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May 12, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Mountaineers learning NFL facts of life

MORGANTOWN — Day one of the rest of their lives as NFL players is over, and quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey have begun what they hope is a decades-long journey to the same kind of stardom that they found in college.

They also have learned a few facts of life in the NFL spotlight.

For Smith, of course, it is a lesson that started on draft day when he was overlooked in the first round before the New York Jets finally grabbed him, a lesson that continued when the media painted him as a prima donna and a diva, an impression that was only magnified a couple days later when he fired his agent and found anonymous criticisms being floated around in public.

So it was that while Smith’s first day under center should have been 100 percent football-oriented, much of it came with him trying to win back some respect from the New York-area media, a group that spends far more time looking for things wrong than things that are right.

It appears Smith made some strides in that direction, judging from a story written by Steve Politi of the Newark Star Ledger.

“Geno Smith practiced with the other Jets rookies on Friday, which means he avoided becoming the first quarterback in NFL history run out of town before actually getting there,” wrote Politi in his lead.

He then explained how Smith had been treated since draft day.

“Since the Jets drafted him three weeks ago, Smith has been labeled (anonymously, of course) an immature diva with a marginal work ethic, one who allegedly had spent pre-draft meetings with team officials texting and tweeting with his friends,” he wrote.

But when this was brought up in a post-practice interview, this was how Smith handled it:

“I don’t think anyone who’s worked with me or known me in the past has had bad things to say,” Smith said. “I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on what I have here with the Jets, bettering myself daily and trying to master the offense and just being one of the guys.”

Prima donna? Diva? Hardly.

“So anyone who came to Florham Park looking for a diva found a deferential rookie, one who gathered with his offensive linemen before his first night of training camp to go over the cadences,” Politi wrote, capping it off with this analysis, one that says the former West Virginia University quarterback is changing opinions on his own.

“There was no immature diva here,” Politi wrote. “Smith looked and talked like an NFL quarterback. Now if he actually looks like one on the field, the Jets might be on to something.”

There was, of course, another fact of life with the New York Jets in this for anyone who is listening. Smith was a second-round draft pick going through his first day of rookie camp, yet the media kept statistics on his practice performance, and he found himself featured that night on SportsCenter.

Not that Smith was alone.

Austin has been learning a little bit about NFL life himself.

He and his WVU teammate Bailey went through their first day of rookie camp with the St. Louis Rams, who had taken Austin with the No. 8 pick in the first round of the draft and snatched up Bailey in the third round.

Austin’s lesson was a lot different from what Smith’s has been, for while Smith had to win people over, Austin has come up with thousands of new friends, “cousins” as he put it.

See, last year’s ninth selection in the NFL draft, linebacker Luke Kuechly, was rewarded with a fully guaranteed $12.48 million deal with the Carolina Panthers, and this year, with the No. 8 pick, Austin’s contract should be similar to that.

There’s nothing like $12.5 million to uncover new branches of the family tree.

“Everybody expects a lot of things from you as far as money goes,” Austin answered when asked what his biggest challenge is as he heads into the NFL.

“Everybody wants to be around you. My phone doesn’t stop ringing now. I changed my number once. I hope it doesn’t get out now. It feels like they’re counting my bank account now. That’s probably the hardest thing for me right now, just people.”

People?

“I’ve got a lot of cousins now,” he laughed.

Austin says he has a plan to keep it from distracting him.

“We’re going to just try to keep focused and let my mother and all of them handle it,” he said. “I watch ‘30-for-30’ and see how they go broke. I know how they feel.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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