Before Jimmy Smith tore his Achilles tendon in December, he knew the basics about the staircase in his home: It has a spiral design. It leads to the “man cave” on his top floor. And most visitors hate it.
Here’s what the Ravens cornerback knows now: It can be exactly 56 steps of pure torture. Believe him. He’s counted.
“With one foot and your Achilles and crutches,” he said Tuesday, “you tend to figure out how many it becomes eventually to get up there.”
In Smith’s first interview with reporters since his Dec. 3 season-ending injury and subsequent four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, the Ravens’ top corner was frank about his injury history. “It [stinks],” he said, a phrase he’d repeat several more times. “I'm not going to act like it doesn't.” But he would not have been up at the podium inside the team’s practice facility, wearing sweats and a smile, if he had not already taken many of the steps needed to return to action.
Although he did not practice Monday or Tuesday, the 29-year-old former first-round draft pick has participated in 11-on-11 drills in training camp, part of a return to normalcy that has surprised even him.
“When you first get the surgery, you kind of really don't see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “And then five, six months later, it's like, 'Oh, I'm moving. I'm running. I'm jumping.' So, at the beginning, no. But now …”
Now he’s happy not to hear the ticking time bomb that he could not escape last season. His previous injuries were unforeseen and unwanted: the sprained ankle in his rookie season, the sports hernia surgery in 2012, the season-ending Lisfranc foot injury in 2014, and the back injury and high-ankle sprain two seasons ago.
But from Week 5 last year to Week 13, Smith woke up each day fearing his sore Achilles tendon would “pop.” Sitting out a game wouldn’t have helped, he said, and neither did platelet-rich plasma injections or the anti-inflammatory Prednisone.
So when it finally popped, in a win over the Detroit Lions, “I was like, ‘Ah, finally, that’s over now,’ ” he recalled thinking. “It hurt that bad.”
And yet he had been so good. Smith allowed a quarterback rating of just 49.2 when targeted last year, according to Pro Football Focus, third lowest among the 86 qualifying cornerbacks at the time of his injury. In 12 starts, he had three interceptions and a fumble recovery, one of each he returned for a touchdown.
The pain of his injury soon radiated out to the defense. In the team’s first game without him, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger torched the Ravens secondary for 506 yards in a 39-38 win.
Of course, if the injury hadn’t gotten Smith, the NFL would have. One day after he went down, the league announced his ban, which covered the rest of the regular season.
Smith said Tuesday that he ingested an unidentified banned supplement before a workout. A mobile app is available to help players check the list of ingredients on supplement labels against the NFL’s list of illegal substances, a service that agents can also provide, but Smith said supplements that are legal one year can be banned the next. He had planned on appealing the ruling before his injury, but acknowledged that he had not done his “due diligence.”
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“I wasn't conscious of it and I didn't know, obviously,” he said. “I would never take a steroid or some PED. I don't need that type of stuff to play football.”
The sources of Smith’s power to recover from injuries are disputed. Safety Eric Weddle joked at mandatory minicamp last month that the cornerback might be “like half-Wolverine,” referring to the superhero with mutant healing abilities. Defensive tackle Carl Davis said Smith comes in early every day to rehabilitate.
Smith just wishes he could do more than ask for advice from teammates who’ve suffered a similar injury. He is aware of his label as an injury-prone player; he reads about it, hears about it. “To be hurt, it hurts,” he said, but what seemed to pain him the most Tuesday about his injuries was not that they have interrupted his seasons, but rather his development into a more complete player.
“It seems like, constantly, I'm trying to fight just to get back to even instead of training to excelling better, progress even more,” he said.
The first couple of times he was cleared to break on a ball in practice, his Achilles tendon felt off. “Extremely tight,” he said. But he has learned to trust what doctors have told him. They’ve said the tendon is stronger now. He said he feels “totally fine.” All anyone can do now is hope that’s the new status quo.
“He’s played himself into that position, really, year after year, and the injuries have taken their toll,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Then he kills himself to get back. Hopefully, this will be the year where he can stay injury-free the whole time. He’s worked really hard and he’s really talented. He’s really conscientious. I’m in his corner. I want to see him do well."