EAST LANSING, Mich. — While Michigan State cornerback Tyson Smith ran with his man, all he really saw was the quarterback.
Bowling Green had a second-and-10 late in the third quarter Saturday at Spartan Stadium, and QB James Morgan dropped back to pass. Once Morgan lifted his elbow toward Smith, the junior knew the throw would be headed his way.
Smith jumped in front of Bowling Green wide receiver Teo Redding just in time for the ball to smack into his face. At first, he didn’t realize he caught it. But once he saw the ball in his grasp, he looked for a block from David Dowell, coasted 38 yards to the end zone and peered back to see no flags.
“I blink,” Smith said. “The ball’s in my hands. I’m running.”
Every single Michigan State player seemed to lose his mind — except Smith. He couldn’t get past the sense of shock. Nine months ago, he had suffered a stroke. Up until six months ago, he was certain he wouldn’t play football again. Even after he had convinced himself he would, his coaches harbored doubts.
When he stepped onto the field Saturday morning, Smith thought it couldn’t get any better. He had thought about this moment for months. You’re here for a reason, he told himself. You got cleared for a reason. Let’s show everybody else why you’ve been cleared. And when his eyes closed, he dreamed about it.
“The feeling when I just stepped on the field was more than football,” Smith said. “It was a blessing to see that I’m still me. I felt normal. I didn’t know for sure if I was normal.”
Smith may be normal, but his experiences were anything but. Back on Nov. 28, a piercing headache briefly immobilized him as he helped a friend pack. A few weeks of sleepless nights led to an MRI and the shocking news that he had experienced a stroke. He was 19 years old.
I'm "supposed "to be in a wheelchair after that stroke last year doctors say I'm blessed to still be able to walk ,talk , and run! Fast fed pic.twitter.com/esjfYSdkfk
— Tyson Smith (@_Giovanni15) May 18, 2017
The headaches still ailed him “24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Aspirin and Tylenol didn’t offer much relief. He underwent a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE), a procedure in which a probe with an ultrasound enters through the throat to take pictures of the heart. He had an angiogram done to look for blockages in his blood flow.
Finally in March, the pain subsided. Smith’s mind shifted to football. The prognosis, in his mind, remained bleak.
“I thought it was a low chance of me coming back,” he said.
Physically, Smith felt fine. Right after the stroke, he could run and jump just like he always had. But mentally, he had miles to go. Both long- and short-term memory had taken a severe hit. When he stepped into the football room in the spring, the playbook looked like a foreign language.
He began to test himself. He would hide his wallet and try to remember later where he had put it. He would write down the name of a color in his phone and attempt to recall what he had chosen without looking.
In late April, it all came rushing back. He could handle class loads, remember the playbook and suddenly found the confidence that he could return. He took to Twitter in early June to say he had been cleared. Only he hadn’t.
“I tweeted at the beginning of the month hoping I would get cleared in June just to speak it into existence,” Smith said. “I didn’t go see the doctor until like that last week in June. And after that I got the call a few days later.”
Coach Mark Dantonio announced on June 24 that Smith had been cleared to return. To that point, Dantonio had expressed serious reservations about whether his cornerback would play for Michigan State again. Once he gave the thumbs up, Smith got down to business.
“I’ve never worked out so hard in my life,” Smith said, “just to see. I was testing myself to see if I was still as good as I was.”
Saturday proved that he might be better. He had never intercepted a pass at Michigan State, let alone score a touchdown. His teammates’ reaction to the play validated his journey.
Two weeks ago, the defense decided that it would immediately slap a helmet sticker on whoever makes a game-changing play. Senior linebacker and captain Chris Frey did that when Smith reached the sideline.
Captain Chris Frey giving Tyson Smith his first helmet sticker following his pick-6 pic.twitter.com/oecWqZjmjt
— Zach Berridge (@ZachBerridge) September 2, 2017
“Tyson plays a huge role in our defense and he has in the past,” Frey said. “We’re really excited to have him back on the field with us. He went through a really tough time, and he stuck with it. He could’ve very easily taken that injury and said, ‘You know what? I want to focus on school and getting my degree.’ He loves this game just like every one of us does, and he did his best to get back out there on the field with us today, and he made a huge play.”
Added Dantonio, “It’s so good to see. Here’s a guy who was basically ruled out and then sort of just kept getting a little better and finally found people that said, ‘OK, you can play.’ So he really never got back with us until August, so he’s really just starting to get back into rhythm, but he’s a good football player. I thought he played well not just on that play, but in others.”
Smith was overwhelmed by love from his teammates and coaches, then love from family and friends in the form of around 100 text messages when he saw his phone after the game. He texted his parents and then made his way to the podium, where he beamed while recounting the play of the day.
Where did this rank among the best football moments of his career? He’d had some great ones, from a high school state championship to 8 interceptions as a senior to a pair of tackles in the College Football Playoff. But there’s really not competition.
“It’s at No. 1 for sure,” Smith proclaimed.
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