Back from frightening neck injury, Saivion Smith epitomizes Detroit Lions ‘Grit’

Detroit Free Press

Saivion Smith was back with his boys.

Playing safety for the Detroit Lions.

Running with the twos.

This time, with a scar down his neck and another on his hip.

Two vertebrae fused.

But feeling great.

“It’s all God, man!” he said on Thursday after coming off the practice field. “It’s all God. It’s a blessing.”

Seven months after suffering a frightening neck injury that left him temporarily paralyzed, Smith returned to practice last week during the Lions’ OTA.

Sure, this was only the “pajama party,” as coach Dan Campbell called it. No pads. No contact. Not football, really.

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And that will be Smith’s next hurdle – overcoming any deep-seated apprehension or anxiety before his first real hit, which is only natural.

But just seeing him on the practice field had people smiling.

“That’s a superstar!” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said while walking by us mid-interview, as Glenn broke into a laugh.

“I ain’t no superstar,” Smith replied, shaking his head and smiling.

Man, it was good to see him back.

A frightening moment in New England

The Lions were playing the New England Patriots on Oct. 9, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass.

First quarter. The Lions’ defense was on the field, and Smith was making his first start.

Damien Harris, a 5-foot-11 and 213-pound running back, got the ball on the first play of the possession and was tackled by Smith and Alex Anzalone.

“It happened on first down,” Smith said. “I hit the running back. I just got up a little like dizzy or whatever. I had numbness. It felt like a stinger, felt it all the way through my toes, felt it in my fingertips.”

Smith has had stingers before – I’m willing to bet, most football players have. It can feel like an electric shock or lightning bolt down the arm.

But Smith had never felt anything like this. Down both legs, both arms, at the same time. Just a wash of strangeness.

On the next play, the Patriots had a pass play and Smith made what looked like routine contact with Patriots tight end Hunter Henry near the line of scrimmage.

Henry kept running and Smith collapsed.

“I was just stuck, couldn’t move at all,” Smith said.

He couldn’t talk, couldn’t move.

“Man, I was scared,” he said. “I thought it was over. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to walk. I thought it was over. I thought I was paralyzed. I was scared as hell.”

Smith lay motionless on the ground as an ambulance was brought onto the field.

The Lions gathered around him near the Patriots’ 40-yard line.

“Did you lose consciousness?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I was awake the whole time. That was the scariest part.”

As they loaded Smith into the ambulance, his father jumped into the front seat.

“Listen, check this out, in the ambulance, I was starting to come back,” Smith said.

He was still strapped down, but he regained movement.

“Yo, take this off me,” he begged in the ambulance. “Let’s go. I need to go back and play.”

“But they were like, no, you have to go to the hospital.”

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By the time he got to the hospital, his movement had returned.

“I just had a bad, bad, bad headache,” he said. “I was telling all the nurses to tell me to score and give me an update. Cuz, I didn’t have my phone. My phone was in a locker room for hours.”

“You had nurses telling you the score?” I asked.

“Yeah, wherever I went – before the CAT scan, I said, ‘What’s the score?’

“After the CAT scan, I asked, ‘What’s going on?’

“When I went for X-rays, I was asking every doctor, every nurse.”

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Comparing our scars

Doctors eventually determined that he would need a spinal fusion.

“The doctor told me if I didn’t get the surgery, then my chances of playing again would be low,” he said. “But if I got the surgery then I could play again.”

He assumed that a surgeon would cut the back of his neck.

But he freaked out when he found out the surgeon would actually cut through the front of his throat to get to his spinal cord. Using the front door, if you will.

“I broke down and cried, like, the front of my neck?” Smith said. “That’s my my throat you know.”

So we compared scars.

I had spinal fusion a few years ago.

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“Did they move your vocal cord over to get back there?” I asked. “It messed me up and I sounded like Marge Simpson for a few months.”

“No,” he said. “They cut me over here.”

His scar was more to the side than mine.

“Dude, I still have some issues,” I said. “If my shirt touches that area of my neck, I get a gag reflex. So I wear V necks now. Two of my fingers are still numb, but other than that, I feel great.”

“Were you numb up here?” he said, touching his jaw. “I had that for a while.”

I nodded.

“I had three fused,” I said.

“I only had one, the little bone between C3 and C4,” he said. He lifted up his shorts. “They took a piece of bone out of my hip and that’s what they used.”

It’s amazing to me how many people I’ve come across who have had spinal fusion. And amazing how people have had different results.

“Did you wear the collar?” I asked about a post-op device.

“Yeah, for like three weeks,” he said. “And then after that, I was back moving around.”

He was cleared to return by his surgeon in February. Then he got cleared by the Lions in April.

“No numbness,” he said. “I feel great.”

He was smiling.

“I think I know the answer,” I said. “But why are you here?”

“I just love the game,” he said. “That’s all I know. I’ve been playing it since I was 4 years old. It’s a blessing to be back out here. I can’t even put it into words.”

It’s been well-documented how the Lions overhauled their secondary this offseason, signing Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to free-agent contracts. They also drafted Brian Branch, a safety out of Alabama. And they should be better with the return of Tracy Walker and another year of experience and growth for Kerby Joseph.

But they also re-signed Smith.

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Smith has the ability to play both safety and cornerback and should compete for a backup job this season.

“I feel great,” Smith said. “Last year, that was the first year I actually moved to safety, so I was a little up and down with it.”

Now, he feels so much more comfortable.

“We are deep now,” he said. “We got a lot of versatile guys in our room. We all know a lot of football, and we are all just picking each other’s brains and helping each other out.”

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How Saivion Smith fits the Lions’ mold

On Thursday, Glenn said something interesting when talking about the new players in the secondary.

“A lot of credit to our personnel department, just recognizing and understanding exactly what we needed to get better at,” Glenn said. “Man, the pieces that they brought in are pieces that really fit who we are as a team, first and foremost. Can do all the things we need to do defensively. Really smart guys. Really tough guys.”

Yes, they have brought in several new players.

But in the midst of all that change, the Lions brought back Smith, which is telling.

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Next time you hear about the Lions’ “grit” and want to roll your eyes because it is starting to sound cliché. Next time you hear about a certain “type” of player the Lions are looking for. Next time you hear a Lions coach talk about “really smart guys,” or “really tough guys.”

Think about Smith.

The dude was in a hospital, with a spinal injury, and all he cared about was the score. All he wanted to do was bust out of the hospital and get back on the field with his boys.

That’s the type of players the Lions are accumulating.

That’s the big change here. That’s what is in the DNA of this organization now.

And that’s why so many people were smiling when he returned to the practice field last week.

Contact Jeff Seidel: or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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