Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer 385d

Michigan State cornerback makes storybook return, and takes it the distance

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The headaches were the worst part for Tyson Smith. That's what he thought about Friday night at Michigan State's team hotel: the headaches, all he'd been through in the past nine months and maybe making a tackle the next afternoon against Bowling Green. If he were really lucky, maybe he could make an interception.

He didn't let his imagination run free enough to see himself sprinting 38 yards to the end zone at Spartan Stadium less than 24 hours later, celebrating his first college touchdown and turning into one of a handful of semi-viral moments of inspiration from college football's opening weekend.

"I didn't think I was ever even going to be back in the [team] hotel," he said. "So I just sat there and thought about everything and thought about the game. As a cornerback you picture yourself making plays all the time, so that's really all I did. I didn't see a pick-six."

The headaches were brutal, the worst pain the junior defensive back said he had ever felt. They were worse than the three invasive heart procedures -- one through the mouth, one through the chest and one through an artery in his upper leg -- that he had to endure while remaining conscious. The headaches were even worse than the stroke that started the whole mess in the first place. Of course, he didn't realize it was a stroke at the time. Why would that thought occur to any healthy 19-year-old?

He knew something was wrong on the Monday after last Thanksgiving, but he didn't feel the need to see a doctor until nearly two weeks later, when his head was still pounding. The ear-splitting pain, Smith said, started Nov. 28 and faded away sometime in February. Doctors aren't sure exactly what caused it, but a blood clot temporarily blocked oxygen from a small section in the right, front section of his brain.

"I remember I was out recruiting when this happened," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "... We really didn't know what would happen. I did not believe he would be able to come back."

Playing football again seemed unlikely even to Smith last winter. He was angry about it. He spent the next three months pushing people away from him and avoiding his teammates and the football facility on campus whenever he could.

"My attitude at first was terrible," he said. "I was against everybody, wondering, 'Why did this happen? How did this happen?'"

In April, Smith decided there was no sense in continuing to pout and he started seeking ways to make the most of his college experience without football. He thought about working in the football team's recruiting office and wished he could go back and study neurology. What was nagging at him, though, was that none of the doctors had given him a definite "no" when he asked about returning to the field. They had never seen anyone in his situation suffer a stroke before.

Smith flew to Boston to see an expert and had a few tests done. He got a call two days later saying, "You're cleared to play." The stroke, as far as anyone has told him, won't have any lasting effects on his health.

"I think it blew everybody's mind," said captain and linebacker Chris Frey. "That's crazy. I think it threw everybody for a loop. We're just excited that he's back on the team and he's working with us."

Smith worked his way back into shape and rejoined his teammates in July. By the middle of training camp, Dantonio said no one thought of him any differently than anyone else on the field. There was still a little doubt about how exactly Smith would perform in a game.

He worked into the rotation at cornerback during the first half of the Spartans' home opener against Bowling Green. In the third quarter, he jumped a comeback route and saw nothing but daylight, putting the final touches on a 35-10 victory.

"He plays fearless," Dantonio said. "I think [the interception] just quantifies a little bit of his abilities for him and helps his confidence. He played throughout the game. It was great to have him."

Smith said he has received a steady flow of congratulations since Saturday afternoon. His teammates have reminded him a few times that they've seen enough of him on their phones and laptops. Some messages have come from parents of kids who have had strokes, or from folks who have had similar medical issues. He said he's doing his best to return all of the messages and talk for a few minutes.

"Just to see how much people care and how many people are interested is really exciting," he said.

Smith is happy to play an inspirational role if he can help others. He's happy to be playing football again. Most of all, he's happy to report he has been headache-free for months.

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