EAST LANSING — Jeff Smoker has them laughing. He’s standing in a circle of reporters, who are sticking recorders, microphones and cameras in his face and firing questions about things most people would never want to talk about, and he’s joking with them. But before the laughter even subsides, the Michigan State quarterback has already turned serious, talking about what it’s like to deal with a substance abuse problem as a college student. He stays there, relaxed and talking openly until the reporters are appeased.
A year and four days earlier, Smoker was suspended from the football team indefinitely. Ten days after that, his family announced that he was being treated for a substance abuse problem. Now he’s back on the field, leading the Spartans in their Big Ten title hunt and having fun playing football. “A regular guy,” roommate Joe Tate called him.
What have you done in the past 369 days? How much have you had to change? Imagine hitting your lowest point, then climbing back up, and surpassing even where you were before. Imagine sitting in the glare of the spotlight, going through rehab and coming back to face questions and doubts — some of them probably your own — and the pull of dangerous habits.
Jeff Smoker has done all those things. And even if you’re a Michigan fan, one who hates the Spartans and will root passionately against them when they play the Wolverines Saturday, it’s hard not to be impressed by how far this 22-year old from Manheim, Pa., has come.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job of facing the problems that he had last year and owning up to them and really making a concerted effort to beat them,” offensive lineman Paul Harker said. “He’s really earned that trust back that might have (been) shaken last season. And we know that he’s going to be all right … Everybody right now is really just focused on this team …”
The team is 7-1 and undefeated in conference play. This, after last year’s 4-8 record. But it’s still hard sometimes. Smoker said the toughest part is “just temptations right now. Just being in college and all the temptations.”
He’s learning how to stare down those demons and walk away.
“I can go to social places and hang out,” Smoker said. “I have to know when it’s time for me to go, when there’s something there that I can’t handle. This is my last year at school, and I’m trying to enjoy it, but at the same time, not let it get out of hand. There’s a fine line and I’m just trying to follow it.”
He said his teammates weren’t sure how to act around him in social settings at first, but they’ve gotten more comfortable. “They’ve been great about looking out for me and stuff,” Smoker said.
“I kind of admire him, in a sense, just to see him coming back,” Tate, an offensive tackle, said. “It’s hard. If there was a situation like that that I went through, I don’t know if I would have had the character and will to come back, just because it’s a tough road. But he’s reaping the rewards right now.”
He didn’t have to do it, you know. It would have been easier for him to forget about football, to just try to get his life back and be an anonymous student somewhere. But instead, he chose to face the pressure and the critics, along with his problems. And now he leads the conference in passing, has lost just one game this season and has everyone talking about a remarkable turnaround — the team’s, not his.
“A lot of people, I think, would have probably given up and not been back here the next year,” Tate said. “I think it just shows a lot about his character, about what he’s done just to get back on the team and stay here. It’s been awesome just to see that.”
But Smoker said he doesn’t like being called a “comeback kid or a second chance kid or whatever.” He just wants to be a football player.
“I like to have a lot of decisions and be in control,” Smoker said. He was talking about his role as a quarterback, but you got the sense he could have been talking about his life outside of football, too.
What a feeling that must be — to be in control, just a year after having your life spiral away from you.
Courtney Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.