FRISCO, Texas — Jaylon Smith had a choice. He could immerse himself in the Cowboys offseason program, soak in the sometimes profane wisdom of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, or wrestle with Descartes.
He could dive back into his playbook or study the murals of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros.
Smith is passionate about football. But he chose to honor a promise made to his mother, Sophia, that once his NFL career was underway he would return to Notre Dame to finish his degree. He made good on that promise a little more than two weeks ago.
The nerves he felt as he walked the stage compare to what he experiences in the moments before he takes the field for the Cowboys.
“I was shocked to be nervous as my name was being called,” the linebacker said. “Standing in line to go up on the stage, I felt nerves, but I told myself to just embrace it.
“I’ve done that for the past three years I’ve been here. I’ve embraced everything I’ve been through.
“It’s a blessing.”
Smith isn’t the first professional athlete to return to college to pick up a degree. But he’s the exception.
There have been 17 football players from Notre Dame declare for the NFL draft after their junior years since the rule went into effect in 1989. Smith is the fifth to return to graduate.
“I value education so much,” he said. “On a life end, on a business end, knowledge is power. There is so much strength in being educated. I needed to live it out myself.
“I learned a lot.”
Smith is back at The Star. He took part in organized team activities last week and will do so again this week.
These workouts are voluntary. Smith didn’t need permission to miss the sessions to complete his degree in film, television and theater. But he went to head coach Jason Garrett in the hours after the Cowboys were eliminated by the LA Rams in the playoffs in January to inform him of his intentions.
“I said congratulations,” Garrett recounted. “That’s fantastic.
“You know that’s part of our job. We’re trying to help develop players. We’re also trying to help develop men. And he’s a young man who had a great opportunity to finish his degree at one of the great universities on the planet and we encouraged him to do it.”
The course load wasn’t light. Among the 21 hours he took were classes in critical pedagogy, Latino studies, Latino muralism and introduction to poetry.
Philosophy of human nature was his most difficult course.
“It really challenges you to think,” Smith said. “You had to take your perspective out of the box and really understand what these authors were arguing in their claims, then to be able to reiterate that to the professor.
“He (the professor) was a smart dude. He didn’t take a lot of (expletive).”
Let’s just say it’s a word Socrates probably used back in the day.
And Marinelli uses now.
Smith’s perspective and approach to school was different than it was three years ago. He didn’t go to class for the grade. He found himself more interested in what the professors had to teach. He wanted to learn.
Determination and discipline. Those are qualities the Cowboys saw in Smith’s return from a devastating knee injury that erased one year of his career. He applied that to his studies this spring and his drive to stay in shape while he was away from his teammates.
Garrett said it’s impressive that Smith has been able to slip back into practice “and not skip a beat” after his time away.
“I’m very strategic in allocating my time to study then to work out and massage and watch games from last year to learn from my mistakes,” Smith said. “It was definitely a busy load.
“But I’m back now and I’m happy to be here.”
As Smith walked across the stage last month he saw tears of joy stream down the face of his mother and father. He thought about all of the teachers, tutors and mentors that instilled in him the desire to learn and was thankful.
What’s next on his agenda?
“You know I have an agenda, right,” Smith said. “The ultimate goal here is the Super Bowl. We’ve got to take it day by day. We’ve got a great team, some great guys and we’ve got to build our culture.
“It starts right now.”
Football is once again the focus. But it’s not Smith’s sole interest.
Even before Smith returned to Notre Dame you would hear him talk about his education in football and business. He’s intrigued by real estate development. He wants to be an entrepreneur and intends to pick up a masters at some point.
Smith didn’t bring his diploma back to Dallas. He’s letting his mother hold onto it for a little while. While he doesn’t have children of his own, Smith knows the importance his graduation holds going forward.
“Whenever I’m blessed to have kids and share a moment like that for them, for them to understand, ‘Dad, you didn’t have to go back to school, but you wanted to be more than just a great football player,’ ” Smith said. “It’s my purpose beyond athletics.”