FRISCO TX — Following Friday's rookie minicamp practice, I am leaving The Star practice fields. Tyler SmithHe felt satisfied with his performance.
“I won’t even lie, I surprised myself sometimes,” the Dallas Cowboys’ first-round pick said after he lined up at left guard for the first time since his senior year at North Crowley High School in Fort Worth, Texas. “It was a great feeling.”
Smith knew he would make it to this place. Although he wasn't with the Cowboys at the time, he was still in middle school or highschool when he shared his goal to Patricia, his mother.
“I just remember him saying, ‘Mom, I want to play at the highest level. I want to play in the NFL,'” she said. “I told him I was behind him 100 percent.”
Smith’s path from North Crowley to the Cowboys and a guaranteed $13.38 million contract was far from easy. It was nearly stopped by Blount’s disease, a condition that affects the growth plates of the shin bone around the knee and causes severe bowleggedness. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the condition is very rare and affects less than 1%. Smith was 16 when he was first diagnosed.
“Let me put it like this: There’s not much more things as painful in life,” Smith said.
Smith met with several specialists and decided to have surgery. His mom also agreed.
“It needed to be done to improve his quality of life,” his mother said.
Dr. Lauren Lamont was one of the surgeons involved with Smith’s care. She said that even at 16, Smith's size (approximately 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds) made it a challenge to examine him on the pediatric-sized tables at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth.
But she also remembers how inquisitive he was regarding the surgery and frame correction, asking questions many teenagers wouldn’t.
“When I first met Tyler and his mom, they let me know how important football was to Tyler,” Lamont said. “Had Tyler not had surgery, he would have been at higher risk for degenerative knee conditions to occur earlier in life and possibly shorten the time he could play football.”
Three days later, Smith had an osteotomy. This involved having an external fixator attached to his lower left leg in order to stabilize and realign the broken and misaligned bones. Smith was required to wear the fixator for a period of four months.
After the surgery, he was fitted with a wheelchair.
“He’s didn’t want the chair at all,” his mother said. “He used crutches. He was absolutely determined to have a normal school experience even with these big metal bars on his leg.”
“It’s very similar to what Alex Smith had on his leg if y’all are familiar with his story,” Tyler Smith said, referring to the former NFL quarterback who nearly lost his leg after a compound fractureIn 2018.
Smith is surrounded by physical reminders from his fixator.
“I got some scars from where the bolts were,” he said, looking at his leg. “It’s not too bad. I still look sexy, so it’s all good.”
The surgery, Smith said, “is like changing your body. It’s like carpentry on your body.”
“That definitely added to the chip on my shoulder,” he added. “I’m not going to lie. When it comes to iron man football, there’s nothing I’m not willing to do. Whether it’s jammed fingers, broken thumbs, strains, it don’t matter because things like that pale in comparison.”
Before Smith's surgery, his high school coaches don’t remember him missing a game or a practice or complaining about pain.
“I mean it was noticeable it was so bowed, but he’s strong as crap,” said Eugene Rogers, Smith’s coach his freshman through junior seasons. “He was one of the strongest guys we had as a freshman. He was able to reverse curl 275 pounds in the power-clean. Because of his leg, he wasn’t able to have proper technique, but that was just brute strength.”
Courtney Allen was Smith's coach in senior year. He remembers having a limp when he watched the film just before Smith had the operation.
“He was still lifting while he had that thing on his leg, but he would do upper body,” Allen said. “In the summertime, he started progressing where he was running more, cutting more, all that stuff. He said, ‘Coach, I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready.’ He didn’t miss a game.”
Smith went to physical therapy before school every morning at 6:15 a.m. Smith was fully trained the summer before his senior year.
“You could tell he was fine,” his mother said. “There was no longer a limp. He was no longer in pain.”
He did not yet have major college offers. Rogers and Allen believed Smith had the potential to play college football and could be a player in the NFL when they first saw him. Smith was initially committed to Abilene Christian FCS School. Houston expressed interest as well.
“I’m sitting in front of everybody trying to tell them, ‘I get it. It’s an investment, right? But I’m telling you this kid is an NFL talent. He’s a Power 5 talent,’” Allen said. “I remember talking to some very bad programs, and they didn’t want to do it, and I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ But at the end of the day, all it takes is one. All it takes is Tulsa.”
Tyler was a true freshman at Tulsa and played in four games. He kept his redshirt year. He started 21 games as left tackle the following two years. He was named to the first-team All-American Athletic Conference team in 2020 and second in 2021. Smith could have come back to Tulsa as early as 2022. He was rejected out of high school by some Power 5 schools, but they tried to get him into a transfer portal. He entered the NFL draft hoping to be a first-rounder.
During the draft process, he took questions about Blount’s disease, explaining the surgery, rehab and recovery. While colleges may have been hesitant about Blount leaving high school, the NFL teams were more open to his offer.
The Cowboys didn't have any fears.
“Being a young guy and seeing all the positive stuff and then talking to the doctors, there was no issue, so we were fine with it,” said vice president of player personnel Will McClay.
Smith was presented No. Larry Allen, a Hall of Famer, wore No. 73 and Smith is lined up at left guard. His locker at The Star is only a few steps from guard Zack Martin‘s. Smith has been texting and talking to the seven-time Pro Bowler since the draft.
Martin’s advice: “Come in in shape, and come in ready to produce,” Tyler said.
Smith is just beginning his professional career. Smith hopes it can be long-lasting and he will be an example for others.
“When I had my surgery, when I had to recover, I just knew I had to hit the ground running, because if someone had to do it, it had to be me,” Smith said. “I want kids out there to know that if you put forth a good body of work, you can achieve anything.’”