Michigan football's Mazi Smith reflects on arrest, weapon charge: 'A life lesson'
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Michigan football defensive lineman Mazi Smith sat at the podium inside the Arizona Ballroom at the JW Marriott in Paradise Valley with more than two dozen reporters with cameras, phones and recorders formed around him in a semicircle.
For seven consecutive minutes, U-M's senior captain answered 21 straight questions about his arrest the morning of Oct. 7. Smith was pulled over while speeding in a residential neighborhood by Ann Arbor police around 9:35 a.m. and found to be illegally carrying a firearm and driving without a license.
Earlier this month he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge after originally being charged with a felony. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 12.
On Wednesday, just three days before No. 2 Michigan (13-0, 9-0 Big Ten) takes on No. 3 TCU (12-1, 9-0 Big 12) in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl, Smith spoke for the first time publicly about the situation.
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"That’s what I came here for. I didn’t come here to play for somebody who didn’t look out for me, take care of me or somebody who didn’t love me and know who I am."
"I’m a big compartmentalizer," Smith said when asked about how he handled the past three months. "Everything ain't always going to go your way. Sometimes, you know, I’m a young kid, I make mistakes. But at the same time I still had a job to do. Coach Harbaugh still trusted in me to be a leader on this team and a captain, which I much appreciated because he didn’t have to."
Smith was arrested and then later released on Oct. 7, the day the team traveled to Indiana for a road game. He saw Harbaugh later that day, when he said he told his coach "everything."
Smith wasn't charged in Washtenaw County court until Dec. 1 and the senior defensive lineman was not suspended after the arrest or the charges.
"He just wanted all the facts, all the facts, he didn’t want no surprises," Smith said. "He just wanted me to be forthcoming and honest and that’s what I was ... I told Coach everything from the get go. Just like I told the police officer the truth from the get go.
"Honesty is the best policy, and so that’s what I was."
Teammates and coaches have stood by Smith since the arrest became public, a few days before the Big Ten championship game. Harbaugh said the day after the conference title game that he, athletic director Warde Manuel and president Santa Ono all discussed the incident together and decided Smith's actions did not warrant a suspension.
Smith told reporters Wednesday he had already received his certificate for completing an online firearms course when the incident occurred and had intended to submit it the week prior when scheduling conflicts got in the way.
"It’s funny because I had my certificate and I meant to turn it in a couple days before I got pulled over," he said. "But I had to reschedule for Wednesday of the week after, so I was like four days away from that."
Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Mike Morris said he thoroughly backs his teammate.
"I think people are really taking it out of proportion," Morris said. "Mazi has been with this team and shown his leadership and reliability for four years without anything squeaky or being a distraction to the team.
"I want him to know I'm here for him, I don't care what he's going through, I don't care what the media has to say about him, I'm here 10 toes down."
Smith said he learned many valuable lessons — accountability and decision-making among them — but also a lesson in humanity. He'd been revered earlier this season as one of the best linemen in the Big Ten.
From the time he was ranked as the No. 1 "athletic freak" in the offseason, to the first six weeks of the season as he anchored the Wolverines' defensive line, Smith earned himself some good will. But as quickly as it came, it went away.
"You just, people get a story and they take it and run with it and make it seem like something it’s not," he said. "I think that it just shows how quick the tables can turn on you. You know everybody goes from thinking this of you and then you have a misunderstanding and they start thinking something completely different.
"But that’s life, it’s a life lesson."
The East Kentwood native said this situation won't make him cynical; this is far from the first time people who don't know him personally have assumed the worst. It also happened in high school, he said, when peers assumed he was failing his classes and that he didn't do his work.
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"I was actually ahead a semester and graduated ahead of everybody who thought that," he laughed. "And was getting better grades than everybody who thought that. Misconceptions happen, it’s a part of life."
Smith said he spoke to teammates individually, but never addressed the incident in a public setting. Morris said he didn't owe anybody any explanations.
"The way I got to being a captain wasn’t by getting in front of the team and talking," Smith said. "I just hit people, hit people the right way, play the right way and try to lead in the right way and just be strong."
The 6-foot-3, 340-pound defensive tackle will be in uniform for the Wolverines on Saturday, as he has been for every game this season. He finished the regular season with 46 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and half a sack and was named first-team All-Big Ten.
Smith said he believes he didn't deserve to be suspended; he was honest the whole time and "would never put anybody in harm's way."
Furthermore, he's glad he wasn't because there was only one thing that got him through this time: football.
"Just like my mom tells me and coaches tell me, you’ve got to stay the course good or bad, no matter the outcome," he said. "I kind of just leaned on football, you know what I’m saying?
"Kept playing, just thankful to still be still playing ball."
Contact Tony Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's Mazi Smith reflects on arrest, weapon charge