"I didn't think it was that bad," Smith reflected from the Atlantic Health Training Center over the weekend after his first Jets news conference, looking relaxed in his Jets-flavored green sports shirt, tan slacks and brown "Welcome to the Bigz" kicks. "I expected to see a lot of those questions. Being at West Virginia and being kind of in the spotlight throughout my career in college, it was one of those things where I expected it to be a lot worse."
Let's put aside for the moment the potential no-win situation for a few of the twentysomethings who get invited every year to the NFL Draft's spotlighted, high-def, dull-roar opening night. It's not intentional on the NFL's part (although ESPN and NFL Network sure don't mind) but when you invite 23 of the nation's very best draft-eligible collegians to Round 1, more than one will be left in a tough spot behind the scenes.
In Geno's case, he was the highest-profile non-first-rounder. He was "the man" for the draft's version of "the agony of defeat." But he climbed off that canvas, came back the next day and got the loud-crowd reaction that he should have from the Jets fans in the gallery.
"Obviously, you want to go higher, you don't want to deal with all those emotions in front of the cameras," he said. "But it's not the worst thing that could happen.
"I'm blessed to be in this position in the first place."
Family Tree Full of Athletes
Eugene Cyril Smith III really means that. He admitted he can be a little emotional sometimes, but in a good way. And he sounds incredibly sincere for a 22-year-old college kid. He spoke a few times this weekend about representing the Jets and "the NFL shield" the right way and about the people who "paved the way" for him to be in "this position" now to compete at the Jets' crowded QB position (less-crowded by one with this morning's word that Tim Tebow had been waived).
Some of those people are his relatives — he's part of a fascinating family tree. Great-grand-uncle Yama Bahama (born William Horathio Butler) was a trailblazing Bahamian boxer, one of the top middleweights around from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties and a staple of the Friday night fights from Madison Square Garden. Great-grandfather Cyril Smith was a bodybuilder and boxing ref in the Bahamas. Great-uncle Danny Smith was a world- and NCAA-record-holding All-American hurdler at Florida State. Cousin Melvin Bratton was a standout running back at "the U" who played two seasons for the Broncos.
"Athletically, I come from a great family," Geno said. "I'm just blessed to have good people surrounding me."
Soon he began paving his own way. With a mix of pride and humility that is genuine Geno, he began making a name for himself, first at Miramar High School, less than five miles from the Miami Dolphins' home of many names (back in 2006-08 it was Dolphin Stadium), then, after sifting through offers to FSU, Alabama, South Florida and Boston College, at West Virginia for four seasons, the last three as the Mountaineers' prolific starter.
"I think pretty early, I can't recall a time when — not to be cocky — I didn't excel with football," he said. "Pretty much my entire life, I've been gifted as an athlete, and I think by the age of 12, I really knew I could make it to the NFL."
Yet as confident as Geno might have been at 12, a decade later he admitted to just a touch of "shock" once his college career had ended and he began to go through the combine/pro-day process.
"You know what? When you have a dream for so long, it's kind of hard to fathom that it's actually coming true," he said. "You see so many people around you, people who have dreams who never get a chance to reach those goals. And you start to reflect on the things you've been through, and wow, it's really happening. I came to grips with it, that it happened because of the work you put in, and it's just good to see the fruits of your labor."
Getting His Jets Intro from No. 80
Those fruits didn't prevent him from laboring just a little from last Thursday night into Friday night before the Jets tabbed him. But besides the explosion from the green-and-white draftniks, there was one other benefit of his waiting to be drafted until Round 2 and that was in who did the introduction.
You see, as Smith was growing up in South Florida, he said he was a fan not of the Aqua & Coral but of America's Team, yes, the Cowboys. But he naturally paid attention to the Dolphins and most particularly when the 'Fins played their AFC East neighbors from the north.
"I grew up watching those games, the Jets and the Dolphins, at home, on the big screen," he said. "I remember they had Wayne Chrebet, they had that great comeback ["the Monday Night Miracle" in 2000]. It's just a great rivalry."
And who should be making the announcement of the Jets' second-round pick from the Radio City stage than the one guy that Smith mentioned in connection with that rivalry, iconic Jets wideout Wayne Chrebet.
The serendipity of the moment wasn't lost on No. 80, either.
"I was very excited for Geno," Chrebet told newyorkjets.com. "I saw what he went through on day one, not getting drafted. I felt no doubt he was first-day, like early-first-round. He showed great character coming back on day two. He was humble in his interview — qualities you want in the guys coming in.
"He's seems like a great kid. I'm glad I had the chance to welcome him to the Jets family."
"I shook Wayne's hand and told him first of all that I was just excited and thankful to be part of the organization," Smith said. "And I said, 'Hey, man, thanks for paving the way for me.' "
Whether that meant paving the way on Friday night or back when Chrebet was playing, Smith didn't get a chance to clarify before he was whisked off to his next interview. But Geno seems clearly juiced to be here, to be given this next dream to dream.
"My goal is to be a franchise quarterback," he said matter-of-factly in response to a reporter's question Saturday. "But as of right now, there's a lot of work to be done."
Forward into the Future
The work has only just begun. He compiled his impressive career numbers — 11,662 passing yards, 67.4% career completion accuracy, 98 touchdown passes to only 21 interceptions — and highlight footage in West Virginia's shotgun spread, so there's a lot in coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's newly received playbook to learn and master. While the interceptions are small, his 32 fumbles, he said, "are way too many and I'm going to look to improve on that."
And the Jets, from general manager John Idzik through head coach Rex Ryan to Mornhinweg to QBs coach David Lee, have impressed on him as well as on all the Jets, returnees and new arrivals, that there are no free passes to No. 1. Many fans and reporters just have to know when he'll be the starter. The Jets won't give any hints. It wouldn't be fair to
"Our plan for Geno is to compete," Idzik said. "We’ve been pretty open and transparent about that theme and how that’s going to continue. And that’s all it is, bringing in the highest-quality competition we can at every position, and Geno is certainly an example of that."
But one thing seems to be clear with Smith. He may get emotional here and there, but he has shown he can turn that off, get back to even keel, and pursue the next dream at hand.
"I'm just looking toward the future and really not worrying about the past," he said. "I'm just living for the moment."