Michigan State's Tyson Smith talks about the stroke he suffered last year. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
East Lansing — Tyson Smith was practicing on Monday, fully intent on being on the field Sept. 2 when Michigan State opens the season against Bowling Green.
That was the furthest thing from Smith’s mind last winter when he knew something wasn’t right. He’d just come out from an MRI at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing when it hit him.
Actually, he knew before that. It was Nov. 28 and the Michigan State defensive back was helping a friend pack their apartment when he felt a sudden pain in his head. He sat down and when his friend asked him if he was OK, his response was simple, “Something’s not right.”
But Smith has played football his whole life, so what’s a little headache, right? He went home and tried to sleep. A week later, the pain was still there, so he went and saw the medical staff with the MSU football team. He was given medicine for his headache.
Still, he was having trouble remembering names or where he put his phone and his wallet while spending large parts of each day sleeping.
‘We were all shocked’
Fast forward a week or two — the details are a little fuzzy to Smith these days — and knowing something still wasn’t right, Smith was at Sparrow Hospital for tests, including the MRI. It was when he came out of that MRI that the looks on the faces of those in the room confirmed not all was well.
“Everybody in the radiology building was standing there looking at me,” Smith said after practice on Monday. “I’m like, ‘What’s up?’ Three doctors surrounded me and say, ‘Let’s go upstairs and talk.’ So we go upstairs and he starts to explain things and then he said, ‘The next word I’m gonna say might scare you a little.’ I’m sitting there wondering and my father, who was in Florida at the time, was on phone.
“So, we’re both sitting there and he says, ‘You had a stroke.’ I kind of just paused and looked at Sally (Nagle) our trainer, looked at the doctor and we were all shocked.”
At 19 years old, Smith’s path in life had dramatically careened off course. His entire focus had been on football, on being at Michigan State and helping the Spartans win championships. In an instant, it all changed.
For someone who played as a true freshman in Michigan State’s run to the College Football Playoff in 2015 and started four of the first eight games in 2016 before a knee injury knocked him out the final four games of the season, it was devastating.
He didn’t handle it well. He was angry — upset this was happening to him. And, he admitted, there was some fear. After all, a stroke is far from common for someone his age.
“I shied away from everybody,” Smith said. “I was mad at the world, scared at the same time and I didn’t want to come around people.”
During it all, his grandmother passed away. A person Smith said was one of the most important people in his life was gone before she even knew what was happening with her grandson.
“We never told her,” Smith said. “We didn’t want to scare her. When we finally got that news that morning that she had passed I didn’t tell anybody in the football building that it happened. I felt like everything just stopped.”
Finding strength in support
Smith wasn’t big on doing much at that time. He’d retreat to his room, not really talking to anyone. Any sort of rehab from the stroke wasn’t exactly high on his list of priorities.
Slowly, however, Smith started to work his way out of the fog. Texts of encouragement from his mom were on his phone every morning, talks with his dad about how proud he’d be no matter what happened strengthened Smith, as well.
As he started to tell teammates about what he’d been going through he was showered with support.
By May 18, Smith’s 20th birthday, he felt relief. That’s when he took to Twitter, more to find a release for the way he was feeling as much as it was an announcement about what had happened to him.
“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!,” Smith posted that day.
“Some people don’t necessarily walk out of a hospital or are able to walk or are alive,” Smith said Monday. “It was a relief to make it to my birthday.”
By then, the work to get back on the field had begun in earnest. Smith said a trip to see doctors at Harvard University led to him being cleared to play football again.
Ready to help
Now, less than three weeks before the start of his junior season, Smith is drawing rave reviews from the coaching staff and says he feels better than he did before everything happened. Whether he’ll be back in the starting lineup remains to be seen, but he’ll be contributing again, and he says that’s all he ever wanted.
“Even if I couldn’t play football again I would still want to be out there coaching and still want be in strength room or the recruiting room,” Smith said, “doing anything I possibly could to help the team.”
His teammates were unsure at first. Should they hit him or play it safe? Smith said that’s all out the window now. He’s getting hit and he loves it. Every practice now is like the first time he got back on the field.
“I was so excited, just to run around,” Smith said. “I know there were a lot of questions in the air, ‘Can he still do this? Would he be able to still do that?’ Running around it felt like beyond relief, to run for myself, to show them how I was working off the field, to show my team I still can contribute.”
Where it all ends for Smith in terms of football remains to be seen, but he feels he’s a far better person for what he’s been through. It’s forced him to start thinking about life without football, something he’d never really done.
“One thing I thought about in the hospital is that time really waits for no one,” Smith said. “There is a lot to live for. … After it happened I started stepping away from football, started meeting new people, moving my boundaries, participating in new things on campus and meeting new people. That’s all I really could do.”
Some have questioned whether he should keep playing. Smith dismissed it all.
“I personally don’t ever want to believe something is over,” Smith said. “I didn’t think it was over even when I had a billion people telling me I might want to start looking at different things. Once I started feeling better I was like, ‘No way is it over.’ ”
Now, with a chance to play again, Smith is focusing on being more than just a feel-good story. He wants to be part of bringing winning football back to Michigan State.
The stroke? He hopes, someday, that it’s just a footnote
“When I work out now I think about working just a little bit harder,” Smith said. “Even though you may be fatigued after a practice, you think to yourself, ‘I can go do it again.’ If I don’t I feel like the blame will be the stroke, and I want to erase that from everybody’s mind.”