA national outdoor track and field championships as a member of the Buckeyes 4x100-meter relay team.

So Elliott was right. The guy could scoot.

But for someone so fast, his arrival in Dallas took time. A long time.

See, Smith was a second-round draft choice of the New York Jets in 2015, the seventh wide receiver taken that year, and now, ironically, the sixth one after the top wide receiver, uh, Amari Cooper, was selected by the Raiders with the fourth pick in the draft. Smith would play in just 10 games as a rookie, though, because in his third start, on Dec. 13, he tore the ACL in his right knee. Season over.

But there is more, much more to his journey. As we know, rehabilitating after such a reconstructive surgery is a long, arduous process. He would not be ready for the start of the 2016 campaign, the Jets placing him on the physically unable to perform list. He would continue to rehab, New York finally activating him for the final four games of the season.

He would finish with one catch for 20 yards, that on Dec. 24, 2016, against the Patriots. That would be his last NFL catch until the 51-yarder on Sept. 15, 2019 against the Redskins.

Because, as fate would have it, adversity struck again. Of all things, Smith tore the same ACL in the same knee during offseason workouts that spring of 2017. No way, right?

Well, way.

He ended up spending the entire 2017 season on injured reserve. More rehab. More anguish. And worse, with his rehab extending into the 2018 offseason, the Jets waived Smith before the start of training camp.

Out of football one more year. Felt as if someone had stamped "Damaged Goods" on his forehead, injuries ostracizing him from his profession.

"I was low," Smith said. "I wouldn't even go outside. I wouldn't even leave the house (for a month or two) just because I was so down on myself. Watching all my former teammates that I played with in college, all my friends that I know in the NFL playing, and me watching at home, it really, really hurt."

But the hurt didn't stop him, even if no team was calling. He continued to rehab, trying to regain his sprinter's speed while watching games on TV, no matter how hard.

Then in early January, the phone rings. It's his agent. Says the Cowboys have called and are interested in talking with him. And here is how history can follow us all sometimes.

Not only did Elliott remember one Devin Smith. But so did the Cowboys. They had brought him in during the 2015 draft process for a visit to The Ranch, one of the allotted 30 national pre-draft visits. And Will McClay, the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel, remembered having a second-round draft grade on him.

McClay said in early January of every year the club refers to a list of futures free-agent eligible players. Long-shot guys, you know. Checking to see if any of them the pro scouts have analyzed are worth basically taking a free look at during the offseason. The Cowboys remembered Smith making an impression on them almost four years ago.

Then McClay mentioned Devin's name to Cowboys wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. This is where the story grows even more interesting, the coincidence almost inconceivable.

Lal had only been with the Cowboys almost a year at that time. Prior to that, the veteran receivers coach had spent the 2017 season with the Colts, 2015-16 with the Bills and … wait on it … 2012-14 with, uh, the New York Jets.

Again, no way.

"I had a second-round grade on him (when) I was at Buffalo," Lal began his story of. "Coincidentally, I had coached at Cal, so I always followed Cal (football) when they were on TV. I was coaching at the Jets, and this freshman wore I think No. 9. Ohio State basically destroyed Cal. And then two years later, they played again, and I was like, 'Where is that guy I saw?' And now he's No. 15. I was thinking at the time, because he was doing the same thing, and when I was going to look him up, it was like, 'Oh it's the same guy. He just changed numbers.' But when I looked him up, it was Devin Smith.

"So I remember, I went and told the personnel guys at the Jets, 'Hey, keep an eye on this guy. He's got great ability tracking the ball downfield.'

"Long story short, I went to Buffalo after that, and the Jets drafted him. And I was kind of jealous. They probably knew about him anyway, but I really liked him. I had only TV scouted him at that point, not like scouted, scouted him, but I just knew he could track the ball.

"I knew one thing, that he was a gamer."

So not only did the Cowboys have a little history on Smith, but they also had the benefit of an outsider's view from back then that now was an insider. After all, no one had seen him play in two years, and frankly, Smith had only appeared in 14 games during his time with the Jets, totaling 14 catches for 135 yards and one touchdown in 14 games/three starts.

"They asked me what did I think, and I said I'd love to have him," Lal said. "And they liked him here at Dallas because they had a high second-round grade on him, and I was like, 'I had the same grade. So bring him in. He's the kind of guy you want to take a chance on.'

"I was really happy. I didn't bring it up, but when they asked me about him, it was 'Yeah, absolutely.'"

But that only got Smith in the Cowboys door. Now it was up to him. Initially, all that was said about him was that "he could run." Lal knew that. Prescott liked what he saw. And when asking Smith if he had fully recovered from the dual ACL surgeries to the same right knee, wondering if he still had his advertised speed, he said, "Yeah, I can still run."

But as the offseason moved into the OTAs and minicamp practices, Smith seemed to get overshadowed by all the newcomers, those rookie free agents and first-year receivers, the likes of Jon'Vea Johnson, Reggie Davis and the local guy, Jalen Guyton, who played his prep ball at nearby Allen High School and finished his college career at North Texas.

"I didn't know how he would come out of this, a year off, two injuries," Lal said. "And honestly he started slo. He was buried on the depth chart."

Smith was running no better than third team among the receiver rotation. Sometimes fourth team. Just wasn't standing out. Wasn't making splash plays. Same at the start of training camp. Nothing really to get noticed. The attention still was on Michael Gallup's rise, Cooper's foot injury, the return of the 2018 sixth-round pick Cedric Wilson after his rookie season on injured reserve and all those other youngsters.

But Smith kept working. He needed time to knock off the accumulated football rust. He didn't say much. Kind of kept to himself, not only trying to relocate his game but his confidence, too. Remember, he had only played four games in three years.

"And unfortunately, he doesn't have time – from OTAs to Aug. 31 to make it happen," Lal said. "It's not like other sports where you could red-shirt him, something like that. So we didn't know if it could come."

Then one day in training camp, Smith made a couple of plays on deep balls. It was as if he shot his hand in the air to proclaim, Hey, I'm still here. I can play. Remember me? I'm a former second-round draft choice.

Lal remembers the day Smith got a chance to run with the twos in training camp. He made a pair of really sweet catches on go-routes before the second preseason game in Hawaii.

"I said, 'There's the 'Dev' of old,'" Lal recalled. "And made a big deal about it, too."

His aloha to the NFL broke out in the next two preseason games. Smith caught three passes for 24 yards against the Rams that sweltering day in Honolulu. And the next week against Houston, he exploded, leading the Cowboys with six catches for 79 yards at AT&T Stadium.

Essentially, his performances over just less than two weeks earned him a spot on the 53-man roster.


"'Coop' and I had a discussion about the first or second preseason games," Lal said of talking with his lead receiver, "and I asked him, 'Who is going to do good out of the down-the-line guys?' And Coop said, 'I think Devin is a gamer.' I go, 'I agree, let's see what he does.' And it shows."

Smith played but six plays in the season-opening win over the Giants. No targets, no catches.

Then came that coming out party against the Redskins. Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was waiting for the right time and defensive formation to call a deep post against man coverage from the Cowboys' left side. The play was designed for Gallup.

But when the right circumstance arose, Smith was in, giving Gallup a blow, and as I wrote in my column after the game, Sometimes indeed the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars.

Because all of Smith's work, all his dedication, that never-give-up attitude, had him prepared for this exact opportunity.

That speed Lal remembered showed up. His precise route on the deep post shot him past Norman, and you could see him breaking open as Prescott heaved the perfect strike, Smith catching the ball in stride and going untouched for the 51-yard touchdown.

Pay Dirt never described the end zone more appropriately, that touchdown tying the game at 7 in the second quarter, but more so, igniting a stagnant Dallas offense over its first three possessions in the game. From that point on, the Cowboys went touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, pulling away to a commanding 31-10 lead.

Smith would finished with three catches for 74 yards.

And maybe more importantly, as he was surrounded by reporters afterward at his locker, the side door to the locker room right next to his stall began to open, and in squeezes head coach Jason Garrett, acknowledging Smith's accomplishment and the rightful attention he was getting with one of his patented – and appreciative – man-shoves.

"All the injuries I've been through and the time I've missed just playing this game," Smith said after the crowd subsided, "just to be back on the football team, being around these guys – it means a lot. It feels great just to have this moment.

"It's been a while since I put on the helmet and shoulder pads."

Next thing he knew, this Tweet from Ohio's own LeBron James appeared after the game:

AKRON stand up!!! 330 boys built differently. We see you @dsmithosu.

Then a few days later Garrett awarded him one of the FIGHT T-shirts given to players of the game.

And next thing he knew, since Gallup suffered a knee injury toward the end of that Washington game, needing microscopic surgery, Smith, the once forgotten receiver would be making his first start since Dec. 24, 2016, with the Jets, the date of his previous last NFL catch. Caught two more passes for 39 yards in that Week 3 game against the Dolphins.

Never has the circumference coming full-circle been so far.

"This was a long time coming," Smith said.

Making for one helluva story, for sure.