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 right now."
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.")
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 mat 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.