Fort Wayne's Jaylon Smith still can't believe his NFL season happened the way it did, but it's only providing more incentive for the Bishop Luers graduate to prove it won't happen again.
Smith, 26, started his fifth NFL season with the Dallas Cowboys, but he was released Oct. 6. The linebacker hooked on with the Green Bay Packers for two games before being released Nov. 7 before finally signing with the New York Giants on Dec. 20 to finish out the season.
“This was a year, man,” Smith said. “I learned a lot, but really my 2021 focus was all about operating in truth and really detailing my focus on my purpose. Going through everything I went through this year on the field, it was an opportunity to really persevere.”
Smith is home recovering from the season and participating in a signing event at Glenbrook Square's Laced Midwest to promote a new product line, The Cycle. From 6 to 8 p.m. today and noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Smith will be signing apparel on purchases of $75 or more.
The former Notre Dame All-American has started training for next season and said he's excited about the chance to prove himself again.
“Coming from where I come from on the south side of town, we're hardened at a young age,” he said. “Playing Metro Youth League Sports under Tom Macon, you learn when things aren't at your best how to battle. I learned to keep going at a young age. When you go through adversity, it's all about how you respond and being a humble servant.”
For the first time in his career, Smith will be an unrestricted free agent. During four games with the Cowboys this year, two as a starter, he made 18 tackles, but in Green Bay he was limited to one tackle in two games as a reserve. Smith found more playing time in New York and made 19 tackles in four games, two as a starter.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Smith said he's grateful to the Giants for allowing him to prove that he can still play at a high level and is an elite linebacker.
“It just provides some great momentum going into free agency,” he said.
Smith said he'll continue to split the offseason training between Fort Wayne and Dallas while looking for a new contact. The Cowboys' move to release him came barely two years after Smith signed a five-year, $64 million contract extension that was scheduled to keep him with the Cowboys through the 2024 season. Of that $64 million, $35.5 million was guaranteed.
During the end of Smith's career at Notre Dame, he suffered a significant knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. The recovery time forced him to sit out his rookie NFL season after being drafted by Dallas. Before the injury, Smith was a projected first-round pick but he slid into the second round.
Many current college players point to Smith's example as a reason why they sit out bowl games.
“Really how I feel about it, every kid, every young man has an opportunity to make their own decisions,” Smith said. “If they want to play, let them play. If they choose not to, they have that choice. I'm really pro-choice.
“If I had an opportunity to go back in that game and do it again, I would play again. That's just how I was raised. I had a special love and compassion for my team being a captain, and it was a great matchup with a lot of high-caliber talent. I'm the extreme competitor.”
Smith said this NFL season has made him realize even more how pro football is a business. People play the game, but it's really about work.
“I have a full understanding of what the league is about,” he said. “You always have to have that clear view, always believe in yourself and focus on what you want. Then you have to put in the work. I'm a guy that loves the game and that's how I was raised. Put the work in.”