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Troy Smith
August 21, 2006
What a difference a year makes. The Buckeyes' signal-caller has gone from suspended and shamed platoon player to the toast of Columbus
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August 21, 2006

Troy Smith

What a difference a year makes. The Buckeyes' signal-caller has gone from suspended and shamed platoon player to the toast of Columbus

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OHIO STATE'S Big Man on Campus avoids campus whenever possible. He has no choice. "I can't go one place without someone noticing me," says Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith. "Things get out of hand." When he has errands to run on a weekday afternoon in July, Smith ventures to the outskirts of Columbus, but even there he can't remain anonymous. At Incredible Nutrition, a strip-mall outpost where Smith buys two cases of protein-drink mix, the only employee in the store shakes his head as he rings up Smith's order. "My son's going to be kicking himself that he didn't come in to work with me today," the cashier says. "He's your biggest fan." At a cellular-phone store, a female salesperson hands Smith a hastily scrawled note that reads in part, YOU ARE A GREAT ROLE MODEL FOR OUR BLACK BROTHERS. � It's hard for any Buckeye to go unrecognized in football-crazed Columbus, but it's especially difficult for a Heisman candidate who in his last two games of the 2005 season led a last-minute touchdown drive to beat archrival Michigan in Ann Arbor and produced 408 yards of offense in a Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Once known primarily for his running ability, Smith developed into one of the nation's top passers over the second half of last season, completing 67% of his throws for 1,725 yards, with 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions in seven games. He finished the year as the nation's fourth-rated passer. "You have to cover so many areas of the field when you're playing him," says Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny.

With the departure of Texas star Vince Young to the NFL, Smith, a senior, enters 2006 as the nation's preeminent dual-threat quarterback-not to mention Ohio's most popular athlete not named LeBron. "Don't get me wrong, it's by the grace of God that all this is happening," says Smith. "But it's overwhelming that people think so highly of you." Especially considering that at this time a year ago, many of those same admirers had a not-so-flattering opinion of him.

WHEN THE Buckeyes kicked off their 2005 season at the Horseshoe against Miami ( Ohio), Smith was standing on a sideline 140 miles away. He listened to his teammates' 34-14 victory on the radio while attending a game in Cleveland involving his alma mater, Glenville High. "That was probably the worst feeling I could ever have," says Smith. "Everyone in the stadium knew why I was standing on that sideline." In December 2004 an attorney for a Columbus-area health-care company had notified Ohio State that a Buckeyes football player had visited its offices the previous spring and walked out with an envelope from owner Robert Q. Baker, an Ohio State booster. According to a subsequent NCAA report, the player, identified in media accounts as Smith, came to the company seeking part-time employment. Baker allegedly advanced him $500 but never required him to work, a violation of the NCAA's extra benefits rule. Smith was suspended for two games-the 2004 Alamo Bowl and the Miami game. ( Ohio State indefinitely banned Baker from having any association with the athletic department.)

The suspension could not have come at a worse time for Smith, who had just worked his way into the quarterback mix in Columbus. Though he was ranked as one of the nation's top 15 quarterback prospects during his senior year of high school, the Buckeyes had signed him with other plans in mind. While being redshirted in 2002, he practiced at tailback, wideout and kick returner, and he simulated star Miami running back Willis McGahee on the scout team leading up to Ohio State's title-game win over the Hurricanes. In '03 Smith was a kick returner and backup running back, but halfway through his sophomore year, in '04, he got his chance to play quarterback, stepping in for an injured Justin Zwick, Smith's more celebrated classmate and a traditional drop-back passer. Though still raw, Smith excited Buckeyes fans with his playmaking abilities, leading Ohio State, 3-3 at the time, to four wins in its next five games, capped by a 37-21 upset of Big Ten champion Michigan in which he piled up 386 total yards. But less than a month after that triumph, Smith was in exile. "It was a nightmare," says quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels. "Troy felt like he let everyone down."

For Smith, it was the latest in a lifelong string of setbacks. Smith's mother, Tracy, raised him and his older sister, Brittany (Smith's mother and father separated when he was a toddler), in Cleveland's drug-infested East Side. When he was nine, Troy began playing football, joining the Glenville A's in Cleveland's municipal peewee league. About the same time, as Tracy was going through a series of personal problems, A's coach Irvin White and his wife, Diane, volunteered to take in Troy. Troy lived with the Whites for nearly four years, returning home after Tracy got her life in order. "Troy was a playful, fun-loving kid," says Irvin. "With his personality, you couldn't help but fall in love with him."

When he was in the athletic arena, however, Smith was plagued by a short fuse. At Lakewood St. Edward, a parochial school where he played as a sophomore and junior, Smith frequently clashed with the coaches when they lined him up at receiver instead of under center. (Shaun Carney, now the quarterback at Air Force, was a year behind Smith and often played ahead of him.) Then, during his junior year, Smith was dismissed from the basketball team for elbowing an opponent in the head. Smith says that the player, who was white, had been taunting him with a racial slur. "It was a mental breakdown," Smith says. "I snapped."

Shortly thereafter he left St. Edward for Glenville High, whose rising football program was coached by Ted Ginn, father of Smith's best buddy and fellow Buckeyes star, Ted Jr., whom Smith had known since he was seven. Even before he enrolled at Glenville, Smith was spending nearly as much time at the Ginns' house as his own, and the elder Ginn, renowned in Cleveland for his work with troubled youth, was quickly becoming Smith's father figure. "I was one of those knucklehead kids who didn't want to listen to anyone until something drastic happened," says Smith. Early in the season, Ginn sat him down and told him he was "poisoning the program" with his attitude. Smith was taken aback. "Since that day I haven't been the type of kid who doesn't want to get instruction," he says. "You can tell me once, and I'll try to change things. [Ginn] is one of the angels in my life. Without him I wouldn't be here."

When the booster incident came to light, the elder Ginn, concerned that Smith might be reverting to his old ways, urged him to put his trust in OSU coach Jim Tressel and his staff. "Troy is a great, heart-warming kid, but it hurts him when he doesn't [think his coaches] feel the same way back," says Ginn. "He likes to be stroked." Those nine months in limbo helped spawn, in Smith's words, "the new Troy Smith," a more mature quarterback determined to make up for lost time. "It was like night and day," says Smith. "I totally understand the importance of every team member who puts on the scarlet and gray. I understand and value every meeting. I didn't think like that before."

HIS RETURN from suspension coincided with the Buckeyes' much-anticipated game against Texas in the second week of the season. Because Smith had taken limited practice reps during fall camp, however, Zwick got the start. Smith entered late in the first quarter and rallied the Buckeyes from a 10-0 deficit to a 19-16 lead, but when Texas reclaimed the lead with 2:37 remaining, it was Zwick, not Smith, who came out for the potential game-winning drive. He fumbled on the first play. Tressel and his staff decided in the days after the game to stick with one guy: Smith. "Probably the deciding factor as much as anything was Troy's ability to make something happen with his legs," says Daniels. "We did it knowing that he still needed to get the throwing part down."

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