COLUMBUS: Corey Smith’s life has been full of disappointing twists. But none more so than the day he pulled up to his apartment and found most of his belongings in the yard, including his now-broken 32-inch television.
Less than two years later, Buchtel High School’s Smith has landed at Ohio State. That was hard to imagine when he and his Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College teammates were embroiled in a scandal that likely helped end the school’s 80-year-old football program.
Players like Smith thought they were keeping up with their rent, but in September 2011, the landlord claimed they owed him tens of thousands of dollars, which school investigators suspected might have been intercepted by someone in the football office. Many players were evicted in December.
Suddenly homeless and teamless, Smith had no idea where to go.
“Oh, my God, it’s a book or a movie,” said Ricky Powers, Smith’s football coach at Buchtel.
“I couldn’t believe it when he called, I was so distraught,” said his mother, Ericka Smith.
Smith picked up the pieces of his television and his football future. The first junior college transfer at Ohio State since Larry Grant in 2006, Smith persuaded coach Urban Meyer to take him with an honest recounting of his story. He has three seasons in Columbus to complete two years of athletic eligibility.
Smith, a wide receiver, just finished the biggest week of his career as the Buckeyes went through nine practices in six days.
“However far down on the [depth] chart he is right now, it’s more because of the transition to this level, this program and this offense,” Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith said a week ago at media day. “How high up on the chart he gets will be determined in the next week. We’ll see how high he reaches.”
Powers expects Smith to reach high.
“One thing about Corey, he is special and he wants to be great,” Powers said. “That’s what he’s going after and he’s doing a great job doing it.”
Smith attended Buchtel starting as a sophomore after what he admitted was a very poor academic year at Barberton High School. At Buchtel, Smith was recruited by Alabama, LSU and Tennessee, said Powers. Smith committed to the Volunteers and UT arranged for him to attend East Mississippi Community College after graduation.
Then, before what Powers thought was Smith’s junior year, Powers received a call from a principal at Barberton.
“He said, ‘You might want to check his eligibility. I’m looking at it here, it looks like he should be a senior now,’ ” Powers said in a phone interview last week.
Powers said when Buchtel’s academic coach starting checking, “it didn’t seem like he existed at Barberton.” Powers learned that Smith was ineligible to play football that season. Smith said he dropped out, but eventually finished his GED.
Instead of heading to East Mississippi, Smith decided to attend Grand Rapids with several Buchtel teammates. Powers wasn’t happy because he wanted Smith to make a break from his friends.
“Not saying the guys he went with were bad, Steve Parker is a great athlete, all those guys went to the state championship,” Powers said. “Sometimes to grow you have to get away from the people you’re used to and grow from another place.
“You had him getting hand-picked by Tennessee to go to this school and the other guys, we were just getting them in junior college so they could get another look.”
At Grand Rapids, the team went 10-0 and thought it was headed for a postseason game.
Then, according to a report by WOOD (Channel 8) in Grand Rapids, the football coaching staff allegedly approached Beckett Property Management with an agreement to house about 70 members of the program, a violation of National Junior College Athletic Association rules.
“It was like a big setup,” Ericka Smith said in a telephone interview. “A lot of the houses weren’t supposed to be rented out, they were in such bad shape. Corey thought [the landlord was] going to get [his] money and they signed their check over, they never got anything.”
Back to square one
The program was shut down. What to do next was the toughest part of Smith’s journey, his mother said.
After he was evicted, Smith left school without taking his finals, which ruined his grades. But he ended up where he was supposed to be months before. Even though Smith had spurned East Mississippi once, Ericka Smith said coach Buddy Stephens welcomed her son with open arms.
The isolation of Scooba, Miss., with a population of 730, seemed exactly what Smith needed.
“Grand Rapids was more fun, but Scooba helped me a lot because there was nothing there — just straight football and grades,” Smith said at OSU’s media day.
“He needed time for him,” Powers said. “Sometimes being in a rural area can get your mind together.”
He also needed to separate from his friends.
“I had to let them know that I’m trying to take a different path and I’m going to do things the right way. If you’re with me, stay positive and help me get through it. If you’re not, I can’t be around you,” Smith said. “It shows you who’s really in your corner and who’s not. I’m glad I did make that choice.”
Powers also believes playing in the South gave Smith a different perspective on football.
“Those guys are serious about it,” Powers said. “He’s one of the few guys from up North who could go down there and understand that’s their life and jump to another level.
“Not many people can do what he did. Matter of fact, I don’t know anybody who could have done what he did.”
After completing his associate degree at East Mississippi, Smith began looking for another school. He might not have realized Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith had been watching him all along.
Opening for receiver
Zach Smith was coaching at Marshall when he met Smith during his days at Buchtel and they kept in contact during his junior college stops. When Ohio State had an opening for a receiver, Zach Smith targeted Smith.
“That’s not something we do really, recruit junior colleges,” Zach Smith said. “He’s a kid we never would’ve taken had he not been from Akron and had I not known him when he was coming out.”
Smith said ex-coach Jim Tressel would not have been interested in him. Zach Smith admitted the Buckeyes want a player who is going to be in the program for four or five years so the staff can “develop him from the bottom up.” While they are scared away mainly by the “smaller window,” he said the fact that most go to junior colleges because of academic problems is also an issue.
But Meyer was willing to make Smith the exception.
“Coach Meyer had a bad perception of me at first, but after I sat down and got a chance to talk with him, he found out how much of a good person I am,” Smith said.
Smith said Meyer was the only coach who tried to get to know him outside of football.
“He wanted to know why certain things happened, what did I want to do after college, was I ready for this opportunity. He hit me with everything. I answered every question honestly,” Smith said.
Smith, 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, said he also had to convince Meyer physically.
“I was 170 pounds, couldn’t [lift] 225 two times. He asked me to get up to 185, do 225 at least 10 times,” said Smith, who said he can now bench the weight 14 times. “Make right choices. I feel like I did that for him. He trusted me and I trusted him and I did it the right way.”
Smith’s family in Barberton loves to boast of the achievements of the young man they call “C.J.,” both academically and athletically.
“To see him now as an adult, he’s very humble and hard-working,” his uncle, Dameion Smith, said in a phone interview. “To overcome so many obstacles and to get to where he is now speaks volumes of his determination.”
Smith knows he wouldn’t have made it this far without help. Along with Powers, he credited Rayshon Dent Jr., a Buchtel graduate who mentors young players he believes have potential, and John Hafford, Buchtel’s Division I and I-AA football coordinator.
Smith also thanks God.
“I don’t feel lucky, I just feel like I’m real blessed,” Smith said.
Powers is a Michigan graduate, but he is excited to see Smith perform at Ohio State.
“No one runs routes like him,” Powers said. “And he’s very humble; he’s all you ever want. It was a heckuva journey for him. He rode a roller coaster. Now I look at everything and say, ‘It was all supposed to happen.’ He learned so much on the way it’s unreal.
“We’re going to see what he can do when he’s at Ohio State. As long as he doesn’t score on Michigan, that’s OK.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.