How Jaylon Smith’s Resilient Optimism Makes Him Successful On and Off the Field

UPDATED: May 5, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 21, 2020
Jaylon Smith as a Dallas Cowboy

Around this time in 2016, Jaylon Smith should have been a top pick in that spring’s National Football League Draft. Instead, the then 20-year-old was spending much of his time meeting with doctors, trying to find out if he could ever even play football again.

In his final college game as a linebacker for Notre Dame, Smith suffered the same devastating knee injury that has ended or cut short many football careers—a torn ACL. And much worse, he had nerve damage. After reviewing his initial medical reports, several NFL teams took the all-American linebacker off their draft boards, unsure he would ever return to the field, never mind with the same explosiveness and speed.

Really, no one knew. There were educated guesses, there was hope, there was the resilient optimism of Smith himself, just no guarantees.

“My first reaction was why now, why the timing? I was this top prospect who had it all going and to have that kind of adversity, at that moment, going into the draft, that just seemed cruel,” Smith, a Fort Wayne, Indiana native, said. “It was tough. I had to believe in me coming back before anyone else could.”

Taking a chance on Jaylon Smith

That April, the Dallas Cowboys took a chance and selected Smith with the draft’s 34th overall pick in the second round. The injury had indeed cost him millions, but he would still have a chance to live his dream.

He didn’t play at all his first year, continuing his rehab. In his second year he still wasn’t quite right physically. But by year three, his performance was more or less back to normal. Like riding a bike, he quickly began to work back toward fulfilling his football potential. In August 2019, he inked “a five-year extension worth $64 million that includes $35.5 million guaranteed,” according to CBS Sports. Plan A was paying off after all. 

However, the Cowboys dropped Smith two years later. He was dropped again soon after signing with the Green Bay Packers. Currently, he’s signed with the New York Giants.

Developing a plan B

While sidelined that first pro season, Smith deployed plan B and started down the path of another lifelong ambition, that of an entrepreneur. He immediately capitalized on his new position with “America’s Team,” selling personally branded apparel online. He has since expanded his offerings and business ventures as the co-founder of the CEV Collection and the founder of the Minority Entrepreneurship Institute (MEI).

Smith was attending a charity event in 2018 when he met fellow 20-something entrepreneur Kyle Jones, co-founder and chief innovation and branding officer of iCRYO, a wellness company with locations in states including Arizona, Indiana, New York and Utah—and more in development. Smith eventually became an equity partner with iCRYO, though he stopped working with the company in early 2023.

“We talked for 30 minutes that first time and he was so authentic, it shocked me really,” Jones said. “Athletes are usually full of themselves, but Jaylon’s core value is so aligned.”

Cryotherapy was important to Smith, as it played a role in his recovery from the torn ACL.

“It’s a new wave, an advanced way for all ages to recover,” Smith said. “I’m a true believer that this can help a 60- or 70-year-old just as much as a professional athlete.”

Since joining the Cowboys, Smith made an effort to attend as many charity events as he was invited to. In July 2020, he hosted his inaugural “MEI Texas Showcase” for minority entrepreneurs, a Shark Tank-like event during which MEI added “5 amazing minority-owned business to [their] portfolio,” according to a tweet by Smith. Additionally, MEI invested $600,000 in those businesses.

Jaylon Smith’s ambition for success

Despite leaving Notre Dame a year early for the NFL, Smith took classes to complete his degree and fulfilled a promise to his mother when he walked across the stage and collected his diploma in May 2019. By then, his dual dreams of football stardom—he was named the 61st best player in the league by a vote of his peers—and of impacting lives off the field were in full swing.

As Smith delved into the business world more and more, he planned on utilizing one of the most impressive and powerful mentors one could have: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. The two established a fast bond after Dallas drafted Smith. Their emotional connection was on display at the press conference announcing Smith’s contract extension in August 2019.

Jones’ voice cracked several times when talking about the rehab process and how the young linebacker never complained. He added of Smith’s story, “This has it all. It has overcoming, it has power, it has the wording and ambition—just the beginning on what ambition will get you in the future.”

For his part, Smith was loyal to the Cowboys for taking a chance on him when his football future was uncertain.

“Right now, I am keeping the main thing the main thing and that’s football,” Smith said. “But I want to be more than a great football player. I want to be a rock in business and I want to be a rock as an employee of the Cowboys. My parents instilled a great value system in me and I know when I focus on something, I’m going to thrive.” 

This article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine and was updated April 2023. Photo by ©JAMES D. SMITH/DALLAS COWBOYS

Jeff Sullivan is the editorial director at Panini America and a columnist for Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. He lives in Arlington, Texas.