Donnie Corley gets second chance at football, far from Michigan State
Houston — Texas Southern University doesn't have its own football stadium and barely has its own fans.
A November home game at BBVA Compass Stadium, decorated to the gills in the orange and black of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo and not a stitch of Texas Southern's maroon and gray, drew an announced crowd of 2,422.
An early box score posted to the school's website listed the attendance at zero.
The early box score was much closer to reality.
"The stands, we don't usually have a lot of people. Even at other (away) games we play, we don't have like 50,000, 60,000 people," said Donnie Corley, the Detroit native who recently finished his first season at Texas Southern. "It's a lot different.
"You're still playing for each other, the players on your team.
"That's who you're playing for."
Corley also is playing for redemption — at least, on the football field.
Four years after he arrived on Michigan State's campus as a prized recruit who chose the Spartans over 54 other offers — Alabama included — Corley now plays 1,300 miles from his home, at a Football Championship Subdivision school with an enrollment of around 10,000. On that November game day, it was much louder at a nearby pub — Lucky's, which was showing the state of Texas' biggest game, Baylor vs. TCU — than at the stadium. About the only thing big-time at the stadium was the price of soda: nine bucks.
That's the new reality for Corley, whose Michigan State career was cut short after just 12 games because of his participation in an alleged sexual assault at a campus party in January 2017. Corley and fellow freshmen Josh King and Demetric Vance were accused of forcing a woman to perform a sex act on them. They eventually plead down, were given three years' probation and were kicked off the team.
Vance now plays at Jackson State in Mississippi; King is in school in the Chicago area but is not playing football.
"I miss it," Corley, now 21 and with a year left of eligibility at Texas Southern, said of his time at Michigan State, speaking to The Detroit News during a lengthy interview.
But he certainly doesn't miss how it all ended.
"I've definitely changed a lot, just my priorities, putting myself in order, what I need to get done and staying focused on my vision and my goals," Corley said.
"I've kind of grown a lot, just seeing stuff different."
'I didn't want to go to jail'
Corley arrived at Michigan State in 2016 with big hype — he was a local headliner for the best recruiting class in the Mark Dantonio era — and big dreams.
He left Michigan State not concerned about football.
"At the end, I didn't really care about football, because I just didn't want to go to jail," Corley said. "Football is really just something that I do, but it's not the main part of life."
He didn't realize that at first.
Corley was a decorated high school star, fresh off a state championship with Detroit King, when he enrolled early at Michigan State. The 6-foot-2, 186-pound wide receiver proved to be an impact player as a freshman, with 33 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. Only one player, R.J. Shelton, had more receiving yards.
Corley was a shining star, albeit for a bad team that finished 3-9. Still, he already was a big man on campus, if you will.
And you better believe, he felt it.
"Everything was kind of moving fast," he said. "It was just a lot happening. I'm starting, I'm making plays, it's just a lot going on. A lot of people calling me, 'Can you get me tickets?' It was kind of moving fast."
On and off the field.
Corley, King and Vance, along with more than 100 others, attended a Jan. 15, 2017 party at the on-campus apartment of star running back LJ Scott.
There, King allegedly took a woman into a bathroom and sexually assaulted her, according to police reports. Corley and Vance allegedly then entered the bathroom separately and forced the woman to perform oral sex on them, reports say. The allegations were reported to MSU Police within the week, leading to a months-long investigation that included dorm searches, DNA swabs and their arrests. The three originally were suspended; when charges came, they were kicked off the team.
Corley denies any sexual assault.
"I know actually what happened because I was there," Corley said, declining to elaborate on the party or the victim. "I know what went down and everything."
"Also, things could go different, you feel me?" Corley said. "Of course I was still worried a little bit. ... I really just had to have my faith, and that's all I had, for real."
The charges of criminal-sexual conduct came in June 2017, and with those came the end of their Michigan State careers.
Corley said he never got a final face-to-face meeting with Dantonio, which he considered "disrespectful." But he added, "I'm not really tripping on that."
Corley, King and Vance eventually pleaded guilty to "seduction," which kept them out of jail and on probation.
The victim didn't want a trial — nor did the victim want such a light sentence.
"It's awful what they did to her," said Karen Truszkowski, the Lansing lawyer for the victim. "I can't imagine going through what she went through.
"She thought she was going to die."
For Corley, the plea came with good and bad. He didn't have to go to jail, but he says he also didn't get an opportunity to clear his name.
Corley says now: "Just putting yourself in that position was bad, you should never try to put yourself in that position anyway. I see that now."
"I think of that almost every day," he said of how things ended at MSU. "I don't just dwell on it and things like that, but it still crosses my mind.
"I'm really just glad I'm here and able to be free."
Corley wanted to transfer to another Division I school after his dismissal from Michigan State, but Title IX restrictions wouldn't allow that. So he had few choices. One of them was Coahoma Community College in Mississippi. Corley, Vance and King went there together for the 2018 season.
"I felt like it was good for us to go to the school together," said Corley, "and take care of each other."
They had each other, but they didn't have what they once had.
This was a mighty steep fall from Big Ten country, playing in front of 60,000-plus on fall Saturdays. At JUCO, they had to wash their own jerseys. There were no hotels on game days; you bus there, and you bus back.
"It humbled all of us," Corley said.
"I can't get back there," Corley said of MSU, "but I can get to another level."
And Texas Southern is key in getting to that next level.
Corley's commitment to Texas Southern was a pretty big get for a first-year head coach Clarence McKinney. There was a staff connection with Corley's father, Donnie Sr. Donnie Jr. took the visit and was sold.
Corley, according to his coach, came to the school as a quiet type, a wallflower of sorts, before eventually opening up. That was by design, Corley said.
"I kind of had something to prove. I just didn't want people to come down here and just think, 'Oh, he's this five-star, blah, blah, blah,'" said Corley, who has one season of eligibility remaining at Texas Southern.
"I was just trying to prove myself."
He made an immediate impact for Texas Southern, averaging 103.9 receiving yards a game. He finished with 1,039 yards and three touchdowns. He was named Southwestern Athletic Conference newcomer of the year.
"Donnie is a special player," McKinney said. "We had no real expectations of what he could do, but he showed through work ethic that he was gonna be a special player.
"I think he's a Sunday guy."
That's code, of course, for the NFL.
Not long ago, particularly shortly after his dismissal from Michigan State, he thought that dream was dead.
That's when Corley and his parents sat down with some outside advisers, who told him the NFL still was possible with the right path. That path led Corley first to Coahoma (0-9 last season), then to Texas Southern (0-11 this season).
Corley hasn't won a college football game in his last 22 tries. His last win came Nov. 12, 2016, when Michigan State beat Rutgers.
He's not counting his wins now, though. He's counting his blessings — and focusing on the big things, like school (general-studies major), but not parties ("Nothing's really good going to a party," he said).
"I'm getting another opportunity, so I've definitely gotta be humble and just know it's rare for you to even make it," said Corley, who said he gets a text or a call from his parents, Donnie and Tanica, every single day, making sure "my head's on straight."
"Having that behind me, I've gotta go way harder and do way more than the next person, because that's always gonna be there. It's not gonna disappear.
"I gotta make sure everything's right."