EAST LANSING, Mich. – Tyson Smith was helping a friend pack, days after Michigan State's 2016 season ended. A searing headache stopped him almost immediately, so painful he had to sit down.
"I was like, 'Something's not right,'" Smith said of what he felt Nov. 28. "I just thought it was a bad headache, so I went home and tried to go to sleep. I couldn't go to sleep."It got worse. A week went by, he said, before he told the team training staff. Another week passed, and Smith continued to ache. He underwent an MRI. Doctors summoned him into a closed room.
His father, Shawn, joined Smith and others via phone to hear the diagnosis. A doctor said they might be scared about the news he was about to tell them.
"He said, 'You had a stroke,'" Smith recalled Monday. "And we both kind of just paused. I just looked at Sally (Nogle), our trainer, and looked at our doctor. We were all shocked. Like, 'What?'"
Nine months later, after retreating from his teammates and losing his grandmother in the process, the third-year junior is back on the field for the Spartans and competing for playing time at cornerback. Chasing a football future that, at times, seemed like it was over.
"I just try to remember, I'm not supposed to be able to run still. I'm not supposed to be able to still play football or catch or talk," he said. "I try to remind myself when I get tired, 'You can't be tired, you're already not supposed to be able to do anything.'"
Scared and angry
Smith took to Twitter on his 20th birthday, on May 18, and revealed that he had suffered a stroke. He said he spent about a week in the hospital before Christmas, saw a psychologist and went through mental rehabilitation before being cleared in early July to resume playing football. Doctors, Smith said, have not determined what caused it.
"We'll work him into things gradually, but he's been cleared to play," Dantonio said at Big Ten media days in Chicago last month. "Obviously, he's started for us before, he's an experienced corner and has a good skill-set ... but we'll take it slow."
The Orchard Lake St. Mary's product made 13 tackles and had four pass breakups in eight games, including four starts, for the Spartans last fall before he said a knee injury kept him out of MSU's final three games. Smith also sat out the Spartans' spring scrimmage on April 1.
But throughout the offseason, football meant little to Smith. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Southfield native, the nephew of former MSU coach and current Alabama assistant Bobby Williams, struggled to process what had happened.
Basic tasks, like remembering where he put his wallet or phone, became challenges. Lessons he learned in class disappeared almost immediately. Smith went through a number of tests for people who have experienced strokes, and he said doctors were amazed that he was still walking and talking normally. Playing football again remained an uncertainty and far from his primary focus.
Smith said he retreated from his teammates, taking comfort in his family. He said his mother, Kim, had an aneurysm "a few years back." She helped keep her son moving forward and motivated in the healing process.
Then, during his recovery, Smith's grandmother died, and "I just felt like everything stopped for a moment. ... Everything was all out the window, and I kind of went into a shell and went in my room." They never told his grandmother about his stroke, either.
"I kind of shied away from everybody. I was mad at the world. Scared at the same time. I didn't really want to come around people," Smith said. "But my mom was really the main one who kept me uplifted. She would text me every morning saying, 'God's got a plan for you. You'll be fine, whether you're not playing football or playing football.'"
Smith spent his time away from football doing anything he could on campus away from the game, whether it was a campus organization brunch meetup or a book club or a movie. Life away from football became a distinct possibility.
"The major (lesson) that I really thought about in the hospital, is that time waits for nobody," he said. "Just sitting there, seeing who all comes around, seeing who all doesn't come around, time really doesn't wait for (anybody). There's a lot to live for, anything that you think there is. I was focused on strictly football, so when this happened, I stepped away from football to see what else I could do in life, what else of interest. Just a lot to live for.
"More so, I was focused on college football. After it happened, I started stepping away from it, started stepping to go meet new people, started stepping out of my boundaries. I started participating in things on campus, started meeting new people, really. That's all I could do."
Then Smith said that after getting a second opinion at Harvard, he was finally cleared to return to the field this summer.
MSU's first practice of preseason camp, on July 31, proved to be a pivotal moment in Smith's mental recovery. As well as a chance to show he physically remains capable of contributing this season.
"Man, I was so excited. Just to run around. I know there was a lot of questions in the air -- can he still do this, will he still be able to do this? So running around, it felt beyond relief," he said. "To be able to run for myself, to show them how I was working off the field, to show my team that I still can contribute. And that's all I wanted to do anyway, just contribute. It was a relief."
He sensed his teammates were tentative at first, not knowing whether or not they should hit him. That hasn't been a problem, he said. Smith believes he is back to full strength and hopes to regain the form he showed while playing for the Spartans as a true freshman in 2015, when he played in seven games and started one.
"I was a part of that team and played that year, so I know what it's like to get there, how to get there. So that's what I want to get back to, see if I can help everybody around me," Smith said. "Even if I couldn't play football again, I would still want to be out there coaching or I would still want to be in the strength room or recruiting room or doing anything I possibly could to help the team."
This article is written by Chris Solari from and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.