The Geno Smith Show is set for its pilot episode
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By the time Tracey Sellers settles into a seat, her nerves already will be frayed.
Even after so many years spent watching her three sons play football, the mother of four still can't keep the butterflies at bay. And when she finally gets to see her eldest boy -- Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith -- take the field at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, she'll be too excited to sit still.
She was the nervous type even during his pee-wee football games. And she expects things will be no different against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I told a friend of mine: 'When I get to that game, I'm going to need a tranquilizer,' '' she said, laughing loudly, during a phone interview with Newsday.
But emotions won't be high for only Sellers.
Smith, 22, will become only the second rookie quarterback (behind Mark Sanchez, 2009) to start a game in Jets history. But unlike his mother, Smith says he won't succumb to nerves when he faces former Jets shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis and the Bucs' revamped secondary.
While the Jets' fan base is anxious to turn the page on two straight seasons of futility, the former West Virginia star refuses to think too far ahead. His goal is to supplant Sanchez -- a fifth-year veteran who is sidelined by a shoulder injury -- for good. But in the meantime, he said he's focused solely on the task at hand: protecting the football and escaping the Bucs' defense.
"I expect everything," the 39th overall pick said.
"Many different looks. I expect pressure, especially early," added Smith, only the third second-round rookie to start an NFL Week 1 game (Quincy Carter and Andy Dalton were the others). "They'll try and rattle my cage. They want to make a statement . . . I expect those things. And I look forward to it."
His response wasn't a surprise to those who know him best. Smith may not have NFL experience, but the spotlight has always followed him. And he's beaten the odds before.
Long before he threw for 11,662 yards and 98 touchdowns in four years with the Mountaineers, he was a "park legend" as a 12-year-old in South Florida, competing down to the wire in playoff games with future NFL players such as Deerfield Beach's Denard Robinson (now a Jaguar), Sellers said. And those moments were so intense, she "had to literally pick up my purse and leave the stadium."
Many question Smith's NFL readiness, but his former quarterbacks coach has nothing but confidence in Smith's ability to withstand the pitfalls of inexperience.
"I've never seen him panic," Jake Spavital, who coached him at West Virginia in 2011 and 2012, said by phone. "That's why I think he's going to find a way.
"Adversity hits in every game," added Spavital, who is in his first year as Texas A&M's co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. "But he'll bounce back and figure things out."
With no assurances that the starting job will be his past Week 1, Smith must prove his three interceptions and safety against the Giants (in his only preseason start) were an aberration and not an indication of things to come.
Whether he succeeds Sunday -- or fails miserably -- remains to be seen. But if his past is any indication, members of his inner circle said, Smith won't succumb to the magnitude of the moment.
Eugene Smith III is humble and quiet, the type of young man who makes it a point to take kids from his Miami neighborhood out to breakfast and to the store for new shoes.
"But on that field, that's Geno Smith. That's the one that's passionate," said Sellers, 40, who owns a business consulting firm and helps runs a nonprofit organization called Parenting With a Purpose Life Center in Miami.
Smith always approached football like a business and, in turn, his teammates gravitated toward his natural-born leadership, Spavital said. That work ethic was instilled long before he arrived in Florham Park, and as Smith reminded reporters this past week: "My preparation will never change."
Growing up, his maternal uncle, Antwan Sellers, encouraged him to always prepare for the next level, starting as early as pee-wee football. So by the time Smith arrived in Morgantown, he was trained to approach each Saturday like a professional.
"He does not allow the game to control him," Tracey Sellers said. ". . . That's one thing I know about my son. He plays with every fiber in him."
The pair talked shortly after every college game. But oftentimes, Smith would rush his mother off the phone, saying: "Mom, I'm going to call you back. I'm in the film room."
Smith would sit in the family living room with an iPad in each hand -- one displaying images of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the other showing Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. He should have been out "at a burger restaurant somewhere or on the phone chatting with a girl," his mother said, but studying football was always more important.
For Smith, playing football is the easy part. Difficult was returning to Morgantown two days after burying his maternal grandmother on Aug. 17, 2012, and leading the Mountaineers to five straight wins to start the season. He posted 1,996 passing yards and 24 touchdown passes in those victories and went six straight games without throwing an interception. But his impressive streak came to an end Oct. 20 with two picks in a 55-14 loss at home to Kansas State.
"It got at him pretty good," Spavital said of Smith, who had only 13 interceptions in his final two seasons.
And those three picks Smith threw against the Giants?
"Oh, I know it eats at him," Spavital said.
The Geno Smith who was labeled as lazy in the aftermath of the NFL draft is one whom Spavital does not know. And those depictions -- replayed "over and over and over" on TV and in print, Sellers said -- brought tears to her eyes.
At first, she wondered if her son was bothered by them, too. But Smith quickly put her at ease.
"He said: 'Things bother you when they're true. If they're not true, you have to let it roll off your back,' " recalled Sellers, who stressed "honest critiquing" makes every athlete better.
"He's taught me to ignore it. Can you imagine?"
New York can be the city of dreams for some, but the constant scrutiny of the Big Apple has scorched many careers. Still, Smith's tight-knit group believes he'll handle the attention -- both good and bad -- just fine.
At a young age, he recognized that football would be his way out of Miami. As a role model to his younger siblings, he had no choice but to be tough, both physically and mentally. Trouble lurked around every corner, but his mother and maternal grandmother kept him focused on faith, family and football.
"Being raised in Miami Dade County -- it's a jungle out here," said Sellers, who raised Smith as a single parent with her mother's help, though Geno's dad, Eugene II, was a constant figure in his life as well. "You have to fight to even get to that place in New York City. So if you can survive this concrete jungle out here . . . you can go into New York City and play the game you love."