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's partying.
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 situation. Completely."
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.