By Chris Mahr
West Virginia quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner Geno Smith was already an artist long before he started turning college football fields into his personal canvas.
Smith was labeled a gifted student in elementary school, placing into an advanced curriculum that emphasized the arts. He won a fifth grade oratorical contest for reciting poet Langston Hughes. He acted in his school’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
“There were black and white shadings, acrylics with pastel chalks,” recalled Smith’s mother, Tracey Sellers, about his artwork. “He did a self-portrait, painted his little cousins, did shades of and sketches with pencils, pictures of his shoes and collages. It’s something that’s etched in our mind.
“His art was natural. He had ability that made him ‘advanced’ in the minds of his teachers, and they kind of helped his potential.”
In the seventh grade, Smith was admitted to the Norland Middle School’s magnet program that spent two hours a day on arts instruction. Smith was then offered a spot at New World School of the Arts, a public magnet high school in Miami. But by time that time, Smith was “less interested in art because he was consumed by his football career,” Sellers said. Smith instead opted to play football at Miramar High School.
Which isn’t to say that Smith gave up being an artist. He just found a different outlet for being one.
Artists are always their own harshest critics. They have a predetermined vision of what their work should look like. Any deviations from that vision simply will not do.
“If it’s not right, I’m not just going to leave it alone,” Smith told The New York Times last month. “I want things to be right and be perfect.”
That quote wasn’t concerning a painting or an essay or a speech. He was commenting on his mentality toward football. Even Sellers admits to seeing a connection between Smith’s past and his present.
“Any artist has to have some form of vision, the ability to see things and create things mentally,” she said. “They have to have the ability to make quick changes, like ‘I take the eraser and erase the play if I see something in the defense.’ ”
All of which has served Smith well under the tutelage of second-year Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen, whose Air Raid offense is dependent on having a fast-thinking signal-caller that can choose the right route and hit his receivers in space.
Equipped with the tools of the Air Raid, Smith has turned in a 2012 season thus far that belongs in the college football equivalent of the Louvre: 1,996 yards on 81.4% passing (166-of-204), 24 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The artistry that Smith has displayed this season — not to mention the various stories written about the creativity he displayed during his youth — makes one crave a look at the art he made in elementary and middle school. If only that was possible.
Hurricane Wilma caused $20.6 billion worth of damages in Florida in October 2005. Smith and his family got through it relatively unscathed. His art portfolio, however, was not as lucky.
“He had this big brown portfolio that used to be right behind his bedroom door,” Sellers said. “The hurricane completely destroyed our roof and water poured into his bedroom. If you can imagine this portfolio sitting on a carpet that’s soaking wet, all these paints and pencils, it becomes one big mess.”
By then, Smith was in the first of four seasons he would spend as Miramar High’s starting quarterback and was completely dedicated to football. The four years (fifth through eighth grades) in which Smith’s primary extracurricular was his artwork had sadly been washed away.
Now far removed from his middle-school artistry, Smith’s affection for the arts hasn’t been lost. He’s an English major at West Virginia who is currently taking one class in Shakespeare and another in American literature. It brings to mind the boy from south Florida who wowed his family and his teachers with his natural ability in the visual and performing arts.
As we watch Smith lead the chase for the Heisman Trophy and possibly lead West Virginia to a BCS title game birth, it’s clear this is not your average quarterback we are observing.
Instead, we are patrons admiring the gridiron canvas he is starting to fill in.
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