The second day of the NFL draft had just started on Friday night, and Jaylon Smith eased into a seat at the Lakeside Golf Club Bowling Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was not Trump Towers or Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, two places Smith could've been this week had he not suffered a gruesome knee injury in his final college game, but Smith had everything he needed -- pizza, wings, and his family and friends, which totaled about 200 people.
His brother Rod was there to give him some encouragement. Just a year ago, Jaylon was the one supporting his brother during the draft, when Rod didn't get picked in seven rounds and wound up on an undrafted free-agent journey that would eventually take him to Dallas.
On Friday, around 7:20 p.m. Eastern time, Rod reassured his brother he'd get a call soon. And just as he was talking, Jaylon's cell phone rang, flashing an area code Rod knew. A Dallas area code.
"I started crying," Rod said, "but I tried to keep my composure. There are a lot of emotions and feelings."
Jaylon cried, too. It's been four long months.
In what was possibly the biggest surprise of Friday night, Smith, a Butkus Award-winning linebacker from Notre Dame, went off the board 20 minutes into the draft's second round, at No. 34 overall. He was selected two spots higher than Myles Jack, who also came into the draft with knee concerns, but they weren't perceived to be nearly as serious as Smith's.
Smith tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day, and also stretched his peroneal nerve. It left him with a foot drop, which means he currently can't lift his leg on his own. Because of this, Smith, possibly the most talented player in the draft, was projected anywhere from the mid-rounds to not being drafted at all.
There are no guarantees the nerve will fully regenerate, but his surgeon, Dr. Dan Cooper, is optimistic.
Cooper is also the Cowboys' head team physician. In an interview last week, Cooper said he'd been telling every team that called the same thing, that there are no guarantees, but Cooper no doubt gave Dallas owner Jerry Jones a little inside info on Smith's heart.
"He's an awesome kid," Cooper said last week. "I don't know if you should ever count out a kid who's an incredible talent with incredible drive and attitude. Shoot, I'm not counting him out."
His optimism was infectious to everyone around him. Smith hobbled his way into the Notre Dame locker room after that game, just to be there for his teammates after their 44-28 loss to Ohio State. He knew then how bad it looked for his future. He knew it the very moment he couldn't lift his foot on the turf at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
Smith was there for his teammates again at Notre Dame's pro day last month, cheering them on despite the fact that every time he turned around, another story was coming out predicting his demise.
"You know, 99 percent of guys, including me, would be bawling," Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo said at pro day. "Look at him. He's just thrilled to be around his teammates. He's a different dude. He's very strong of faith."
Smith, when contacted late Friday night, said he didn't care where he went, just as long as he was drafted by Day 2. Perhaps he didn't want to put his family through the torture of another day of waiting.
By going early in the second round, he will not collect most of his loss-of-value insurance policy, which would have paid him $5 million if he'd dropped deep into the third round. That didn't matter to Smith after he got the call.
He is excited to arrive in Dallas, even though he isn't expected to play this coming season. He's thankful to have another chance.
This will mark the first time Jaylon and Rod have played together. They went to different high schools in Fort Wayne, and then Rod went to Ohio State, and Jaylon picked Notre Dame.
on Friday night, Jaylon said the brothers will have to take turns paying for their family to fly out to Dallas.
"I ain't even going to comment on that one," Rod said, laughing.
And then Jaylon's family bowled, and Smith did phone interviews for the locals in Dallas and prepared for his future, which seemed so clouded before Friday.
"You couldn't ask for a nicer family," said James Baker, manager of the bowling alley. "He deserves it. He's a good kid and an outstanding football player."