Seated on a chair in a still-under-construction interview room at Michigan Stadium, it had been a momentous afternoon for the senior from Cleveland Glenville. Here was the player Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel had quipped had been given more shots to get out of his doghouse than LeBron James, flashing a grin and talking about what it meant to have been named a captain for the Michigan game.
That's right: a captain.
"It felt good," he said following OSU's 21-10 victory against the Wolverines. "That was almost a crying moment after all I've been through. I came out on top and it feels so good."
A four-star cornerback prospect who was part of Ohio State's class of 2006, Small's status with the team was in doubt before he even set foot on campus. His academic status remained uncertain leading up to his enrollment, setting up what would be a difficult tenure in Columbus.
As a freshman, Small got on the field for 11 games and scored his first career touchdown on an 11-yard pass against Bowling Green from fellow Tarblooder Troy Smith. He more than quadrupled his playing time as a sophomore, up to 123 minutes from his freshman total of 26. In the process, he finished as the team's leading punt and kick returner despite missing one game due to injury.
His junior year proved to be the rockiest of them all, however. When the Buckeyes released their 2008 media guide, Small was denied a biography page along with the rest of the scholarship players. In addition, his jersey number had been changed from 4 to 82.
He told reporters during fall camp that he planned to use the situation as motivation to become a better leader on the team, but Small found himself suspended for two games toward the end of the season after violating undisclosed team violations his father, Ken, said involved the occasional missed class as well as having fallen asleep in a team meeting.
The situation was so terse that head coach Jim Tressel cut one press conference short when constantly asked about Small's situation after his father made public his thoughts about the coach and his program. Small returned for the Michigan game, however, and returned one punt 81 yards that helped spark the Buckeyes to a 42-7 victory against the Wolverines.
As if that wasn't enough, Small missed the start of his senior fall camp while he struggled to resolve an academic situation but did not miss any action.
Two days prior to the game, the senior said he learned he would serve as the offensive captain for the team while at a team meeting.
"Coach Tressel called out, ‘The honorary captain for the Michigan game will be Ray Small,' " Small said. "I got this big smile and it was crazy."
After the game, Tressel said it was a decision that came from the entire offensive staff and not just him.
"The offensive staff always sits and decides who they'd like to have be the captain," he said. "They came up with the nomination of Ray. They had really enjoyed the way he's come along. I think his teammates were happy for him because they too have see his (trials) or whatever. It was good deal for him."
For Small, who considered entering the NFL via the supplemental draft after his junior season, said the honor was a form of vindication for him.
"I didn't have a super great year, but I had a decent year," he said. "I came out on top. I ended up being a captain for the Michigan game, one of the biggest games in college history. I think my senior year was beautiful."
As a senior, Small returned 33 punts for 273 yards – an average of 8.3 yards per return – and added 12 kick returns for 324 yards including one 96-yard touchdown. He also finished as the No. 3 wide receiver with 15 catches for 175 yards in a run-centered offense.
He did fumble one punt against the Wolverines but said he knew things would turn out OK as soon as the ball hit his hands.
"I knew I could get on it because I had so much room," he said. "I was just anxious and I took my eyes off of the ball. I knew I could get back on it because it wasn't a vicious drop."
In all, it is the penultimate chapter in Small's career and one he did not feel would be possible.
"No, not at all," he said. "To be honest, I didn't think I would make it four years at Ohio State as much as I was getting in trouble. Everybody has to go through different obstacles, so that's what I did. I went through my time of my life with my obstacles.
"I'm happy that I survived four years at Ohio State."