By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was a simple comment made by West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, really, the kind that usually just slips on by in one of those group interviews that sports journalism is far too quickly turning into in this era.
Smith had been talking with the media for about the 3,000th time in the week-plus since camp started about how much bigger and stronger he had become, about how the 180-pound body that he brought to WVU four years ago now was at 225 pounds.
“For four years it was a struggle. I couldn’t ever imagine myself at 220,” he had said, explaining that he was one of those guys who enjoyed throwing the ball and doing drills aimed at helping that part of his game rather than the drudgery that came with working in the weight room.
“The hardest part was changing my mentality,” he said.
Because he did, he now finds himself primed far better to realize his greatest dream, an NFL career.
“I’m stronger on the field and I’m stronger off the field,” he said.
At that moment bells and whistles went off in at least one of the empty heads of the gathered scribes.
It was obvious how he was stronger on the field … bigger, stronger, able to take more hits.
But there was something cryptic in that off-the-field strength he referred to, and so it was as the numbers around him dwindled, that one inquiring mind wanted to push further on that subject, asking him what he meant about being stronger off the field.
It opened an intriguing door.
“Just in being a leader,” he said.
In truth, Smith may have grown more in this area than he had in the physical area that everyone has been so captivated by.
“It’s my job to make sure everyone on the team is all right,” he said.
In what way?
“Guys go through things in their personal lives,” he said. “It took me two and a half years to understand that my job is not only to make sure guys are going in the right direction on the field but off the field. It’s up to me to make sure we are going in the right direction. I let them know that I’m always here for them.”
The timing for this conversation was interesting, for just this day at the campus of the team projected to be the nation’s best — LSU — there was news that shook the college football world.
Tyrann Mathieu, known as “Honey Badger”, was considered the best player on the nation’s best team, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year but he won’t be playing this year.
He was dismissed from school for what was termed a violation of team and university rules, said to be connected to repated violation of the school’s substance abuse policy.
“I think he's a quality, quality guy who had behavioral issues," Coach Les Miles was quoted as saying.
This is exactly the kind of thing Smith is talking about, the kind of thing that might have been prevented if a teammate, a team leader, could have intervened early enough to bring Mathieu back into the fold.
It’s the kind of thing Smith is trying to do with his team, be it that kind of problem or one connected with grades or a girlfriend or an injury.
“We had guy come in and talk to us about leadership,” Smith said. “One thing he said that stuck with me is he said we should ask a teammate how his family is doing. How’s he doing in his personal life? Is he sleeping good at night? Is he eating good?
“Those are things a guy would never tell a coach because he doesn’t want him to think he’s weaker,” Smith continued. “You need to have teammates to fill that void for you. That’s what we’re here for. I think our team has gotten better at that and I know I have gotten better at it personally.”
At least one teammate knows Smith has gotten better at it. That would be running back Dustin Garrison, who has a freshman suffered a torn ACL prior to the Orange Bowl, the kind of injury that threatens a career and that is difficult for a player to deal with mentally, especially one who is a freshman.
“He would come in and see me when I was out with it,” Garrison said. “He would be asking me things like ‘How you doing?’ and encouraging me, saying ‘We are going to be need you next year. You have to get better.’”
For a freshman to have the quarterback, the team leader, take time out to care is the kind of thing that makes you work harder at rehab and to appreciate what you are missing so you want to go through what it takes to get back.
“It’s great for a young guy like me. I can see what he’s doing and I’ll be able to do it with younger guys,” Garrison said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.