Geno Smith keeps his late grandmother close to his heart
CORTLAND, N.Y. - Her high school diploma is kept neatly in Geno Smith's wallet. So, too, is her identification card.
They are more than just keepsakes. They are daily reminders to be great.
And Mosetta Bratton still is teaching lessons. Now, though, it's only in spirit.
The poise Smith shows on the football field, along with the confidence he exudes in front of the cameras, is the direct result of his maternal grandmother's strength. She was a polite, God-fearing woman, but Mosetta Bratton was no-nonsense as well. And she didn't take kindly to excuses or lack of effort.
Every athlete wants to be the best, but to Smith's grandmother, greatness was expected in every phase of life, starting in the classroom. He grew up with distractions around every corner in his rough Miami neighborhood, a place where graduating from high school was the exception, not the rule. College graduates were even more of an aberration.
"She inspired me to stay out of trouble," Smith told Newsday during a quiet post-practice moment Friday. "And one way she did that was saying: 'Hey, I stayed in school, I did my work and I was always a good person.' And I always looked at her like a hard-working, God-fearing person, so I wanted to make her proud and do the same things."
Now he finds himself looking up to the sky to talk to her.
Mosetta Bratton -- the matriarch of the family and the woman who helped raise Smith, along with his mother, Tracey Sellers -- died of kidney failure on Aug. 7, 2012. She was 61.
Smith is hoping that each training camp practice will bring him a step closer to edging out fifth-year quarterback Mark Sanchez for the starting job. But each day also has brought the rookie closer to the one-year anniversary of his grandmother's passing.
"I'm talking to clouds, but there's a meaning to it," he said. "Sometimes when I'm just by myself, I may just pray and talk to my grandmother. Me and her had a great relationship, a huge bond. And I just hold her dear to me.
"I think a lot of what I am now is because of her. So oftentimes, when I do something good, an accomplishment, I thank her. I thank everybody -- I thank my mom, I thank my dad. Obviously, she's passed, but she's still close to my heart. She was so loving that you just never wanted to let her down."
Standing underneath an interview tent shielding him from the hot afternoon sun, Smith -- for once -- seemed caught off-guard by a question.
His eyes widened. His lips separated slightly. But after a brief pause, he smiled.
"How do you know about that?" he asked a reporter.
The nickname was theirs and theirs alone, a private glimpse into the bond between grandmother and grandson. It was never intended for public consumption.
"She would always say, 'Sonny boy, Sonny boy, grandson,' '' Smith said, repeating the name in a sing-song voice. "She called me that. It means a lot to me. I can hear her saying it sometimes. It sounds crazy, but it does mean a lot to me."
At her funeral last August, Smith encouraged the family to remain strong while fighting back tears of his own. Dressed in all white from head to toe, he stood by his grandmother's side again -- this time helping to carry her light-colored casket to her gravesite.
"He was very hurt. He's very emotional," said Smith's cousin, Melvin Bratton, 48, a star running back for the Miami Hurricanes in the 1980s. "[He's] like me. I'm a mama's boy, a grandmama's boy. They were very close."
"Auntie Mosetta," as Bratton calls her, was one of 17 children. His father was the oldest, followed by his aunt, Bratton said. She was humble but also was an old-school disciplinarian. It took "a village" to raise the Bratton clan, and "Auntie Mosetta" brought tough love to the table whenever necessary.
"She gave me my first butt-whupping outside of my mom and dad," said Bratton, who played two seasons for the Denver Broncos and now is a sports agent.
The nephews, nieces and grandchildren couldn't help but cling to Mosetta Bratton. And Smith was no different.
His grandmother always had standards. And though she and her siblings didn't have much, they always made do. "There were no corners being cut," Bratton said, adding, "Out of all those kids, none of them just fell by the wayside or did drugs. They wanted their kids to do better than their upbringing, and everybody in that household did that."
She passed on her trademark fighting spirit to her daughter Tracey and eventually her grandson. And though she passed away before Smith's West Virginia career came to a close -- and before the drama ensued from his second-round selection by the Jets, the subsequent firing of his agents and his eventual hiring of Jay-Z's management firm, Roc Nation Sports -- Bratton believes his "Auntie Mosetta" would have been proud of the way Smith has carried himself in the face of criticism and in his competition with Sanchez.
"Adversity sparks us," said Bratton, who tore an ACL during the Hurricanes' national championship victory in January 1998, an injury that he said cost him a top-five pick and millions in the draft. " . . . Sometimes we're a fighter to a fault. I think the attitude that he may have displayed, everybody may have looked at it like it was a negative, but with our upbringing, [we feel like] you're not going to push us around or bully us.
" . . . He's got the spirit of a New Yorker. He's a blue-collar-type. He's not the over-flashy guy; it's not about the billboards or being overhyped. He wants to earn the respect of those people on the field. So the average person that works 9-to-5, the construction guy, or the mail guy, those are the people that share the attitude he has."
Blessed to be here
For Smith, there was nothing worse than disappointing his grandmother. But he also was rewarded handsomely for heeding her advice.
"She would give you whatever you wanted," Smith said. "I was big on video games growing up, so whenever I got my report card back and got straight As, or won an MVP playing football, she would always take me to Toys'R'Us, or GameStop, and buy me a new game. All that stuff just made me want to make her proud."
Mosetta Bratton always believed her grandson -- named Eugene Cyril Smith III after his father, nicknamed "Big Geno," and his paternal grandfather -- would be something special.
Smith came into the world on Oct. 10, 1990, but he wasn't breathing. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. His panicked mother and grandmother waited to hear him cry, but all they heard was silence.
Smith said: "The way my mom always put it was, 'Hey, God had his hands on you. You're just blessed to be here. And they were put on you for a purpose.' ''
He was a stud at Miramar High School in Florida, but he became a full-blown star during his record-breaking career at West Virginia.
Growing up with so many brothers around, Mosetta Bratton couldn't help but love football, too. She was one of her grandson's biggest critics but also one of his biggest champions. She raved about his poise on the playing field, cheering him on from afar or in the stands.
But she didn't praise him for only his athletic prowess. She was equally proud of her grandson's intelligence (growing up, Smith was labeled "gifted" by intelligence tests), as well as his artwork (his skill and creativity with charcoal, watercolors and pencils was his passion before football). But she also was proud of the young man he had become.
Smith often is wary of exposing his family to the spotlight, but he doesn't mind sharing his love of Mosetta Bratton with the world. In the bio section of his Instagram profile, there are no mentions of his standout career at West Virginia or his second-overall selection in the 2013 NFL draft. Instead, there's just a simple tribute to his grandmother:
"RIP My Angel Mosetta Bratton"