Going into the 2015 college football season, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was one of the top NFL prospects in the nation. Head coach Brian Kelly called the 2015 consensus All-American the best athlete he's ever coached, remarking last September that he hadn't "... coached a player like (Smith) before, period." Earning the Butkus Award in both high school and college, Smith was a physical specimen that dominated in pass protection and excelled at stuffing the run game.
Now, after one game in 2016, that might all be over.
On Jan. 1 in Glendale, Arizona, Notre Dame was down by seven points to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. On first-and-10 at Notre Dame's 16-yard line, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett faked the hand-off to Ezekiel Elliott and rushed towards the Irish line, but when he went down he nearly lost the football. Jaylon Smith had just been thrown to the ground by Buckeyes' offensive tackle Taylor Decker, but as he got back up Decker pushed him to keep him out of any potential play. That's when Smith landed on his leg in a way that no human leg was designed for.
He tore both his ACL and LCL. Although his season was already over, his future at the next level was in doubt. He applied for the 2016 NFL Draft -- after an injury like that, what was there to gain coming back to college, playing another year in fear of that happening again? -- and underwent surgery.
But as the draft looms closer it appeared as if Smith was heading for a doomsday scenario: he might have to miss the 2016 season entirely due to the extent of damage to his knee. On Monday, the worst was confirmed:
After medical rechecks, Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith is not expected to play in 2016 and teams are unsure when he will play again, per sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 18, 2016
The last part is incredibly damning. Although many are conditioned to believe a football player should be able to rebound from injuries with enough time, Smith faces a damning proposition that places him out of play on the eve of the draft -- which directly impacts his earning potential and entire professional career arc -- and the cold reality that some injuries can end participation in this sport in an instant. The stories are myriad, albeit most are buried to time; football doesn't oft remember those it spits out unceremoniously. Perhaps one of the highest profile athletes of the past few years to suffer this fate was Marcus Lattimore, who was nevertheless drafted by the San Francisco 49ers but never saw time on the field.
The key for Smith's future is nerve damage. Back in February, a tweet by Jaylon Smith may have inadvertently revealed he was wearing an ankle/foot orthosis, or AFO, an indicator of nerve damage. Smith denied the reports, but in light of the more recent reports from Adam Schefter and others, the possibility of permanent nerve damage is becoming grim and more of a reality.
Jaylon Smith does have a $5 million loss-of-value insurance policy, but it's not as simple as that. Even if Smith does collect on the full $5 million guaranteed, it would be a sad shadow of what he could be earning as a top NFL athlete on a first-round rookie contract alone. In all likelihood, Smith would have earned at least one more contract after his rookie deal expired, which would only exacerbate how much he's lost because of this injury should the worst-case scenario come to fruition.
Perhaps one of the greatest ironies in all of this is that Taylor Decker, the tackle that caused Smith's injury, is looking like a comfortable first round selection still -- all this in the name of an exhibition game of questionable value beyond cheap television programming for the holiday season.
This all goes to reveal that the legend of a football career that is packaged and sold to children -- play hard, do well, never complain and fight through pain and injury through high school and college, do all this until you're into your 20s and if you're good enough, you'll see riches -- is paved with stories like these: a step before the finish line and never to cross.
Jaylon Smith may have wanted to play for his school and did so in the Fiesta Bowl, much like a basketball player or a soccer player gladly gives up time and effort away from their clubs to play for Team USA. Sometimes that, too, ends in disaster. But a major difference lies in that Smith has played at least five years of football at a high amateur level and has yet to see a dime for his effort beyond the non-liquid value of the scholarship he took from Notre Dame. There is certainly no way Smith could have known he would have been injured playing in the game either. However, as this nation remains at present a cold capitalistic society, the decision here -- to risk great earnings in the pursuit of what is at best a sentimental expedition -- needs to be evaluated in a hard-line cost-benefit analysis.