Moments after Ito Smith stepped in front of Matt Ryan to protect him from a head-on blitzer during the Atlanta Falcons' Week 7 game against the Los Angeles Rams, the second-year running back laid motionless on the turf.
Smith suffered both a concussion and a neck injury while making the block, the latter of which landed him on injured reserve for the rest of the season. After playing in 14 games as a rookie, Smith entered the 2019 season as the Falcons' primary backup running back and poised to carve out a larger role in the offense.
He ended the 2019 season watching from the sidelines, something that caused him a large amount of sadness.
"Last year was one of the hardest years of my life," Smith said. "I never had a year where I had to miss football, really. Being away from my teammates and just watching them every Sunday play, it was very tough on me."
Smith worked on strengthening his neck during the offseason, and he dedicated himself to becoming a better blocker as well. Just as things were beginning to return to normal for Smith, however, the world found itself gripped in the midst of a pandemic.
I made it this far for a reason. I know I've got to have a purpose. Ito Smith
No longer able to train at the team's facility and in direct contact of trainers and medical staff, Smith relocated but kept with him the same determination to make his way back to the field.
"After the season was over with, I was here training and then COVID hit so they shut everything down," Smith recalled. "I had to go to Houston, and I just worked my butt off, tried to get in the best shape of my life. I came back here strong and got my weight up a little bit. I'm feeling good to be back out there."
Smith returned to a Falcons running back room that now includes former All-Pro Todd Gurley. After earning the top backup role last season following a strong rookie year in which he gained nearly 500 total yards and scored four touchdowns, Smith is now battling Brian Hill in camp. Hill had a good showing once Smith went down and has drawn praise from the coaching staff throughout the offseason.
Still, Smith believes he's got a lot to offer the Falcons, whatever his role may be. He's battled through adversity to get back to his teammates, and he's trusting better days are ahead.
"I made it this far for a reason," Smith said. "I know I've got to have a purpose.
A look at roster battle at the running back position. The views and opinions represented here and in the corresponding article belong to Matthew Tabeek and not the Atlanta Falcons, unless noted otherwise.