What will Geno Smith turn out to be?
Raised to believe he could do anything, quarterback now faces a skeptical NFL.
The baby had everything: "Toy Story" sheets and Barney curtains and a chalkboard for Christmas so he could learn the alphabet from his grandma. He had an uncle who taught him football in the park, a teenage dad who held him awkwardly, as if he was afraid of dropping him, and a mom who was naive and confused but never embarrassed.
They would grow up together, mom and baby. Oh, she hated that summer before she had him. Maternity dresses, by nature, are serviceable and frumpy and not meant for a 17-year-old girl on the cusp of her senior year of high school. Tracey Sellers spent that summer with a round and growing belly, no car and a job 20 miles from home. She would stand at the bus stop, in the sweltering Miami heat, waiting for a ride, but most of all, waiting for her baby to arrive.
God doesn't make mistakes. That's what Tracey Sellers' mom used to tell her. Mosetta Bratton wasn't thrilled that her baby was about to have a baby, but she would embrace the boy because she believed he was part of a bigger plan. They'd raise him together, in her house, while Sellers finished school. They'd surround Eugene Cyril Smith III with grandmas and an uncle and love.
On an early October day in 1990, it was time. Bratton walked Sellers through the doors of Jackson Memorial Hospital at 6 a.m., and as the girl looked around and heard the crying mothers, the gravity of it all hit her. "Is this for real?" she said. Sellers waited more than 12 hours for her baby to come out, and when he finally did, he wasn't breathing.
"The umbilical cord was choking him," she said. "My mom lit up the labor room and started praying. She said, 'God, you didn't bring us this far to leave us.'
"That moment is forever etched in my mind. I got to the hospital just in time, and his life was already planned."
The baby is 22 years old now, stands 6-foot-2⅜ and 218 pounds, and, in 2012, was one of college football's most prolific passers. In one month, Geno Smith will be drafted into the NFL, cementing a future that will earn him millions of dollars. But none of this was planned. His grandma used to marvel at his sketches and paintings and see a budding artist; his mom dreamed he'd become a pastor or a lawyer.
But here's what happens sometimes when a village raises a little boy: He's exposed to everything, and all that support makes him believe he can be anything.
On April 25, Sellers will turn 40. That night, her son will be picked in the first round of the NFL draft. It almost seems fitting, that mother and son will leave the day feeling so different and older.
Tough act to follow
It's a crapshoot, really. NFL scouts can study every game, every throw and every bit of body language available in a year's worth of film, but in the end, they never truly know whether the quarterback at the top of their draft board is franchise or flop.
Last year, it seemed so easy. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III came out of the womb breaking down NFL defenses, right? Perhaps the Class of 2013 can thank those gentlemen -- plus Russell Wilson -- for all the skepticism encountered this spring, and for the expectations that lie ahead.
Geno Smith, by virtue of being projected as the first quarterback taken in this 2013 draft, has borne the brunt of it. He has been poked, prodded, dissected and scrutinized more than any other football player not named Manti Te'o.
"You've just got to tune it out," Smith said.
"Everyone's got an opinion, and those guys are just doing their jobs."
West Virginia's collapse his senior season raised doubts about Geno Smith. Did an impressive 40 time at the combine turn any heads?
Many of the phrases coaches and opponents use to describe Smith were uttered around this time last year about Luck and Griffin. Mature beyond his years. Film rat. Smart and athletic.
But nobody knows what Smith can be. Is his arm strong enough? Accurate enough? Can he process information fast enough? Will he pout on the sideline when things don't go his way?
Will he fall apart, as his West Virginia football team appeared to do in 2012?
The last question is the one that lingers. Smith was the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy in early October. His team was 5-0, ranked in the top five, and his offense was putting up obscene numbers. Then the Mountaineers were clobbered 49-14 at Texas Tech, then lost four more in a row. It became clear that Smith's psyche was battered.
He's tough on himself. Jake Spavital, his quarterbacks coach at West Virginia, sat on the plane with him after that Texas Tech loss and listened to Smith agonize over what he didn't do that day. Smith wouldn't talk about the elephant on that plane, the fact that the Mountaineers' defense was one of the worst in college football. Quarterbacks aren't supposed to point fingers.
Two weeks earlier, West Virginia needed 70 points to beat Baylor, which scored 63. It was the Mountaineers' first season in the Big 12, and Oklahoma, Kansas State and Oklahoma State lay ahead.
"It's hard to gain that confidence back once things start going bad," Texas Tech safety Cody Davis said. "I don't think you can really prepare for your opponents that well until you play a full year in the conference."
Under Dana Holgorsen's "Air Raid" offense, a system that lends itself to gaudy numbers, Smith threw for 4,205 yards in 2012 and had 42 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He amassed more than 8,500 passing yards in his final two years at West Virginia.
But when it was over, after a 38-14 loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29, Smith sat dejected on the bus back to the hotel while Spavital tried to tell him what he had meant to West Virginia. Smith didn't appear to be listening.
"Man, I thought I was playing pretty well," Smith told him. "But going 7-6 makes me feel like I did nothing this year."
Spavital, who's now at Texas A&M, has coached Brandon Weeden and Case Keenum. Spavital says Smith is more prepared for the NFL than any other quarterback he has coached. Smith will surprise people, he said, in part because he can do so many things he wasn't asked to do the last two seasons at West Virginia.
At the NFL scouting combine in February, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds. It was the fastest time among the quarterbacks.
"I called that early," Spavital said. "I was saying he'd test very well at the combine, which would turn a lot of heads. And then I'd get a bunch of phone calls about how dumb of a coach I am for not running him more."
Art and football
Mosetta Bratton knew the streets of Miami were dangerous, and she tried to keep a tight rein on her kids. They did not have keys to the house; she insisted that they come home early, before she went to bed. "She was overprotective," Tracey Sellers said. "I am, too."
Sellers met Geno Smith II through a friend. They went to different high schools in the Miami area but became friends and study partners. Eventually, teenage hormones had their way, and Sellers woke her mother up one winter night and told her she was late, and Bratton probably had a strong suspicion that night that her 16-year-old daughter was pregnant. She didn't yell, didn't really react, and told Sellers to go back to bed and they'd talk about it in the morning.
Bratton was always calm like that. She had two kids, and for years, it had just been her, Tracey and Bratton's son, Antwan, in that house. When Geno was born, they couldn't help but spoil the kid. He was an old soul in a tiny body. He was the life of their little party. Bratton watched Smith during the day while Sellers went to school.
Douglas Jones/US PresswireGeno Smith played in front of his grandmother, whose health was failing, in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
For the first eight or nine years of the kid's life, it looked as if he might be an artist. He was labeled as gifted and took advanced curriculum classes specializing in fine arts. He painted and sketched and wrote poetry and essays. He learned about Rembrandt and the Renaissance.
"We did still-life pieces, real art, which is kind of shocking now that I think about it," Smith said. "I don't think schools even do that anymore.
"I learned to pay attention to detail. I had to learn and process information."
But something else was going on around the same time Smith was putting together a portfolio that would eventually get him accepted to the New World School of the Arts. His uncle Antwan was the person in charge of picking up Geno after school and staying with him until Sellers got off work, and he worked at a park. He started tossing a football around with Geno. Soon, Smith was playing flag football, then tackle, then Uncle Antwan was watching film of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with the kid.
And art school didn't stand a chance. Football became Smith's love, his obsession after a couple of youth championships. Bratton, who had bought him watercolors years earlier, was not saddened by the development. She loved football and anything the kid was interested in. Their bond was just as tight after Sellers and Smith moved out, and Bratton would often critique her grandson's play.
It didn't match how tough Smith was on himself. He cried after youth league losses. He cried after losses at Miramar High, too, said his dad, who goes by "Big Geno." (Smith, he said, is called "Little Geno.")
"He wants to be the best," the elder Smith said. "If someone says he can't do something, he's going to try and show them he can."
He commands intense loyalty from teammates. There was an infamous bench-clearing brawl at a Miramar High game back in 2007, and more than 50 players from Miramar and Flanagan were suspended in what was called Broward County's largest on-field fight. The fight started, Miramar coach Damon Cogdell said, after a late hit delivered on Smith, who was among those suspended. "He was pulling his own guys away," Cogdell said.
Extended family played a big role in the life of Geno Smith, who was born to teen parents.
Smith had a quiet confidence when he stepped on campus in Morgantown, former Mountaineer Jarrett Brown said. Brown was his host on a recruiting trip. Smith didn't want to go out on the town. At one point, Brown asked whether he was too boring for him, and Smith said no. He just wanted to soak in what his future teammates had to say.
He was the No. 2 quarterback as a freshman and had to fill in for Brown when he got hurt. "He's not cocky," Brown said. "He was quiet, he did his job, and he came in and helped us win."
Smith's junior year, the Mountaineers had a new coach, and Holgorsen gave Smith the chance to light up defenses. He threw for more than 4,000 yards and helped West Virginia earn a trip to the Orange Bowl, back to Smith's home.
By then, his grandmother was very sick. Her kidneys were failing. She was able to make it to the Orange Bowl and watched Smith top 400 yards in a 70-33 rout of Clemson. He threw six touchdown passes that night. He broke Brady's Orange Bowl record of 396 passing yards. Bratton, as always, was proud.
Eight months later, before the start of Smith's senior season, Bratton died.
"She was a huge influence in my life," Smith said. "She is a big part of the reason I am here today. She always taught me about working hard and chasing after your goals and being a good person.
"Watching her get sick was not a good feeling for me. I play for her. I'm trying to leave a good legacy on life."
Confidence hasn't wavered
When the Kansas City Chiefs traded for Alex Smith earlier this month, Geno Smith was disappointed. The Chiefs hold the No. 1 pick in the draft, and Geno was confident enough to believe, for a while at least, that his might be the first name called.
Smith would never say this publicly, of course. He's a quarterback who says all the right things. Cogdell, his high school coach, is the one who mentioned it.
Ask Smith whether he thinks he's a top-10 pick and he'll say he believes so. "But we'll see on draft day," he said.
Wherever he lands, he'll have plenty of support. Uncle Antwan says he'll be there in New York when Smith's name is called. So will Tracey and Big Geno. They've remained friends all these years. The elder Geno shares holiday dinners with Tracey and the family. Sellers even does his taxes. When people ask whether that seems strange, Big Geno is incredulous. "I don't understand how you can have a kid with someone and not care about them," he said.
His mom, Joann Smith, started a nonprofit organization with Sellers in Miami Lakes. It's called Parents Without Partners Life Center. Sometimes, when Sellers is talking to a single mother who is low on hope, who has become another statistic, she goes to her computer and shows the woman a Google search of her son.
Geno Smith has more than 16 million hits. And he's by no means a statistic.
"I thank God for my mom," Sellers said, "because the world is going to put that brand on you. You become a statistic. Our lives could've gone any kind of way. If I didn't have a solid foundation, I could've been a young woman on the street. … Maybe Geno wouldn't even have been raised with me.
"But that wasn't our story. I was a teen mom, and I made it. My life wasn't over. It was just beginning."