Congratulations are in order for a trio of highly deserving West Virginia players who had their fortunes told in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Tavon Austin (No 8. to the St. Louis Rams in Round One), Geno Smith (No. 39 to the New York Jets in Round Two), and Stedman Bailey (No. 92, also to the Rams in Round Three) will take their Air Raid electricity, hard work, and unfailing politeness to the pros this fall.
The sports world hosts more than its fair share of entitled, unprofessional jerks. By my standards, this set of NFL-bound rookies stands out for a different reason. These Mountaineers and their teammates are, simply put, kind.
Unfortunately, not everyone paints these players as promising. Recently, an NFL reporter claimed his research found Smith lacking in character. I won't give credence to the report by linking to it. I question his sources and am disappointed to see an armchair quarterback tossing up such unfounded criticism for a 22-year-old kid with the weight of a state on his shoulders. Fault Smith's size or stats, but don't question his integrity.
Geno Smith is a considerate and thoughtful young man. Does he get down when he loses? Of course. He cares. When his team lost a long series of Big 12 contests last season after getting off to a smashing start and covering Sports Illustrated early in the year, Smith didn't shift the blame to the team's weak defense, its inconsistent special teams performance, or injuries to his offensive line. Instead, he took the blame himself and pointed out his own faults.
As he made headlines in record-setting performances against Clemson (in the 2012 Orange Bowl) and Baylor (notching 656 yards and 8 touchdowns in a famed 70-63 shootout), Smith refused to buy into the hype surrounding his Heisman-contender status. Instead, he lamented his (very few) incomplete passes and promised to work harder.
Smith's coaches often praise his nearly obsessive work ethic, and he and his teammates support one another publicly both in media interviews and via their own Twitter accounts. Perhaps even more importantly, Geno is an affable ambassador for the program, happy to spend time with fans of all ages.
On Thursday night, Smith, arguably the best quarterback in the 2013 class, went undrafted. He sat nearly alone in the Radio City Music Hall green room while team after team failed to select him. All dressed up with nowhere to go, the scene was reminiscent of being chosen last in gym class. The ramifications were far greater with a global audience watching, and I can't help but wonder whether the scathing scouting report had something to do with the snub.
Many chose to tease Smith unmercifully for his embarrassing situation. Irreverent memes and cheap shots popped up all over social media.
Even though Smith must surely harbor some resentment for his naysayers, he proved his grace by not comparing himself to players who were selected earlier. "All of those guys that were picked ahead of me were deserving," says Smith. "So there's no bitterness there for those guys or any of those teams." Smith went on to acknowledge his supporters, saying, "I have a lot of family, a lot of people who stand behind me and have supported me my entire career. I just wanted to stand here and represent all of them on this stage today. I'm ready to compete, I'm ready to go in there and win a starting job."
Thankfully, not all onlookers took the childish path, and the outpouring of support was a testament to the positive impression Smith has made in football circles.
Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers, taken later than expected himself, tweeted his support. Rodgers, now the highest paid player in NFL history, told Smith that "good things come to those who wait." Bruce Irvin reminded his former QB1 that all of West Virginia was on his side. Various members of the media chimed in with encouragement, noting that going in the second round would potentially mean a better team and an increased hunger for proving critics wrong. ESPN tweeted, "Geno Smith is going to play in the NFL with a family size bag of chips on his shoulder." Others reminded Smith that Tom Brady, two-time MVP and three-time Super Bowl champion, went in the sixth round, so what do pundits know anyway?
A WVU student posted: "[Critical] comments are completely unfounded. Geno is a very humble, focused individual. We were in the same English class; he never seemed like he was above anyone else, and he participated and worked hard. He has great character and I hope this doesn't effect his draft status."
The same statements of praise could easily apply to Smith's teammates Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey as well. And yet, both have taken their own share of hits during draft season. Austin was called out for his allegedly very low Wonderlic score, while Bailey received criticism for coming out a year early and being a young father.
All three players remain positive despite the blows they've taken off the field.
Austin knows his path from the Baltimore projects to the NFL is a blessing and a curse. "I wouldn't have liked to live the way that I lived in Baltimore, but it taught me a lot of things that I know," he says. "It's going to change me. It's going to change me for the worst and the best. You've got money now, you've got the people that are coming out of the woodworks now, but at the same time, I'm definitely living a dream."
Choosing attire for his big night was easy. Austin honored his alma mater, Dunbar High School, by wearing a burgundy suit jacket. "I'm going to wear something nice," he promised. "I'm going to shock a lot of people at home and they're going to be very happy for me."
Bailey expressed his excitement with being drafted by the Rams alongside Austin. "I kind of look at Tavon as a brother," Bailey said. "When I saw him go up on stage and get drafted, I kind of shed a few tears because I was just very happy for him. Once again, we get a chance to play together."
What keeps these young men acting like gentlemen? What keeps them so genuine?
Maybe it's Morgantown. Perhaps the friendly, insular, small-town cocoon on the Monongahela River nurtures these kids as they grow into both great football players and good citizens.
Maybe it's the media relations team at WVU who Bruce Irvin thanked profusely last year. He called out members of the Athletic Department for doing such a good job preparing him for the interviews he'd need to give throughout the draft process.
Maybe it's the scrappy, underdog status West Virginia Football typically enjoys.
Maybe it's the fact that Bailey and Smith, teammates since high school, met in their church youth group in Miami.
Or, maybe it's Mosetta Bratton, Smith's grandmother who kept watch over both Geno and Stedman. She was a pastor, and she died just before the start of the 2012 season. "She is a big part of the reason I am here today," Geno told ESPN. "She always taught me about working hard and chasing after your goals and being a good person. . . . I play for her."
Whatever it is, it's in the mountain air at Milan Puskar Stadium. These guys are good. These guys are fun to watch. And, these guys are nice.
While many fans use the nickname Tavon Awesome, I call Austin "Twinkle Toes" for his trademark canary yellow cleats and remarkable ability to remain in bounds in traffic. I call Smith "Sweetness" for his wide smile, enormous potential, and strong faith. I call Bailey "Sticky Fingers" for the frequency with which he grabbed the pigskin out of thin air with one hand just a few feet away from me.
Mostly, I call all three players privileged to have this life-changing opportunity. Keep your heads up and prove those critics wrong, boys.
Find more photos of the Mountaineers in my sports gallery.
Photos: Andrea Nay, all rights reserved.