Former Notre Dame star linebacker one of draft's biggest mysteries

The first ominous sign comes when Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly pulls down his headset and strides toward the 15-yard line. Kelly rarely goes out to check on injured players. But Jaylon Smith is on the ground, and he's never on the ground. There are eight minutes left in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl and 53 minutes until Smith, the best linebacker in college football, can declare for the NFL draft. Smith slaps the ground and covers his face with his hands.

In his 20 years, nothing has ever gone seriously wrong for him. His family didn't have much, but they never went without. Smith was about 9 years old when he started noticing things such as fancy cars and nice houses and asked his mom what it would take to buy them. "Work hard in school, and go to college," she told him.

Blessed with a sturdy, seemingly indestructible body, Smith never missed a football game, much less a practice, throughout high school and college. His durability was something Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder no doubt would've gushed about to NFL scouts.

"It's hard for me to picture him getting hurt," VanGorder says now. "He's strapped together too well."

If Smith weren't so athletic, maybe he wouldn't have tried to stay on his feet after Ohio State's Taylor Decker shoved him during a loose ball. Maybe then Smith's knee wouldn't have planted into the turf and buckled backward.

Notre Dame's head trainer, Rob Hunt, goes on the field. Hunt is a stoic man, and Kelly loves him because he holds medical information more tightly than government secrets. They never talk in front of an injured player, but they do have a set of nonverbal cues. If Hunt looks at Kelly and nods his head, it means everything is going to be OK. Hunt does not nod as he hovers over Smith.

In the stands, Sophia Woodson can't see how serious it is, but mother's intuition tells her she needs to get to Smith. She rushes through the crowd, trying to convince some security guards that it's her son sprawled out on the turf, completely forgetting she's wearing a Notre Dame jersey with letters on the back that read JAYLON'S MOM. She finally gets down there when he's being carted off the field, and the cart stops when Smith sees her. Woodson is a spiritual woman, and she tells Smith that God has him. Jaylon doesn't say anything. They embrace.

Almost a thousand miles away in Dallas, Cowboys running back Rod Smith, Jaylon's big brother, is just wrapping up practice when his special teams coach, Rich Bisaccia, stops him. Did you hear about your brother? No, Rod says, so Bisaccia shows him the video. Rod bolts out of the locker room and drives like 85 mph to get home to turn on the game and call his parents.

Back at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has Smith on his mind. Meyer recruited Smith hard a few years ago and came close to signing him.

"I hope he's fine," Meyer tells reporters in the postgame news conference. "High ankle sprain?"

Meyer is told it's a significant knee injury.

"Oh, shoot," he says. "I didn't know that."

The teams pack up, and Smith rests on the training table. It's New Year's Day, and his year is probably over. VanGorder walks in and says he's sorry. "I love you, man," VanGorder says.

Smith looks at him and smiles.

"It'll be all right, coach," he says. "I'll be all right."

The nerve is the concern

The night had been dreamed about for at least a year. Sophia Woodson would drive from the family's home town of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Chicago, buy a nice dress and proceed to calmly freak out when her son's name was called in the NFL draft. They would not have to wait long. Smith was a sure thing, pegged to go in the first five picks Thursday night. To some, he was the best player in the draft. Months later, that conversation continues.

But now, after torn knee ligaments and nerve damage, the surest thing has become the biggest mystery. Draft prognosticators have Smith all over the map, from a midround pick to not drafted at all. All Smith's family and friends know is this: They will gather in Fort Wayne starting Thursday night, when the first-rounders are picked, and watch until it's over. They have that hope. They know Jaylon.

"Everyone is like, 'Wow, is he going to fall into the second round?'" Kelly says. "You don't need to worry about that with Jaylon Smith. He could fall to the seventh round. He's going to be a star in the NFL. It really doesn't matter. He's so driven and so focused on what's in front of him that he'll overcome this. I have no doubt about it. This is a generational player. You go generations and don't get a player or a kid like this."

The torn ACL and LCL do not concern NFL decision-makers. But the nerve damage terrifies them. Smith stretched his peroneal nerve, which left him with a foot drop. That means he currently cannot pick up his left foot on his own. This should not have been a stunning revelation at this point in his rehab, but when Smith had his knee examined during medical rechecks earlier this month in Indianapolis, gloom-and-doom headlines quickly spread on the internet.

Dr. Dan Cooper, the Cowboys' team physician, performed Smith's surgery one week after the Fiesta Bowl. For more than three months, Cooper has been overseeing Smith's recovery. No matter who asks him, be it a general manager from the NFC East or his own boss, Jerry Jones, Cooper has to say the same thing: There is no way to know yet if Smith's nerve will fully regenerate and give him the ability to lift his foot.

Nerve regeneration is a slow process. Cooper says it typically takes a month for a nerve to "wake up" and for its filaments, or axons, to grow. From there, they grow at a rate of about one millimeter a day, or an inch a month. Smith is at that pace, Cooper says.

"People are saying he has no chance because the nerve hasn't recovered at three months," Cooper says. "They're wrong. I'm not saying it's guaranteed it's coming back. But if people are saying there's no chance it's coming back because it hasn't at three months, they're wrong.

"The talent people and the GMs are looking for certainty about recovery. And it's premature to have certainty. We don't know three months into it. I think there will be some certainty six or eight months into it, but just not now. You're playing the odds right now."

Smith's worst day?

It happened in a second -- millions of dollars bouncing away like that fumbled football -- and when Kelly went home that night after the Fiesta Bowl, one question kept nagging at him: Did Jaylon remember to pay his insurance premium? Much to his relief, Smith did make his payment on the loss-of-value policy. If Smith slides deep into the third round or beyond, he could collect the full $5 million on the policy.

There are some who get very emotional when they watch replays of the hit. Paul Longo, Notre Dame's strength and conditioning coach, bites his lip and says it "makes him sick." He has worked with Smith for three years, through extra hill runs and offseason days when Smith was the only one calling, begging for more work, and Longo had to tell him no because even hunting dogs have to rest. When Smith's life changed with that hit, it was like Longo's own son got smacked. He is angry.

Smith, on the other hand, doesn't go there. He says it's just football. Ask anyone who has talked to him in the past three and a half months, and they relay stories not of bitterness or self-pity but of stunning calm, maturity and unwavering faith.

While his peers were in Florida building their bodies and draft stock, Smith was laid up in his bed, vomiting from anesthesia, itching from welts he acquired from pain medicine. He lost more than 20 pounds from his 245-pound frame. (Smith says he's now back up to 240.) He was in bed for six weeks, holed up with financial books and his favorite TV show, "Dance Moms."

Ask him about his worst day, and Smith claims he doesn't have one. But his teammates will say it was New Year's Day. The boarding process for the three-hour flight back to South Bend alone was difficult for anyone to watch. There was their unbreakable captain, wincing in pain as he struggled to negotiate his beaten-down body into a seat in the front. It took forever. But then he closed his eyes and was quiet as he listened to his headphones. He didn't ask for a thing.

"I kept looking at him," says VanGorder, who was seated across from Smith. "He had comfort on his face. It didn't look like he had any stress or anxiety. He was just pleasant. You'd never know he was over there in pain, let alone the psychological part of it, thinking about what had just taken place and how it was going to change the next few months of his life. What a unique personality."

Smith knew right away, on that field in Glendale, that his injury was bad. "Why now?" he thought to himself. He wondered if it was the last game of his career.

The fears were temporary, and he did not let on to anyone that he was feeling them. As he was helped off the field, he grabbed freshman linebacker Tevon Coney. Smith had mentored Coney all year, and they became inseparable. "It's your time to go," Smith told Coney.

Smith returned to the sideline, on crutches, to watch his team. Those words of faith from his mother started to resonate. Smith says he couldn't feel sorry for himself because there was no time. Right after surgery, he told his father, Roger, "OK, Dad, I'm ready to get this rehab going."

The first time Smith walked again, in February, he was so excited that he videotaped it and posted it on Twitter. He started running recently and posted that too.

More important, Smith says he feels different sensations in his knee every day and he can "feel it healing."

"It doesn't frustrate me," he says. "I've become a better man in understanding myself, how I think and how I process things. I just have a true understanding that there's beauty in the struggle. I've learned so much."

A brother's influence

The Cowboys are in the middle of offseason workouts, but there is no way Rod Smith would miss being in Fort Wayne this week, draft week, with his brother. They did not care for each other too much when they were little -- typical big-brother-little-brother stuff. Rod occasionally whaled on Jaylon, who's three years younger. One time, he accidentally smacked Jaylon hard enough in the face that he left a mark. Rod was so fearful of the consequences that he jumped out of a window and ran down the street. Jaylon chased him for at least 10 minutes.

Jaylon was always the planner, so it figures that in his final college game, after all his work and plotting, he had no idea what was going to happen next. He was the one who saved his money and got a job at Burger King so he could pay for gas for his car and have his own money. Notre Dame's coaches were shocked when they came to Fort Wayne for a recruiting visit and found out he was working at Burger King. He told them he liked to work with people.

His big brother went to Paul Harding High School in Fort Wayne and was a huge football star. Jaylon didn't want anyone to think he was riding his brother's coattails. He wanted to forge his own path, so he pitched his dad a plan to go to nearby Bishop Luers High School and told him the school had a great baseball program that he wanted to join.

"The way he did it, it was like a politician," Roger says. "And he never played a day of baseball in his life at Luers. He worked me good on that one."

By high school, the brothers became close. Rod drove Jaylon to school, and they cranked up the Drake song "Successful" on the ride. As the music thumped through Rod's old, tan Buick, they dreamed of getting out of East Fort Wayne. In 2010, Rod did so when he went to Ohio State to play for coach Jim Tressel. However, Rod didn't exactly see eye-to-eye with Urban Meyer when he became the Buckeyes' coach two years later, and he "made some mistakes" and was eventually dismissed from the team.

During the height of Rod's struggles at Ohio State, Jaylon provided a big lift for his brother. Jaylon was a senior in high school at the time. He told Rod that he was talented and that he looked up to him. After that, Rod says, "nothing really mattered. I was always going to keep pushing because he knew my ability.

"At a certain point in my life, he became my motivation. If anybody meets him, he's going to touch somebody just off the vibe he brings and his mentality."

Jaylon won the 2012 Butkus Award as the country's best linebacker in high school. He was productive as a true freshman at Notre Dame, and then VanGorder moved him from the outside to Will linebacker. He was so awkward and out of place at first that VanGorder wondered if he'd made a mistake. But Smith was obsessed with learning the position. He kept a notebook that got thicker as the season progressed. He evolved into one of the most versatile defensive players in school history and became just the second player to win the Butkus Award in high school and college.

It would be an understatement to say things have not gone well for Smith since the Fiesta Bowl. On a gloomy spring day at the end of March, Smith went to Notre Dame's pro day and was relegated to watching his friends run around cones while he stood on the sideline. Later that day, his agent, Eugene Parker, died of kidney cancer.

Parker cared deeply about all of his clients, but his bond with Smith was a special one. Parker and Smith's dad were cousins. Parker kept his illness a secret. Rod Smith, who also was represented by him, had just talked to Parker a few weeks earlier. They laughed about silly stuff, and Parker asked if Rod needed anything.

Parker, who was 60, was a calming force for Jaylon after his injury. He'd been in the business a long time and had seen everything. He told Smith to ignore the media reports and focus on getting better.

Two days after his medical recheck, Smith went to Parker's funeral.

"I knew him [since I was a kid]," Smith says. "He's definitely in a better place now."

Following in Gurley's path

In the spring of 2015, another heralded player suffered through draft uncertainty because of a knee injury. Todd Gurley's projections didn't look as dire because he had torn his ACL in November and did not suffer nerve damage.

Still, around this time last year, Gurley's fate was one of the most talked about storylines leading up to the draft. On a quiet Saturday about a month before the draft, Rams general manager Les Snead sat in his office and watched video of Gurley. Snead was so fixated that he pulled out video of Gurley's freshman season, when he played in the SEC championship game against Alabama. Executive vice president Kevin Demoff also was watching video of Gurley in his office, and they headed down to talk to coach Jeff Fisher.

"It's going to be hard to pass on this running back, huh?" Snead asked Fisher.

Fisher agreed, and at that moment, the three decided they would take Gurley as their No. 10 pick. They vowed to keep it a secret because Gurley was getting stronger and picking up steam. Snead didn't even tell his family about it, and just about every pundit assumed the Rams would pick an offensive lineman.

Snead doesn't do Twitter, but he found out from his wife on the night of the draft that the majority of the general public did not like the Rams' decision. That changed during the 2015 season, when Gurley made it to the Pro Bowl and became just the second rookie in franchise history to rush for at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"We always have on our draft board this category of guys who maybe had an injury last year, and maybe they're not ready to play," Snead says. "You come in at a later IPO, but when we're measuring the stock four years from now, you're going to be glad you bought there."

Chances are good that Smith won't play in the upcoming season. But Smith has no doubt he'll be back. He ran into Snead and Fisher at the combine in February. Fisher told him they didn't draft Gurley for Year 1; they picked him for the future.

That made Smith feel good. He went home and lifted weights and continued his road back, confident the toughest year of his life was about to change.

"This is actually the best time in my life," Smith says. "My dream is about to come true."