On these cold autumn mornings Jeff Smoker awakens before dawn and
watches the sun rise, tracing the dead-flat Michigan State campus
with long slivers of morning light. Daybreak is nothing novel for
the Spartans' senior quarterback. "Jeff used to come back home
from nights out when it was getting light," says Mark Goebel, his
teammate and former roommate. "Then he would sleep until it was
almost dark again." Now Smoker drinks a cup of coffee and
embraces feeling so alive so early. It can be a beautiful thing,
the start of a new day.
Or the start of a new life.
Just past noon on Saturday, Smoker will run from the short tunnel
at the north end of Spartan Stadium and play the most important
game of his college career. That afternoon No. 9-ranked Michigan
State, the last unbeaten team in the chaotic Big Ten race (and
7-1 overall), plays rival Michigan. It's the first game in a
brutal three-week stretch in which the Spartans also play at Ohio
State and Wisconsin and will either complete an improbable rise
to BCS bowl contention under first-year coach John L. Smith or
fall into the great muddle of the mediocre. Much will depend on
Smoker, the second-ranked passer in the Big Ten, for whom every
game is a small step in a long recovery from addictions that
nearly ended his career. "I've played football since I was eight
years old," says Smoker. "I've never had more fun than I'm having
A year ago last week, two days before a game against Wisconsin,
Smoker walked into the brick-walled office of Bobby Williams,
Michigan State's embattled coach at the time, and confessed to a
party-mad lifestyle driven by the abuse of controlled substances.
(Smoker has declined to name the drugs, but he told SI last week,
"I used a little bit of everything." A day later he corrected
himself: "I used a lot of different things, not everything. I
don't want people to assume the worst. But it wasn't any one
thing that got me. It was all of them.")
November 3, 2003
Williams had no choice but to suspend Smoker. He also gave Smoker
the names of on-and off-campus support organizations for
substance abusers and implored him to contact his parents. Smoker
almost immediately placed that call home, to Manheim, Pa., where
his father, Jay, is a drywall contractor and his mother, Sue, is
a bus driver and school cafeteria worker. "It was the hardest
thing I've ever done," says Jeff. "They did everything for me.
They raised me. Gave me things. Made a good life for me. And now
I did this, and it hurt them badly."
Jeff's older brother, Bob, 28, says, "It was a shock to the
family. None of us was sure how to handle it."
Jay and Sue Smoker drove the nine hours from Manheim to East
Lansing the next day, and before the weekend was out, Jeff was a
patient in a residential treatment center. He stayed there two
weeks and then spent nearly eight months reconstructing his life
and his football career.
Home for Smoker had been a one-story brick ranch on a little more
than one acre outside Manheim, a town of 4,800 at the center of a
southeastern Pennsylvania triangle formed by Harrisburg,
Lancaster and Reading. "It's a blue-collar town that loves
football," says Mike Williams, coach at Manheim Central High for
the last 23 years. Every weekend in the fall the M.O.B.--Mothers
of Barons--decorate the town in the team colors of maroon and
gray. When Manheim plays on the road, its fans arrive at the
opposing school as early as noon for a Friday-night game to get
prime bleacher seats. In this environment Jeff was an icon before
he could do algebra. "He played football with kids two or three
years older than him when he was nine," says Bob.
Jeff was Manheim's starting varsity quarterback for three years,
during which his teams went 30-4. "There was a lot of pressure on
him," says Mike Williams. "But he was the kind of kid who, if you
asked him if he was all right, would always say, 'I've got
everything under control.' Always. He had to be perfect."
Nearly everybody in Manheim was stunned when Smoker picked
Michigan State over Tennessee, Penn State and Ohio State. The
Spartans had gone 10-2 in '99 and beaten Florida in the Citrus
Bowl, but even before that game, coach Nick Saban had bolted for
LSU. Smoker walked into that uncertain situation with a huge
reputation; four quarterbacks transferred when he signed,
including Bradlee Van Pelt, now the starter at Colorado State.
Incumbent starter Ryan Van Dyke was injured in the first game of
Smoker's freshman season, and Smoker came off the bench to
complete 16 of 24 passes in a 34-24 win over Marshall. "I thought
I knew what I was doing," says Smoker. "Of course, I was
clueless." He started six games that fall and 11 his sophomore
year, when he ranked sixth in the nation in passing efficiency.
Last year he was an All-America candidate at the controls of a
Spartans team with high hopes, but he struggled, completing only
56% of his passes (down from 63% in 2001) and throwing scarcely
more touchdowns (13) than interceptions (10). "If you watched
tape of 2001 and compared it with 2002, you could see that
something was wrong," says Bobby Williams.
Smoker's teammates noticed too, without watching tape. "He'd get
confused," says senior guard Paul Harker. "He'd call a play in
the huddle and then forget the play at the line."
Goebel, who had roomed with Smoker since they were freshmen, saw
behavior that frightened him. "He was hanging out with bad guys
who nobody on the team even knew," says Goebel. "He was sleeping
all day when he was supposed to be in class and barely getting to
practice. I told him, 'Man, you're gettin' a little crazy, you've
got to stop this.' Jeff is a quiet guy. He'd just shrug his
shoulders. I'm sure a lot of people didn't know what was going
on, but I did. The only people I'd lived with in my life were my
family and Jeff. He was like my brother. When I saw him walk in
the door in the morning, I not only knew he had been using, I
knew what drug he'd been using."
As Smoker struggled, rumors of his drug use were rampant on the
Michigan State campus, a city-within-a-city with 40,000 students,
none of them better known than the football team's quarterback.
(For the 2002 season Spartan Stadium was decorated with huge
murals depicting Smoker and All-America wideout Charles Rogers.)
Students began to wear T-shirts mocking Smoker. One read, HIS
NAME'S NOT J. SMOKER FOR NOTHING. Another, playing on Michigan
State's "Go Green, go White" cheer, said, SMOKE GREEN, SNORT
WHITE. Internet message boards buzzed with postings about
Smoker revisits the fall of 2002 reluctantly, embarrassed by his
public downfall and eager to move forward. "I don't know how this
happened to me," he says. "I wish I knew. You can say that
everybody wants to give the star quarterback a freebie, and
that's true, but I didn't come to Michigan State squeaky clean. I
had used things back in Manheim. There's nobody to blame but me."
On the Thursday morning before he visited Bobby Williams, Smoker
says he awoke groggy and at the end of his rope. "I just told
myself, I don't want to live like this anymore," he says, "and I
don't want to lose football. I love it too much. And then I went
to see Coach Williams."
John L. Smith, who orchestrated successful turnarounds at Utah
State and Louisville before he was hired by Michigan State
athletic director Ron Mason to replace the fired Williams, met
with Smoker in mid-January--and with Smoker's parents shortly
after that. Smith, 54, is a creative old-school coach with a wild
streak of his own. In the last two summers he has run with the
bulls in Pamplona and skydived from 14,000 feet. Next summer he
plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. He prepared a long list of
requirements for Smoker to gain reinstatement to the program.
"Not just A, B and C," says Smith. "D, E, F, G and H, too." Some
overlapped with Smoker's aftercare program. Others were more
traditional, such as reporting to Spartans strength coach Ken
Mannie at 6 a.m. every weekday from January through March.
During the school's spring break, in April, Smoker remained on
campus virtually alone. He received daily phone calls from
coaches to make sure he was behaving. At Smith's suggestion he
also twice served meals in a Lansing rescue mission. "I thought
it would be good for him to see where his life could take him if
he didn't do what he needed to do," says Smith.
Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, a passing-game guru who runs
the ever-popular Jack Elway one-back spread attack, summoned
Smoker to a late-January meeting with the five-man offensive
coaching staff. "We told him to tell us the complete story," says
Baldwin, who was hired by Smith from Baylor. "So he did. For
about 30 minutes he talked and cried and told us everything. Then
for another 30 minutes we peppered him with tough questions. If
there was a chance he was coming back, we needed to know his
Smoker bought an old Nintendo console with outdated games such as
Tetris for something to do on quiet nights when the homework was
finished and the rest of the campus was partying. He spent long
hours at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building studying tape and
working out. Coaches and teammates telephoned him nightly, as
friends and watchdogs. "If he ever felt the world caving in on
him again, he had to know we're all there for him," says senior
linebacker Mike Labinjo.
Smoker, still under suspension, went through spring practice
getting reps with the third team. He reported for training camp
in August stuck at No. 3. "And he didn't act like anything but a
third-stringer," says Harker. Except that he was devouring the
spread offense. He was also staying clean--undergoing regular
drug testing and ceaseless monitoring by teammates and friends.
On Aug. 12 Smith reinstated him. A week later, following the last
preseason scrimmage, Smith named Smoker the starter.
Only once did Smoker address his drug problems with the entire
team. After an early preseason practice, when the Spartans came
together in a scrum before leaving the field, Smoker asked for
quiet. "Guys, I messed up last year," he said. "I'm trying to do
whatever it takes to get back. I want to help this team win."
There was applause and there were shouts. What Smoker had said to
Goebel in the spring was more telling: "I just want one more
Michigan State has emerged as one of the true surprises of the
fall. Only a nonleague loss to Louisiana Tech, in which Smoker
missed the second half with an injury, keeps the Spartans out of
the Top 5 in the nation. Smith has taken Williams's team and
motivated it with old standbys: emotion, discipline and
selflessness. He had the superstars' murals removed from the
stadium and replaced with giant representations of generic
Spartans. Nobody has jersey number 1, previously worn by star
receivers such as Rogers and Andre Rison. Smith dotted the locker
room and meeting areas with signs bearing phrases such as PLAY
HARD, PLAY FAST, P.Y.A.O.! "It's like somebody came in and
flipped a light switch," says junior linebacker Ronald Stanley.
Nobody has contributed more to the sudden climb than Smoker, who
has thrown 169 straight passes without a pick. "He's playing
sensational quarterback," says Minnesota defensive coordinator
Greg Hudson, whose team Smoker shredded in a 44-38 Michigan State
victory on Oct. 18. "He's accurate, he throws a catchable ball,
and he's gotten that system down real quickly." Fans wear
Smoker's number 9 jersey and wait hours after games for his
In many ways Smoker is a child again, playing in the yard back in
Manheim. Yet his innocence is long gone, replaced by a worldly
humility. Addiction is part of his life, forever. He visits a
counselor every week and regularly attends 12-step meetings. "You
wouldn't believe the people I see in meetings," he says. "People
who were way higher up in life than I was and lost everything."
On Saturday nights after games he eats a quiet dinner with his
parents, who drive up for the weekend. He is a year and a half
from graduating with a degree in psychology, and the future looks
bright. There will be a bowl game this season, and beyond that a
chance at playing in the NFL.
Yet for Smoker there is only the sweet taste of today. "The most
important day of my life," he says. "Then tomorrow. If I start
looking beyond that, I get into trouble." Today, then. Sunrises,
touchdowns and a fresh start.
More college football coverage, including Tim Layden's Insider
and a photo gallery from the week, at si.com/football/ncaa.
"I've played football since I was eight," says Smoker, "and I've
never had MORE FUN than I'm having right now."