THE FIRST THING HE HEARD was a person standing across his bedroom at 4 a.m., breathing fast and violently in the darkness, almost panting, and it sure felt like the cold open of a horror movie.
In the middle of that night, Oct. 19, 2021, Dawuane Smoot needed a full three seconds to orient himself and realize that he was not, in fact, on the set of "Halloween Ends." The giant Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle sat upright in bed, gathered himself and realized what was actually happening.
He recognized the outline of his pregnant wife, Aumari. She was eight-plus months at the time, so he assumed she must have begun having contractions. Smoot hustled out of bed and asked her what she needed.
"A shower," she said, still whewing hard.
She told him that while she showered, he needed to gather their stuff to go to the birthing center they'd booked, and she wanted him to alert their midwife and then get their babysitter to come over and watch their 2-year-old son, Ahmir. "This might be it," she said.
As Smoot got started on his tasks, he heard the water turn on ... and then turn off again 30 seconds later. He was in the living room when Aumari came downstairs in a dress and said the last words he was ready to hear.
"We're having the baby right here, right now," she said, and she began to fall backward. Smoot helped her ease slowly to the floor. He thought maybe she was exaggerating -- how could they possibly go from whewing to full-on childbirth in two minutes?
But as he lowered her to the ground, he saw the top of their baby girl's head popping out and realized it was very possible: The Smoots were going to have to deliver their own baby.
THE SMOOTS TRIED TO BREAK UP. They really did. Repeatedly. But they couldn't.
Aumari starts telling the story of their love by herself, in an Airbnb in Jacksonville that she and her husband own. Dawuane is running a little late, so Aumari begins a solo journey through what's been a roller coaster that wobbled but never completely came off the tracks.
They'd started dating as 16-year-old kids going to two different high schools in the Columbus, Ohio, area. Dawuane got his license first, so he would drive them around to do fun stuff. At the end of every hangout, he'd pull into her parents' driveway, and then the date would just keep going. She'd just sit in the car with him for hours, and they'd talk and listen to the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. Just a pair of teenage old souls.
Aumari was reluctant at first to be officially boyfriend-girlfriend. She had had one boyfriend before him and considers it to have been a toxic relationship, especially for a teenager. As she began to fall for Dawuane, she kept expecting him to stop being so kind and loving.
And he never did.
"I don't know how to explain it," she says. "Some people don't believe in young love. He was my best friend. He still is my best friend. I've never met anyone that I meshed with so well. It was such a bond."
But she thought that bond had to break after high school. She was going to stay home in Ohio and go to college at the University of Akron, and Dawuane had a full ride to play football at Illinois. Aumari sat him down one evening in her parents' kitchen and said it was over.
"This is where we split," she said through tears. "You'll be seven hours away. We have to end the relationship. We'll have our separate college experiences and if it is meant to be, we'll come back together."
Dawuane started crying, too. But he shook his head.
"No, let's give it a shot," he said. "No."
Aumari tried to stand her ground. She didn't really want to end it, but she also thought they couldn't survive four long-distance years.
"This is going to be too hard," she said. "I don't want either of us to have trust issues and worry about infidelity. We have to break up."
"No, Aumari," he said, squeezing her hands into his massive palms. "No. We'll be fine. We love each other. We can make it."
He just kept refusing to let her go, and Aumari eventually let him not let her go. And for their freshman years, things seemed fine. Aumari hadn't been able to get to many of his games at Illinois, so they didn't see each other until the summer. "The first year was OK," Aumari says. "But it was hard."
Then one day, late at night the following fall, Dawuane called. "I can't do this anymore," he said. "I haven't seen you in forever. We have to break up."
He was firm about it, but before they even hung up, Aumari had started packing a bag. At the end of the call, she said, "I'm coming to see you."
She drove all night and knocked on his door early the next morning. They cried together and hung out all day. "I was there to fight for our relationship," she says.
She drove back the next day and talked to Dawuane on the phone that night. He told her it was great to see her ... but he still wanted some time apart.
"I was so hurt," she says. "But you have no choice but to respect it. He did meet another female when we took that break, and he had a fling."
A month later, Dawuane called her again. He said he missed her so much, that the fling was over, that he never wanted to be apart again. "I know for a fact now that there's no one else out there for me," he told her.
Aumari's heart caved in because she felt the same way, but she wasn't sure how she could get past the month without him. "You can't just fish in the sea for a while and then come back like this," she told him.
They hung up that day still not sure what would happen next. They kept talking on the phone for a few months, and they both felt an even stronger connection growing between them. Aumari was still struggling with how the breakup had unfolded, though, until a conversation with a wise aunt of hers.
As she hits this point of the story, Aumari pauses for a moment on the Airbnb couch. It's a signature moment in her life, one of those conversations that is 25 seconds long but impacts you for 50 years. She wants to tell it just right.
She told her aunt that she wanted to be back with Dawuane, that he was the love of her life and they both knew it. But she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to move on from that one month when they were broken up.
Her aunt told her that she could do whatever she wanted, get back together or stay apart, but if she elected to reunite with Dawuane, she needed to forgive the fling. "He's a sophomore in college," the aunt said. "If you get back with him, you have to let that go. You're either in, or not."
She was in, and they've never looked back. On this September day, as she finishes up that story, the front door opens and Dawuane walks in. He apologizes for being late for the interview -- it's a Tuesday, typically an off day for the Jags, and a physical therapy session had run long.
"What all did I miss?" he says, giving her a kiss.
"I was just telling him about the fling you had when you were at Illinois," she says, and she smiles.
Dawuane's eyebrows instantly raise. "You told him about the fling? Oh no ..." he says, but he's smiling, too. "I was in the doghouse for a while. But it all worked out."
This is one of those conversations buried in a love story where you sometimes can see the seams, the place where resentment can grow. But that's not what is on the faces and in the voices of the Smoots. They seem to genuinely appreciate more what that bump in the road did for them than to them. It's somehow become a warm memory for them both -- a scar can be a wound and a sign of strength, the old saying goes.
For the next half hour, the Smoots tell the rest of their love story. They started dating again and Aumari left school and moved in with him during his final year at Illinois. The Jags drafted Dawuane in 2017 at No. 68 overall, so they relocated to Jacksonville, where they've been for all six years of Dawuane's NFL career.
Things went fast once he got to the NFL. He proposed to Aumari during his rookie year, found out she was pregnant with Ahmir the next year, and got married in 2019, when she was six months pregnant.
They decided to do their wedding on the beach, with zero guests. They'd been worried that the beach would be a mob scene, but it rained all day and it was pretty much deserted. Then they began to worry that they'd be getting married in the rain. But at almost the exact second they got out of the car to walk out for the ceremony, the rain stopped and the sun snuck a few rays onto the empty beach. It was perfect. Waves crashing in the background. One wedding official and nobody else. Like back in the day when they listened to Marvin Gaye in the driveway, it was just the two of them, Dawuane and Aumari.
"We wanted it to be more intimate," Dawuane says. "We're both crybabies, so we both wanted to be able to just cry and say whatever we wanted to each other."
A few months later, Aumari had Ahmir in a home birth. She spent four hours in a bathtub at their house, feeling relaxed even as contractions picked up. When Ahmir came, Dawuane was right there beside the midwife and caught the baby as he arrived. They had their first child -- and a dress rehearsal for 2½ years later.
Then, in spring of 2021, Aumari found out she was pregnant with a girl, with a due date of sometime in October 2021, right in the middle of football season. For this one, she decided to hire a midwife again but wanted a little more security than their house offered. So she carefully picked out a nearby birthing center and booked it.
Then the unexpected 4 a.m. wake-up on Oct. 19, 2021, rolled around, and the actual birthing center became their living room, with a nursing staff of Dawuane and Aumari Smoot.
EARLIER ON THE NIGHT of Oct. 18, 2021, the Smoots got Ahmir to bed at 7 p.m. Then they cleaned up the house for an hour or so, hung out and played around on their phones, and were in bed together around 10.
When Dawuane heard the breathing, it was showtime. Aumari went into the shower and said the same prayer she had said when she started feeling contractions for their son's birth. She had been laying in the tub for a few hours when she finally said out loud, "OK, God, I am ready for the baby. Ahmir, I am ready for you." Five minutes later, the midwife stood back and let Dawuane catch his first child.
Now, she said the same prayer and subbed in Ahlani's name. Ahlani must have heard her. When Aumari got to the bottom of the stairs, she started saying, "We gotta go, we gotta go right now," and Dawuane hung up the phone and began to head toward the door. That's the moment she slow-motion fell to the floor.
As Dawuane talks about it now, he's not even sure if you could call what happened next "delivering the baby." The baby was basically delivered: From the time Aumari crouched down to the baby being out was about five seconds. "She shot out," he says. "It was like a slippery, hot, wet fumble."
Aumari laughs -- hard -- listening to Dawuane describe the most important fumble drill of his life. But it certainly wasn't funny at the moment. When Ahlani came out, she was eerily quiet for her first few seconds, and Dawuane was terrified as the newborn squirmed without making any noise. "I was hyperventilating," he says. "I was so scared."
Aumari told him to hand her the baby, and when he did, she noticed her little girl's umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. She calmly unraveled it, something she was told later could have been incredibly dangerous for Ahlani's breathing and blood flow to the brain. Dawuane stood back and thought about what a superhero his wife is. As soon as the umbilical cord was unwrapped from her neck, Ahlani made her first sounds. "The best crying I've ever heard," Aumari says.
Dawuane called 911. An ambulance was dispatched and would arrive shortly after, but Aumari and Dawuane weren't sure what to do about the umbilical cord as they waited. The 911 operator advised Dawuane that he should try to tourniquet off the cord, and she had a pro tip on how to do it. She told him to find a sneaker and pull out the shoestring, then wrap it tightly around the umbilical cord, which he did.
It was right around that time that they both noticed an unexpected third person in the room with them: Ahmir had woken up during the chaos and sat down in the living room. He'd seen his sister arrive.
Dawuane ran past him into their bedroom to grab some sheets -- the living room was a mess after the birth -- and he just muscled off the entire bedspread and lugged it out to start cleaning up. A few minutes later, an ambulance arrived and got ready to take Aumari to the hospital.
As Aumari and Dawuane got ready to leave, Aumari's mom and a nanny showed up to watch Ahmir. But before they put her in the ambulance, Aumari motioned to her son. "You can come over and see your sister," she said.
He had waited so patiently, so un-2-year-old-like, until this moment, and then he vaulted out of his seat. He crouched down and touched her head, and he looked from his mom to his dad and smiled.
"That was a tearjerker right there," Dawuane says as Aumari nods along.
"That made me cry right there," she says. "Oh my god."
As they wrap up this part of the story, the part where a family was born, Dawuane grabs Aumari's hand and they look at each other, and it sure is dusty in here.
THE NEXT DAY, Aumari was released around lunchtime. She's not big on hospitals and wanted out of there, and she also wanted to get home to her son.
Dawuane alerted the Jaguars that they had had the baby and the circumstances around the home birth. He was told to take his time -- it was a Jags bye week, anyway.
Almost immediately, though, the story had blown up online ... and also within the team facility, which was mired in an all-time rough season of losses and all the trappings of the Urban Meyer debacle year. It's not hyperbolic to suggest that maybe the birth of Ahlani Moon Smoot might have been the highlight of the Jags' year.
Dawuane notes that nobody was more excited than Meyer himself. "He was super happy," he says. "He was the most happy person out of everybody."
Meyer was talking to him on the phone that day and told him, "I want the whole team to hear your story." Pretty soon, Dawuane was telling the whole story -- again -- to the entire team, packed into an auditorium to listen. He could hear cheers and screams from his teammates, and Meyer kept interjecting his amazement at the story.
When he hung up, he told Aumari how giddy everybody was, and they were both a little mystified. Everything had just kind of happened. They were proud of it, for sure. But they didn't understand what all the fuss was about.
The rest of the world wanted all the fuss. The Jags PR staff was inundated with interview requests for the Smoots, and they did CNN, "Good Morning America" and others over the next 24 hours. It was a whirlwind viral moment, and it stretched on for a good two or three days. Dawuane took most of that week to be with his wife and kids. Then it was back to work the next week, and Dawuane had one of his best games against the Seahawks on Oct. 31, finishing with one sack and two TFLs.
His family situation had changed. And so had he.
IN HIGH SCHOOL, Dawuane was a unicorn athlete -- a disruptive defensive lineman who also was one of the nation's best 400-meter hurdlers. Think about that skill set for a second: fast and agile enough to run hurdles, with the stamina to do it for a quarter mile.
But interest from college football programs was tepid, at best. He played at a smaller Ohio high school, Groveport Madison, which hadn't had much success, so he wasn't in front of that many recruiters. He knew he could play at a Power 5 level, though, and so did his coaches. "I always thought Dawuane was big enough, smart enough and fast enough to play in college and, ultimately, the NFL," says then Groveport coach Tim Brown.
So Brown hatched an unconventional plan to draw attention to Dawuane: He made him a punt team gunner.
It worked. Dawuane had the physicality to chuck the opposing team's blockers on the outside, and then he could zip down the field and blow up returns single-handedly. His play looked incredible on film, and recruiting interest picked up.
So did opposing punt return team awareness. Dawuane got a rep for his gunner game, so teams began to try two different tactics. Some lined up a second blocker on Dawuane outside, which created huge mismatches across the rest of the field. Other teams put two punt returners back and asked whoever didn't catch the ball to find Dawuane and try to help block him downfield.
One time a team tried both tactics at the same time, with two blockers on Dawuane and two returners back. Dawuane powered through his blockers at the line and got downfield to engage with the blocker ... and plowed right through the guy into the returner, tackling both players.
Alex Golesh, then the Illinois tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, was blown away by what he saw on film. He was an Ohio kid himself, so he immediately hit it off with Smoot and helped get him to pick Illinois over Indiana, Purdue and Cincinnati. "We were always trying to find a kid who isn't great yet but could be," says Golesh, now Tennessee's offensive coordinator. "I always thought, if this kid fills out, he's got a chance to be really good. He was tough, and smart and athletic."
Dawuane had a nice career at Illinois, finishing with 16.5 sacks in 44 career games. But he describes his view on football back then as "It is what it is." He loved the sport. He loved his team. He wanted to be good. But he had the nuanced view of the sport that sometimes gets a big thumbs down from die-hard fans and even some scouts who think talk of outside interests and work-life balance are big red flags. Football was what it was -- something he happened to be good at.
He had impressive performances at the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine. There was some first-round buzz on him (ESPN draft expert Todd McShay had him as high as No. 24 overall at one point). The Jags ultimately took him in the third round, and he played well early in his career.
Something never quite clicked, though. He was productive his first two years in Jacksonville but had no sacks. Then, right around when Aumari got pregnant and then they got married, Dawuane began to feel a little different. He didn't care more, or work any harder. He knows it sounds a little hokey, but now it's like every step he takes on a football field now feels more important. Football is what it is, but more.
He rattled off six sacks in 2019, then 5.5 in 2020, six in 2021 and had 1.5 through six games this year. He's playing primarily as a rotational defensive tackle, so those numbers will likely never be double digits. Dawuane is in the second year of a two-year, $10 million deal, so he needs a big season. As he talks about football, he and Aumari are seated side by side in their Airbnb. They wanted to tell their story here because they have some renovations happening at their house.
They own a few properties in the area and hope to stay in Jacksonville for the foreseeable future. They have no plans for more kids, but they change their mind, oh, every 13 minutes. In the meantime, Aumari is interested in opening up her own day care in addition to the properties they manage.
An hour earlier, Dawuane had walked in and sat down 3 feet away from her, right as she was talking about The Fling. Now Aumari is talking about the birth of Ahlani and spends a second thinking about how she would grade Dawuane's performance as a baby deliverer.
"As a father, as a husband, as a midwife, he's ... a million," she says. "This man right here is heaven-sent."
As she speaks, Dawuane looks happily uncomfortable at all the praise, and he lets out of bashful laugh.
"You are," she reiterates. "You're literally everything. He did excellent. I couldn't have asked for a better partner."
Dawuane is a little sheepish, and it's amusing to watch an explosive 264-pound defensive tackle try to Homer Simpson-in-the-bushes meme himself into the couch. But as he struggles to process his wife's compliment, he reaches out his hand and wraps his fingers within hers, and when she gets done talking, she repositions closer to Dawuane on the couch.
They both keep talking for a while, back and forth, and it seems like whichever one isn't talking shuffles their body six inches closer to the other.
By the time they finish talking, they'd told the story of them, of fighting for them, of Ahmir arriving and Ahlani really arriving, and they are completely smushed against each other, like two magnets pulling toward one another.
As the conversation concludes, they both stand and wave goodbye, then sit back down on the couch. Just the two of them, Dawuane and Aumari.