From youth leagues to the pros, nearly every athlete learns a hard lesson from team sports: There’s always someone better than you.
No matter how much you work, how many coaches you experience, how many protein shakes you drink, someone is better than you.
That truism so understood that it is rarely discussed. Which doesn’t mean it can’t be celebrated when one of us breaks through.
It’s Geno Smith week.
Raise your glass, your voice, your eyes.
Seahawks fans crave Russell Wilson, because he’s one of the winningest athletes in NFL history. But somewhere this week, try to appreciate the moment for the backup who would have been far more likely to enter games for another NFL club, instead of playing behind a guy who does Iron Man better than Robert Downey Jr.
Smith chose to stay here for three years, waiting for a bad thing to happen to make a good thing happen for him — starting a nationally televised game of the week, in Pittsburgh, legendary for the bellicosity of its fans, who know, at 2-3, their Steelers team is as desperate as the Seahawks.
In an athlete life more recently filled with awkward moments — like Wilson sincerely complimenting him on how Smith made the right call on a pre-kickoff coin flip — it’s a chance to show, a week after his 31st birthday, he has a new element to his game: Patience.
“Not getting that opportunity for a number of years was a test for patience,” Smith said Thursday at the media podium at the VMAC. “I think the biggest growth came with just being patient, and that’s with all things. That goes for playing quarterback on the field.”
A big-time star at West Virginia, Smith in four years threw for more than 11,000 yards with a 67 percent completion rate. In the 2013 NFL draft, a year after Wilson was taken in the third round by Seattle, Smith went in the second round (39th overall) to the New York Jets.
By the second season, his impatience became clear in a week 8 game against Buffalo. He was benched at halftime for Michael Vick after completing two passes in eight attempts with three interceptions. His starting career was further derailed when his jaw was broken by a sucker-punch from a teammate in a locker room altercation.
Yet he betrays no bitterness about his five years in New York.
“I think it was awesome for me,” he said. “Any time you get adversity, it’s a chance for you to show what you are really about and to respond. Looking back on it, in that moment, was I totally aware of that? Probably not. But as you go on, you just grow and see how those things can help and shape you to get better.
“When I was coming out of college, we put up so many points that I was so used to scoring all of the time. That was my mentality. In the NFL, you aren’t going to score every time. I’m a lot more patient now with my reads. My footwork has gotten a lot better. I think it’s paying off in the game.”
After four years with the Jets, he spent a year backing up Eli Manning with the Giants and a year backing up Philip Rivers with the Chargers. Then he came to Seattle.
In the off-season, despite little game action in Seattle, he had interest around the league.
“There were other suitors, and they were being patient with it, as was I,” he said. “There were good teams that called and made strong offers.”
A reluctance to move his family during the pandemic played a role in his reluctance to relocate. The larger reason was familiarity.
“The reality was that I was comfortable here with the team, coaches, front office, and all of the players,” he said. “I’m happy I made the decision to stay here. It wasn’t significant enough for me to want to change.
“For me, there is always the ‘what if?’ You can sit out (as a free agent), and someone gets injured, so they bring you in. But they would also have to choose you. There are other guys out there who they could choose from as well. Russell hasn’t missed a game up until this point, which is something you think about, but you are always one play away, as you can see.”
After Wilson came out of the Rams game with a torn tendon and a fracture in his middle finger, Smith entered in a terrible position: Down two scores and stuck at the two-yard line. Five completions on five passes later, he lobbed a 14-yard pass to DK Metcalf for a touchdown.
“I came in a little bit of a tough situation,” he said. “They were pretty much in pass rush mode so there was no real threat of a run in that situation. Overall, I feel like we moved the ball and got points. But we came up short in the end. That’s what I’ve been focusing on. “
Smith’s final pass became an interception only because his target, WR Tyler Lockett, was tripped and fell, but drew no foul.
The TD drive brought him some cred with coach Pete Carroll.
“Not that it was a surprise, but I was pleased for him and happy for us, knowing that we need him,” he said. “Geno has a really good position on this team. He has been highly thought of by the organization, by his teammates, and the fans responded too.
“He’s going to be really tuned in, he’s really smart with the scheme and system, really sharp in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. He gives himself every chance to have a good performance and help us win.”
He’s not better than Wilson. He is better than the Smith of his NFL youth.
“I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t hard,” he said of the demotion to backup. “I have that ultimate faith in myself, my ability, and my preparation. Then I had to just dig deep and say forget it, I’m just going to work and be the best I can be every single day, while not worrying about the outside factors.”
In his post-game interview after the Rams loss, Smith admitted how hard it has been to forget.
“Sometimes I fight back tears before the games, like, man, I wish I could be out there,” he said. “The reality is, you’ve got to prepare.”
He’s prepared. It’s Geno Smith week.