The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 31, 2013

Geno Smith had to choose art or football

CORTLAND, N.Y. — Geno Smith’s brothers still have his favorite piece of artwork hanging on the wall of their mother’s home.

It could be worth a pretty penny someday. For now, its value is solely sentimental.

When the New York Jets rookie quarterback was in high school, he grabbed a huge sheet of poster board, broke out a few Sharpie markers and got to work on drawing his favorite superheros. One by one — and making sure he captured every detail — Batman, Superman, Wolverine, Captain America and Spider-Man, among others, appeared to his brothers’ amazement.

“Art is something I really love,” Smith said. “I have a creative mind.”

Smith is locked in a tight competition with Mark Sanchez for the Jets’ starting quarterback job. But the rookie wasn’t always just a star on the football field. Before he went to high school in south Florida, Smith had to make a choice between throwing touchdowns and painting pictures.

“I had a passion for them both,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press after practice Wednesday. “But I enjoy the passion for being out on the field and being with my teammates and constantly practicing and conditioning, all the challenges that come with playing football.”

Smith paused for a second, and then started laughing.

“And, in art,” he said, “you really don’t get famous until you’re dead.”

He already has the fame stuff down, especially after a record-breaking career at West Virginia University. Smith was perhaps the biggest name available in the draft in April, but slipped from the first to the second round — and the frowns from his disappointment were caught on camera at Radio City Music Hall.

He also made headlines when he fired his agents and signed on with hip-hop artist Jay-Z’s sports agency. Smith raised some eyebrows again when he opted to work out on his own in Florida rather than attend Sanchez’s Jets West camp in southern California.

It’s the kind of tumultuous few months that can create some pretty interesting and introspective artwork.

“I don’t draw as much anymore, but I still doodle, yeah, in my notepads,” Smith said. “I caught myself just drawing a picture the other day and it said, ‘Practice Better.’ That was kind of a message to myself.”

The love for art began as a little kid, when he saw his sister, Kiyondra Talley, drawing things he could only dream of.

“She was kind of like a prodigy,” Smith said. “She could paint anything and it would look spot on. I wasn’t really that good, to be honest with you. I was a couple of years younger than her, and it made me kind of mad that she was so good.

“I took it upon myself to try to be better than her, so I just developed a love for it.”

He and his buddies started small, with cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Dragon Ball Z. Around fourth or fifth grade, Smith began trying to draw portraits of family members.

“I’d just take pictures in my house and sit down for hours upon hours and just draw them,” he said. “I’d ball up papers and throw them away until I got the right one.”

Tracey Sellers, Smith’s mother, recognized her son was talented in the classroom — at art and academics — and placed him in gifted programs. He was so advanced, it was recommended he be moved up a few grades. But Sellers wanted him to stay with his peers and not move through school too quickly.

“I think I have a creative mind from all the psychological tests I’ve taken and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I’m a creative thinker, and that’s helped me out tremendously growing up.”

He received a scholarship to Norland Middle School’s magnet art program, which he attended from the sixth through eighth grades. While there, he mastered using pretty much anything he could put to paper: pencil, pen, charcoal pens, charcoal sticks, acrylic pens, watercolors and acrylic paints.

While still playing football and trying to balance it with homework and artwork, Smith put together an impressive portfolio and submitted it to two art schools in New York and two others in the Miami area.

He was accepted by all four.

“Right then and there, I had a decision to make whether it was art or sports,” Smith said. “Obviously, I chose the latter.”

Smith became a huge football star at Miramar High, capping his career there by leading the team as a senior to the state 6A semifinals. He then chose to attend West Virginia after also receiving offers from other big-time programs such as Alabama, Boston College, Florida State and South Florida.

With the Mountaineers, Smith established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the country with an eye-popping mix of skill and athleticism. He set various school records along the way, and had NFL teams drooling at the prospect of him being a part of their future.

And Smith, who recently told the team’s website he’d like to emulate Michael Jordan in terms of his success and leadership, attributes a lot of his success on the field to his art background.

“It really made me pay attention to detail,” he said. “That’s something that’s huge. It still helps me to this day because I can see things on the field: angles, geometrics, and I think that played a huge role in things with football.”

A few days ago, the Jets were practicing at SUNY Cortland when quarterbacks coach David Lee told a few of the players to stop and look around at their surroundings. It took Smith back to his youth for a moment as he stared out at the green hills and trees outlining the campus.

“That’s usually what artists will paint,” Smith said. “They’ll take pictures of stuff like that or just sit down right there and paint it and it’ll become a great painting. It was a great reminder to me that every single thing we look at every day is tied into art.

“That’s what’s unique about it.”

He stays low key about his affection for art, and frankly doesn’t have much time for it these days. Not when he’s trying to win the starting quarterback job with the Jets.

“I’m pretty sure these guys have heard about it, but I don’t think they really care much,” Smith said with a big smile. “That’s really not for the cool kids, you know? The guys around here are the cool kids. Art is for the so-called nerds, and I’m one of those guys.  

“But I love playing football and I love being a quarterback.

“I look at this as my art now.”

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