Jaylon Smith: From game-changer on field to life-changer off it

Jaylon Smith stepped on the dais wearing black shorts and a white polo shirt with "COWBOYS" stitched over the left breast. Club executive vice president Stephen Jones was seated to his right, team owner Jerry Jones to his left. The men had gathered last month to officially announce a five-year, $64 million extension for Smith, who some thought might never play football again after sustaining a devastating knee injury three years earlier in his final college game.

At times, the press conference turned emotional as Smith reflected on how he couldn't even lift his foot for 14 months because of nerve damage, how he sat out his entire rookie season -- the first missed games of his athletic career. Particularly poignant was his announced plan to retire his mom from her daycare job seven months ahead of schedule.

"These are life-changing contracts," Stephen Jones said. "This will change Jaylon's family's life for generations in terms of the money we're talking about."

But privately, Smith wasn't just thinking about how the money could help his family. He was also focused on how it could assist him in empowering minorities through his entrepreneurship showcase.

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Kickoff is an hour away and Smith is excited yet nervous. With the crowd gathering outside, the Cowboys middle linebacker alternates between sitting and standing. He slowly paces the room, then stops to check his two iPhones.

He has played in a lot of big games, but none like this. In fact, his uniform is a mauve-rose suit, tan suede loafers and a button-down cantaloupe-shaded dress shirt. There are no shoulder pads, helmets or cleats, because this game isn't about football. It's about life, and the significance of the occasion is not lost on him.

For years, he has dreamed of using football as a platform for empowering people of color in underserved communities, and he took a major step in that direction last March when he founded the Minority Entrepreneurship Institute. Then he announced plans for a venture-capital competition (think "Shark Tank") to provide capital, mentorship and strategic planning to minorities in need.

This night marked the finals of the competition. Sixty-five applicants have been whittled to five, and in a matter of hours, three winners will be selected to share a $200,000 award. The competition seemed like a speck on the horizon for months, but now, on this gorgeous mid-July evening in Smith's hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., it is coming to fruition. And he is like an expectant father.

"I'm creating a marketplace for impact investors to get involved with minorities, black and brown, and provide three things entrepreneurs need to be successful: financial funding, mentorship and strategic planning," the 24-year-old Smith said. "For me, it's about closing the economic and educational gap for people of color."

Initially he keeps a low profile as the crowd of 150 assembles on the upper level of Parkview Field, a pristine baseball facility that's home to the San Diego Padres' Class A farm team. He wants to keep the focus on the finalists and their respective pitches, which include an athletic development company, a residential redevelopment company, a secure-shopping software app, a party-planning service and a care center for cancer patients.

One by one, the candidates stand in the front of the room and do their best sell jobs to the four judges seated on the couch to their right. Smith is among the judges, as is former Colts linebacker Gary Brackett, a successful entrepreneur since retiring. They go fairly easy on the nervous contestants during the Q&A periods, then retire to a back room to select the winning companies. One of them is Hurry Home, a real estate company that purchases distressed properties and then creates a path for lower-income applicants to buy the homes by living in them and building equity through monthly mortgage payments.

"Two percent of minority (entrepreneurial) founders receive funding compared to their white counterparts, so to have someone that has 'made it' coming back and giving back to the community -- with a focus on minority founders -- is really huge," said Jada MacLean, co-founder and CEO of Hurry Home. "Jaylon is not only talking about it, he's putting his money where his mouth is."

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That evening in Fort Wayne this past summer did not happen by chance. From a young age, Smith wanted to make an impact in communities of color that was greater than anything he might accomplish on the football field. Even as a teenager he was intentional in his purpose, going so far as to look for ways to walk simultaneously in two worlds -- one black, one white.

The result is a Jaylon Smith with split personalities. There is Everyday Jaylon, who goes by the nickname Smooth. This Jaylon is most comfortable in blue jeans, designer sneakers and a T-shirt beneath a blazer, with a large, gold "Hot Boyz" medallion around his neck. He moves to the beat of explicit rap and has a laugh that's as amped as his energy.

Corporate Jaylon is at the opposite end of the spectrum. He wears tailored suits and perfectly knotted ties, listens more than he talks and selects his words with the care that a chef chooses dinner ingredients. He moves to a mellower sound and was even given the corporate nickname "Mitchell" by some teammates, who marvel at his ability to transition seamlessly from the locker room to the board room.

Smith first learned to navigate these two worlds -- and dual personalities -- as a teenager, when he persuaded his parents to let him bypass his assigned public high school for a small, Catholic school several miles away. Bishop Luers wanted Smith in large part because of his athletic prowess, but he wanted the Knights just as badly because they would allow him to diversify his interactions and relationships.

By Smith's count, there were only three white kids in his entire elementary school, so his worldview was limited. He wanted to be around people who had different life experiences from him and, ultimately, take that knowledge and use it to make a positive impact in his community.

From the outside, Southeast Fort Wayne where Smith grew up looks more like an aging suburban area than older urban community. There are basketball backboards with no rims, playgrounds with overgrown grass, and occasional yards with cars parked in them. Many of the lots are big and have houses that sit back from the street.

Jaylon and his older brother, Rod, were well known in the community. They were talented athletes who rated among the nation's best at their respective positions in high school and/or college -- Rod as a running back, Jaylon as a linebacker. But the brothers had personalities as different as the positions they played.

Rod, who would go on to play at Ohio State and in the NFL (he and Jaylon were teammates on the Cowboys for three seasons), was outgoing and more likely to hang with friends, while Jaylon was often reserved and more interested in spending time with younger relatives or kids in the neighborhood. In many ways, Jaylon had an old soul that was best reflected by his insatiable curiosity. He was the kid who was always asking questions. It wasn't enough to know the what. He had to know the why and how, as well.

That's why Michael Ledo wasn't surprised in 2011, when Smith, then a sophomore in high school, inserted himself into a conversation Ledo was having with another adult. Ledo, then the founder and coach of AWP Sports, had just loaded his club football team into the 15-passenger van for the five-hour trip home from Pittsburgh, where they had competed in a regional 7-on-7 tournament. It didn't take long before the only sounds in the vehicle were the hum of the tires against the highway and the Christian rap on the stereo. The back of the van was largely quiet because, after two days of intense battles, many of the players were worn out and eager to slip their headphones over their ears and fall asleep.

The team placed a disappointing fifth among the 30 tournament participants, but Ledo wasn't concerned. For one, it was the group's first year together. But more importantly, he felt he had taken advantage of an opportunity to make a positive impact on young males by helping them understand the importance of accountability, hard work and teamwork. Football was secondary for him; life was first.

During the drive home, Ledo went back and forth with Aaron Lane, a close friend and assistant coach in the passenger seat, about the concepts of leadership and character -- more specifically, how to define and develop them. The men thought they had the front of the van to themselves, but suddenly a head popped up between their seats from the second row. Smith had been listening to every word despite having his eyes closed. He had questions that needed answering.

"He was fully engaged, asking things like, 'What about this? How do you achieve that?'" Ledo said. "I spent 15 years running that company before I moved on, worked with 200 kids who went Division I, and 15 who went to the pros. Jaylon was the best student I ever had -- and when I say student, I mean student of life."

It's why he attended Bishop Luers -- "I wanted to align myself with people that knew things that I didn't know," he said -- and it's why he committed to Notre Dame as the nation's No. 1-rated linebacker. He believed the university, its distinguished alumni and global reach could provide access to contacts and worlds that would help him beyond football.

For instance, both parents of one roommate were CEOs at a law firm. And the father of another teammate, Jesse Bongiovi, is singer Jon Bon Jovi, whose entrepreneurial and philanthropic experiences were valuable resources. By Smith's junior year, the vision for how he would fulfill his purpose began to crystallize. Having traveled in spaces that were foreign to him as a youngster, he picked up on how to utilize the access he now had as one of the nation's top college football players. And he wanted to pass along the business lessons he had absorbed to those in communities that looked like the one he grew up in.

He wanted to empower through entrepreneurship because there is no greater life-changer than self-sufficiency. Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

"Whenever you understand what your purpose is, everything you do after that is going to reflect it," Smith said. "You're intentional about it."

That vision was so clear he trademarked "Clear Eye View" as his brand and tattooed it across his back, where it would be an everyday reminder to him about his purpose and approach to life and achieving greatness. He also knew it would prompt people to ask him about it when they saw the tattoo, thus allowing him to educate them.

"A focused vision is just being able to see something clearly that you want to accomplish, having a laser-beam focus and determined belief in yourself that you can accomplish that goal, and a belief in God that he has your back throughout that process," Smith said. "And earned dreams is just about how bad you want it. What work are you willing to put in to accomplish that goal? Whether you're a football player, basketball player, astronaut, businessman, CEO, pharmacist, whatever -- everyone should walk with the clear-eye view."

Smith knew football would be the platform to allow him to share his knowledge, but that was nearly taken from him on Jan. 1, 2016, when he sustained a potentially career-ending knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

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Smith had already made up his mind to forego his senior season at Notre Dame, though he had yet to say so publicly, so why play in the bowl game on New Year's Day? He was already projected to be a top-five pick in the 2016 draft, with some scouts rating him as the best prospect regardless of position. Millions of dollars awaited him, so why risk it?

The competitor in Smith wanted to compete. He was viewed as college football's best linebacker, and the Buckeyes' Ezekiel Elliott was considered the game's best running back. The greater the buzz about the individual matchup, the more Smith looked forward to the opportunity to be on the field. Plus, he was a team captain, which meant a lot to him.

"I wanted to go out the right way, with my teammates and my brothers, representing Notre Dame," he said.

Midway through the first quarter, the Buckeyes ran a read option away from Smith. It was something he had practiced against numerous times in the weeks leading up to the game. He attacked the back-side guard, and then released to pursue the ball from behind. He never got there because offensive lineman Taylor Decker pushed him to the ground. When Smith got up, as others scrambled for the ball following a J.T. Barrett fumble, Decker pushed him again from behind.

Smith always had been taught to stay off the ground, and knowing he had already fallen once, he told himself not to go down on the second push. But in trying to stay upright, he planted awkwardly while attempting to balance himself.

At first, he didn't think much about it, but he quickly realized he couldn't put weight on the foot without feeling pain. He attempted to hop off the field on one leg but dropped and slapped the turf. Why now? Of all times, why now? he thought to himself.

All he had to do was get through the game healthy and millions of dollars would await him. But now he was being helped onto the back of a cart and driven to the locker room with an injury that threatened to undo everything he had worked for. Why now? was a fair question, but not once did he ask, Why me?

"Football is like the last gladiator sport," Smith said. "So being physical and just understanding the pain that we put our bodies through, it's evident that injury is gonna happen, injury is a threat. But for me, it was more so about maximizing each opportunity (to compete)."

A transition often takes place when someone who considers himself indestructible is suddenly in a vulnerable state. That reality was driven home as Smith prepared to fly to Dallas for surgery -- with a doctor who coincidentally served as the Cowboys' team surgeon -- to repair two torn knee ligaments. He literally sat on the stairs of the jet, his back to the door, and had to do a sort of reverse pushup to raise his body up each step. Physically, it was tough; emotionally, it was frightening.

"It's nothing like being a man -- being a grown-ass man -- and being vulnerable," he said.

His family was there to comfort and console him. Before being rolled into the operating room, he got a hug from his father, who told him to "throw it up," his reminder that God is always in control. In the six weeks that followed, Smith was required to stay off the foot. He dropped 20 pounds and saw his weight fall to its lowest level since he was 15. Even after being cleared to return to his feet, he couldn't run because of nerve damage in the foot. It was scary because no one knew when -- or if -- the nerve would ever regenerate.

Ledo, who is now Smith's business manager, suggested that the linebacker make his already-small circle of family and friends even smaller. There was no room for negative thoughts or even hints of doubt. With that done, Smith attacked his rehab with a positive mindset. He could not participate in any of the workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he was determined to be a part of Notre Dame's pro day, if only on a limited basis.

"I dreamed of being a part of the combine and the pro day and just the draft process my entire life -- watching it, you know, every single year," he said. "So mentally (after not being able to participate in the combine), I told myself, I'm gonna get my body right so I can do this bench on pro day, and I busted out 24 reps. I got up and jumped and everybody was nervous, 'cause they're like, 'Oh man, this dude just jumped.' I'm like, Man, I'm gonna be alright."

His rehab was comprehensive, involving his mind and body. He read books and listened to podcasts that were given to him by Ledo to keep him in a positive frame of mind. One of the books was "A New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle, which Smith credits with changing his life.

The book focuses on, first, being aware of your ego, and then being able to control it when it is trying to influence your thinking, positively or negatively. Being that Smith was in a vulnerable state, he easily could have fallen prey to a pity party.

"There were so many things my ego was trying to instill upon men," he said. "Things like draft night and people being selected before me that I believe I'm clearly better than; or understanding that I would have run a 4.4 at the combine but couldn't show my greatness because I'm hurt; or I'm a dominant pass rusher but was unable to display that in front of coaches before the draft. A lot of things could have destroyed me if I hadn't been aware of them. It's about keeping that inner peace."

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It was tough on Smith, going from a possible top-five pick to a second-rounder (the 34th overall selection to the Cowboys), but he was able to handle it because his mind was in the right place. And even though he would not play as a rookie, while rehabbing and waiting for the nerve to regenerate in his foot, he took every rep mentally as if he would start that week. He also worked physically as hard as he ever had. Meanwhile, that time off the field allowed him to build the infrastructure to support his entrepreneurial endeavors.

He learned what it meant to be a business professional and business owner, and to take something from a thought bubble to reality. That meant viewing himself as a corporation and surrounding himself with experts in specific fields who could teach and advise him. Among his investments are iCRYO Cryotherapy (the machine he used to rehab from his college injury); Onyx and East, a real estate development company; and EOS Worldwide, an entrepreneurial operating firm. He also owns an eyewear line, CEV Eyewear Collection, which recently partnered with the Cowboys and Essilor, one of the world's top eyewear companies, and is now being sold in the team's pro shop.

"Jerry Jones hired me to play linebacker, because that's my expertise. He didn't hire me to play quarterback, because I'm not a quarterback," Smith said. "With us as athletes, why wouldn't you operate like that yourself? You're an entity. I'm Jaylon Smith Enterprises. You have to have a team."

Smith has an adviser who helps him oversee wealth creation, another who helps with brand development, and another who keeps his finances in good standing. He also has an agent and, over all of them, a business manager (Ledo) who focuses on structure, accountability and execution of his enterprises. That also allows Smith's mind to be free of clutter when he's on the field. And make no mistake, his approach is to "keep the main thing the main thing." That means keeping football as the priority.

"It's just like being a dad at home and then when you go to work," he said. "You gotta flip the switch and do your job."

His first game following the injury was Sept. 10, 2017, in the season opener against the Giants. He not only played but started, finishing with seven tackles, one off the team lead. There was no nervousness. He kept reminiscing about his time at Notre Dame and what made him great. He reminded himself of the things he did to focus. Physically, he was not 100 percent, but he was good enough to get the job done. He reminded himself that it would be baby steps back to dominance. He could see an opening but lacked the burst that used to separate him from other players. So, he continued to zero in on the mental details while physically training to improve his strength and burst.

It wasn't until the 11th game of the season when he started feeling like his previous self. The Cowboys lost to the Chargers that day, 28-6, but Smith had a tackle for loss, a pass defensed and a team-high eight tackles. The numbers were solid, but what really excited him was his movement. He felt fluid and explosive again. The next step was converting his good health into dominance.

He opened the 2018 season with a sack in three of his first five games and averaged eight tackles with five total QB hits during that stretch. And when athletic rookie Leighton Vander Esch moved into the starting lineup to complement him at linebacker, his play continued to elevate. During a 13-10 prime-time upset of the Saints in late November, Smith was credited with nine tackles but appeared to be in on double that total. Afterward, he phoned Ledo, who was asleep and didn't hear his phone ring. Then he phoned Ledo's wife, who also was asleep and did not get to the phone in time to take the call. Finally, Ledo's son came into his father's room to tell him Smith had been calling. When they spoke, Smith had two excited words for his business partner and mentor: "I'm back!!"

His continued development and elevation among the elite at his position -- an NFC East scout pegged him among the top five linebackers in the NFL and league players voted him 61st in the NFL Top 100 Players of 2019 -- made it easier for the Cowboys to reward him with a $64 million extension that includes $35.5 million in guarantees. At the press conference to announce the deal, Smith sounded like a businessman as well as a football player. He spoke about Jones getting a positive return on the $4.5 million investment he made in Smith when he drafted and signed him to a rookie contract, despite the injury.

While many people were focusing on what the new money will mean for Smith, his thoughts turned to others. In fact, he is committing $2.5 million over the next 10 years to his Minority Entrepreneurship Institute and the venture-capital competition he plans to take on the road each summer, including to Dallas in 2020.

"To this day, I don't want to be remembered as just a great athlete or just a great football player," he said. "I want to be so much more than all of that."