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I suppose I should have posted this article instead of just the link. Whoops
Geno Smith is a Heisman Trophy contender for the ninth-ranked Mountaineers.
“Once upon a time, there was a little boy ...” Smith began, mimicking his grandmother’s bouncing intonation, sureness in his voice. Her colorful stories often started that way, the same as when she read to him, cradling him on her knee, conditioning his imagination.
Now seeing the pictures, conjuring his own rendition of the words, Smith announced a new tale proudly. The teacher hurried over, alarmed by the story’s elaborate details. She grabbed the book and learned the truth: the young boy could not read yet. He had made it all up.
A visionary, he was called. After taking an intelligence test, he was labeled gifted. If his mother wished, Smith could have skipped a grade. She decided against it, preferring he mature with his peers — a notion that did not go as planned, considering Smith often grew bored after finishing his schoolwork faster than most of his classmates.
“His visions of things have always been beyond his years,” Tracey Sellers said of her son, who is now West Virginia’s quarterback and a serious Heisman Trophy contender for the ninth-ranked Mountaineers (3-0), who host No. 25 Baylor (3-0) on Saturday.
Sellers gave birth to Geno at 17, and until he turned 4, they lived in Miami with her mother, Mosetta Bratton. Bratton watched Geno during the day, while Sellers finished her schooling. In those early years, Bratton “raised all of us,” Sellers said, “because we were young.”
Grouped with other students classified as gifted, Smith was taught an advanced curriculum emphasizing creativity and the arts. He wrote stories and poetry, acted in the school’s production of “The Nutcracker” and competed in chess tournaments. In fifth grade, he won an oratorical contest reciting work by the poet Langston Hughes. But he enjoyed sketching cartoon characters the most.
A critic and an ally, Smith’s grandmother exhibited his artwork on the refrigerator. She expected quality in whatever he did, but displayed anything he made.
With an impressive portfolio by seventh grade, Smith was admitted to Norland Middle School’s magnet program, which dedicated two hours a day to arts instruction. There, Smith thrived, drawing with pencils and charcoal. Painting with pastels and acrylic paints required touch, foresight and patience. Minor mistakes could nullify hours of work. No matter what tools he employed, he was a perfectionist.
“He was an extremely talented student with a natural drawing ability,” Gerald Obregon wrote in an e-mail. For two years, he and another teacher, Linda Atkinson, were Smith’s art instructors. Obregon added: “The quality of his drawings was more advanced than your average 13-, 14-year-old. It was actually on par with a college freshman in art school.”
Smith’s observation skills were particularly profound; he could capture the subtleties and emotions of the human face, Atkinson said. He drew details that some older artists overlooked or lacked the skill to portray. What jumped out were his characters’ eyes, which seemed lifelike.
But as high school neared, Smith left assignments unfinished, rarely interacting with his teachers.
“His priorities were different,” Obregon said. At about that time, Smith won back-to-back youth football championship games played in the Orange Bowl. Soon, Smith passed on his admission to the New World School of the Arts to play football at Miramar High School.
Briefly, football had served as an extracurricular activity, but now the field was his canvas. When Smith was 9, his uncle Antwan Sellers took him to the park while his mother worked.
Sellers, with knowledge gleaned from watching YouTube videos of Tom Brady, instructed Smith on his footwork, the proper way to drop back, hand off and roll out. Smith’s long, lean build lent itself to playing quarterback. From then, Smith obsessed about the details the position required.
His mother, however, insisted he manage his personal life before those of his sport. Sellers demanded a tidy room and a made bed. Smith was required to perform a number of household chores, and Sellers screened his friends, making sure they were of solid character.
Smith’s grandmother saved the newspaper clippings detailing his athletic exploits, but critiqued him as well, according to Sellers, saying things like: “You did good, but you stayed in the pocket too long. Get out the pocket!”
This helped her grandson develop an exacting nature. “If it’s not right, I’m not just going to leave it alone,” Smith said. “I want things to be right and be perfect.” With football, as in his art, the result needed to be “exactly the way you wanted it to come out, or how you’ve seen it in your mind.”
Smith started for four years at Miramar.
“His demeanor never changed,” said his coach, Damon Cogdell, who once suspended Smith for being late to practice, and pushed him to become a leader. “I could chew him out and bark at him, and some kids they would go in a shell. He never did, just stayed up, firm and high.”
In high school, when Smith’s mind wandered, he doodled cartoons and football players, said Stedman Bailey, who played wide receiver at Miramar and now plays at West Virginia.
Obregon said that Smith’s choosing football over the arts “doesn’t mean that his artistic journey is over yet.”
Football offered a more immediate gratification. When it came to college, the probability of playing time helped Smith choose West Virginia over Louisiana State and Alabama. He sat his freshman year behind Jarrett Brown, a fifth-year senior.
Smith had expected to be overwhelmed by the pace of the college game. Quite the opposite: everyone else appeared to be stuck in slow motion, he said. He thought to himself: this game isn’t really as hard as people make it seem to be.
But in Miami, his grandmother’s health was becoming a concern. By November of that year, her kidneys were failing.
Smith started as a sophomore in 2010, and led the Mountaineers to nine victories. When Coach Dana Holgorsen arrived in 2011 with his Air Raid offense, Smith threw for 4,385 yards, fourth most in the country. The Air Raid — predicated on matching a dozen route combinations to get receivers in open space — required a quarterback with a certain mental capacity, Holgorsen said. At Miramar, Smith had designed his own plays. Now, some opponents begged Smith to ease up. On a given snap, Smith read defenses, forecast which receivers would be open, felt pressure, counted time using an internal clock, faked to the options he knew were futile and found an open receiver and led him to an empty pocket of grass.
“On the field, he’s visualizing,” his mother said. “It’s like a puzzle, his masterpiece.”
His grandmother, though, was not fit enough to watch him in person. Bratton was treated with dialysis, and her health prevented her from traveling. Then, in January, West Virginia was set to play in the Orange Bowl against Clemson, and his grandmother felt well enough to attend.
Eight months later, she died. Smith spoke at her funeral and urged his family to stay strong with their matriarch gone. At some point, this kind of maturity became typical of Smith. “As a man, you have to do those things,” he said.
In January, with her in the stands, Smith had played the game of his life in the Orange Bowl. He threw for 6 touchdowns and 407 yards. West Virginia won, 70-33, and afterward Smith leapt into Bratton’s arms, hugged her and kissed her.
For Bratton — who had nurtured his imagination, adored his art and been his biggest fan — it was the confirmation she never needed: in football or in art, he would surpass her expectations.
Into the night, sureness in her voice, she had shouted: “I knew it! I knew it!”