FRISCO, Texas -- Walking off the practice field at The Star following rookie minicamp practice on Friday, Tyler Smith felt good about his performance.
“I won’t even lie, I surprised myself sometimes,” the Dallas Cowboys’ first-round pick said after he lined up at left guard for the first time since his senior year at North Crowley High School in Fort Worth, Texas. “It was a great feeling.”
Smith always believed he would end up here. Maybe not with the Cowboys, but he was in middle school or high school when he told his mother, Patricia, his goal.
“I just remember him saying, ‘Mom, I want to play at the highest level. I want to play in the NFL,'” she said. “I told him I was behind him 100 percent.”
Smith’s path from North Crowley to the Cowboys and a guaranteed $13.38 million contract was far from easy. It was nearly stopped by Blount’s disease, a condition that affects the growth plates of the shin bone around the knee and causes severe bowleggedness. The condition is rare, affecting less than 1% of the population, according to the Cleveland Clinic. At 16, Smith was diagnosed with the disease.
“Let me put it like this: There’s not much more things as painful in life,” Smith said.
After visiting with a handful of specialists, Smith and his mom decided he needed surgery.
“It needed to be done to improve his quality of life,” his mother said.
Dr. Lauren Lamont was one of the surgeons involved with Smith’s care. She said that even at 16, Smith's size (approximately 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds) made it a challenge to examine him on the pediatric-sized tables at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth.
But she also remembers how inquisitive he was regarding the surgery and frame correction, asking questions many teenagers wouldn’t.
“When I first met Tyler and his mom, they let me know how important football was to Tyler,” Lamont said. “Had Tyler not had surgery, he would have been at higher risk for degenerative knee conditions to occur earlier in life and possibly shorten the time he could play football.”
Three days after the final game of his junior year, he had an osteotomy, which included having an external fixator bolted to his lower left leg to stabilize the bones that were broken and realigned. Smith had to wear the fixator for four months.
After surgery, he was given a wheelchair.
“He’s didn’t want the chair at all,” his mother said. “He used crutches. He was absolutely determined to have a normal school experience even with these big metal bars on his leg.”
“It’s very similar to what Alex Smith had on his leg if y’all are familiar with his story,” Tyler Smith said, referring to the former NFL quarterback who nearly lost his leg after a compound fracture in 2018.
Smith has physical reminders of his fixator, if you look close.
“I got some scars from where the bolts were,” he said, looking at his leg. “It’s not too bad. I still look sexy, so it’s all good.”
The surgery, Smith said, “is like changing your body. It’s like carpentry on your body.”
“That definitely added to the chip on my shoulder," he added. "I’m not going to lie. When it comes to iron man football, there’s nothing I’m not willing to do. Whether it’s jammed fingers, broken thumbs, strains, it don’t matter because things like that pale in comparison.”
Before Smith's surgery, his high school coaches don’t remember him missing a game or a practice or complaining about pain.
“I mean it was noticeable it was so bowed, but he’s strong as crap,” said Eugene Rogers, Smith’s coach his freshman through junior seasons. “He was one of the strongest guys we had as a freshman. He basically reverse curled 275 pounds in the power clean. Because of his leg, he wasn’t able to have proper technique, but that was just brute strength.”
Courtney Allen, his coach during senior year, remembers a limp as he watched the film before Smith had the surgery.
“He was still lifting while he had that thing on his leg, but he would do upper body,” Allen said. “In the summertime, he started progressing where he was running more, cutting more, all that stuff. He said, ‘Coach, I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready.’ He didn’t miss a game.”
Smith had physical therapy sessions before school at 6 a.m. The summer before his senior year, he was back to full training.
“You could tell he was fine,” his mother said. “There was no longer a limp. He was no longer in pain.”
But he did not have any major college offers yet. When they first saw Smith play, Rogers and Allen thought he had college football ability and a chance at the NFL. Smith committed initially to Abilene Christian, an FCS school. Houston had some interest, as well.
“I’m sitting in front of everybody trying to tell them, ‘I get it. It’s an investment, right? But I’m telling you this kid is an NFL talent. He’s a Power 5 talent,’” Allen said. “I remember talking to some very bad programs, and they didn’t want to do it, and I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ But at the end of the day, all it takes is one. All it takes is Tulsa.”
At Tulsa, Tyler played in four games as a true freshman but kept his redshirt year. In the next two years, he started 21 games at left tackle. He was named first-team All-American Athletic Conference in 2020 and second team in 2021. Smith could have returned to Tulsa in 2022. Some Power 5 schools that avoided him out of high school tried to get him into the transfer portal. Instead, he entered the NFL draft with the goal of being a first-round pick.
During the draft process, he took questions about Blount’s disease, explaining the surgery, rehab and recovery. If colleges were leery of him coming out of high school, NFL teams seemed more receptive.
The Cowboys had no fears.
“Being a young guy and seeing all the positive stuff and then talking to the doctors, there was no issue, so we were fine with it,” said vice president of player personnel Will McClay.
Smith was given No. 73, worn by Hall of Famer Larry Allen, and he is lining up first at left guard. His locker inside The Star is a few feet away from guard Zack Martin's. Since the draft, Smith has talked and texted with the seven-time Pro Bowler.
Martin’s advice: “Come in in shape, and come in ready to produce,” Tyler said.
Smith is in the early days of his pro career, one he hopes can last a long time -- and be an example for others.
“When I had my surgery, when I had to recover, I just knew I had to hit the ground running, because if someone had to do it, it had to be me,” Smith said. “I want kids out there to know that if you put forth a good body of work, you can achieve anything.’”