AKRON, Ohio – Corey Smith came to Ohio State by way of his hometown of Akron, but not before making what became a brief stop in Grand Rapids, Mich., and spending a little over a year in a place called Scooba, Miss.
Smith got an associates degree from East Mississippi Community College, which is especially notable because, due to circumstances out of his control, he never finished a semester at Grand Rapids Community College and never really finished high school in Ohio despite attending two, instead getting his GED so that he could make it to Grand Rapids in hopes of keeping his dream of eventually playing major-college football alive.
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On Saturday, that comes true. Smith will be in uniform when No. 2 Ohio State opens the season against Buffalo.
“It could be a movie,” Smith’s high school coach, former Michigan star Ricky Powers said of Smith’s journey.
That movie would be wild.
One of Ohio’s top high school prospects just three years ago, Smith hopes his journey ends with a happy and productive homecoming. He was listed third at the “Z” wide receiver spot on Ohio State’s first depth chart of the year, which was released Tuesday.
Just about everything about Ohio State’s receiver situation remains unsettled, though, and that’s something Smith is used to. He never saw himself here, as in Columbus — he’s Ohio State’s first junior-college transfer since 2006 — but he’s always seen himself here, playing against the best and proving he belongs.
The first major plot twist came two summers ago, months after Smith had led Akron Buchtel to the state championship game and subsequently committed to play college football at Tennessee. Powers got a call from an administrator at nearby Barberton High School, who had discovered a transcript with a familiar name and encouraged Powers to take a closer look.
What Powers and Buchtel administrators discovered was essentially a lost year of high school, records that indicate Smith either didn’t care much for school, didn’t go to school much or didn’t have anyone keeping a close eye on how he was doing when he did go — or, probably, some combination of the three. He transferred to Buchtel and proceeded like that lost year was, well, lost.
“We don’t get the whole story all the time,” Powers said. “I’m thankful for that phone call from (Barberton). And though it was tough on Corey at the time, he handled it at the time and realized he had some decisions to make, quickly.”
What further digging uncovered was that even if Smith would have been eligible to play another year at Buchtel, he wasn’t going to meet the NCAA’s initial eligibility requirements. Smith started working on his GED — “Coach Powers wanted me to get somewhere I could start making a bad situation good,” he said — and Powers started working his contacts in the football world to find Smith a landing spot at either prep school or a junior college.
Smith said he “made a couple bad decisions early in high school, never really took things seriously.” Powers said it was a combination of immaturity and family instability that had led to Smith “getting lost, like too many kids do.
“In this neighborhood, too many kids are just survivors. A lot of kids wake up wondering where they’ll get their next meal, where they’ll sleep that night. Unfortunately, there was a time when Corey was just trying to be one of those survivors.”
To Grand Rapids Smith went, and he immediately found a football home. But by the time Grand Rapids CC had qualified for the national junior college football playoffs in 2011, there was signs that something was wrong. There were no playoffs because there were no funds to get the team there.
By December, Smith was calling home to Akron saying he and his teammates had been evicted from their apartment. There were so many questions about where money had gone in various situations that the program was shut down. The players had nowhere go to and were sent home before final semester exams.
Powers said it was the Tennessee staff that had tried to steer Smith to East Mississippi in 2011, and many of the same staff members that helped him land on his feet there atfer the bizarre situation at Grand Rapids. But that staff was fired after last season, and once Smith had his degree he had colleges all over the South recruiting him — and one connection at Ohio State, wide receivers coach Zach Smith.
Zach Smith had recruited Corey Smith during his previous stop at Marshall. Smith the coach remembered Smith the player’s Ohio roots and set up further discussions with Corey Smith and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. Besides talking about life as much as they talked about football, Meyer told Corey Smith he’d have to add muscle and strength if he wanted to play at Ohio State.
Then Meyer asked Corey Smith everything he’d already asked him again.
“He just wanted me to be honest about everything,” Corey Smith said. “He trusted me. I trusted him. Coming from where I come from, seeing the things I’ve seen, it’s much easier to do the wrong thing. I want to do the right things and see where all of this takes me.”
Corey Smith said Meyer was the only coach during the recruitment process who asked him any questions about anything besides football, the only one to mention or ask about what Smith thought he’d do with his life when he was done playing the game. Smith said he’d done “nothing” in Mississippi besides work on his grades and his game, and that he was “more than happy” to be totally honest with Meyer and Powers about both his experiences and his priorities.
“Corey loves football and he’s so talented that there’s not one coach that looks at his film and says, ‘maybe,'” Powers said. “It was a matter of him finding the right situation. He’s a smart kid. Some of this stuff wasn’t his fault, but most importantly he’s owned everything and had the understanding that it’s his future, one shot at it, that’s on the line. Corey’s biggest fear is getting lost.
“He made it home in a situation where 99 out of 100 kids never make it anywhere but back into a bad situation. A junior-college kid at Ohio State? That never happens. Ohio State and Michigan don’t recruit juco kids, period. It doesn’t happen. Especially with receivers, you can find receivers anywhere.
“This kid is special, I know that.”
The screenplay remains incomplete. Smith said he believes he can help Ohio State win this year, that he’s trying to soak everything in, learn and continue to grow. He has an Ohio State jersey, and starting this Saturday he’ll be waiting for his name to be called.
“It seems a little unreal right now,” Smith said a week or so into Ohio State’s training camp. “I don’t feel lucky, but I do feel blessed.”