In one of the most unexpected curveballs of 2020, and there have been quite a few already, the Dallas Cowboys decided to give Aldon Smith a chance after having been out of the league since 2015. Smith has been serving an indefinite suspension since that season, mostly due to his battle with alcoholism over the years and run-ins with the law that stemmed from it. Smith joins the Cowboys on a one-year deal structured in a way that greatly reduces risk to the club but also motivates the former First-Team All-Pro to continue taking steps toward his eventual NFL return — including staggered offseason payments, a base salary of only $2 million with $2 million more available in performance incentives, and no guaranteed money.  

Smith landing in Dallas is a bit of a reclamation project for newly-signed defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who was key in helping the former seventh-overall pick dominate early in his NFL career when they were both members of the San Francisco 49ers. It was Tomsula who pounded the table for owner Jerry Jones to give Smith a chance with the Cowboys, sources tell CBS Sports, and Mike McCarthy gave the final green light after meeting with Smith personally.

And with that, Smith attempts to reassert himself as the same game-wrecking pass rusher that once racked up 44 sacks, 120 combined tackles including 46 tackles for losses, 81 quarterback hits, five pass deflections, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception in only 30 starts under Tomsula from 2011 through 2014. 

But as he works to keep his eyes aimed through the windshield, he’d be remiss if he didn’t also look in the rearview to remember how much it took for him to climb back from his substance abuse issues.

“It’s been a whole lot of soul-searching,” Smith told Jay Glazer of FOX Sports. “It’s been a journey. It’s been filled with ups and downs. During the journey, there’s been some self-inflicted wounds. 

“But in the process, I came out with a better understanding of who I am and what I want from my life. It gave me a greater appreciation for the game that I’ve been blessed to play. I’m just excited the Cowboys and the NFL are giving me a chance to come back and finish what I started.”

Not many get a shot at returning to the league following the number of disciplinary actions levied upon Smith in his time as a pro, and fewer still see such an opportunity after having also been absent for four years. Smith wants to make it clear he understands all of this, and lots more, including how he now has an opportunity to be a testimony to others also dealing with substance abuse. 

“I believe that with the platform the NFL gives players — in particularly me, with the things that I’ve gone through and the things that I’ve learned — that it would give me a chance to help out others,” he said. “So it’s not just deserving a shot to play, but it’s a shot at using that platform so I can help out other people. That’s why I’m so grateful for having this opportunity, so that I can use my play on the field and the platform that the NFL gives to be able to help out others.”

And he notes how it took him hitting rock bottom to realize just how much danger he had become to himself, before picking himself up, refocusing, surrounding himself with a valuable support system, and getting to the task of preparing himself mentally and physically to return to the sport he loves — feeling he has a lot of unfinished business in the NFL. 

“I would say 2018 was a tough year,” Smith admitted. “In that year, I was in a really dark place. I didn’t have a lot of value for how I thought about myself. When I was in the bad spot, it got pretty bad. 

“I was sleeping under a car for some nights because my sickness took me there. And I had a home to sleep in. But I was in such a dark place that I didn’t see myself deserving anything other than that.”

Although he did suffer a setback that led to an arrest in July, his overall change of outlook in 2019 is what has his 2020 off to a roaring start. With a renewed focus on self-worth and a “rocked up” 290 pound frame, the former Pro Bowler decided to sign with Dallas versus a few other potential deals that were on the table, and it’s no secret the presence of Tomsula and McCarthy played a key role in the team ultimately giving him the nod. 

“The pieces fit,” Smith said of heading to North Texas.

The Cowboys obviously feel the same way, as long as Smith can continue keeping his mental puzzle in order.