WEST VIRGINIA QUARTERBACK GENO SMITH MAY BE A CELEBRITY IN MORGANTOWN, BUT HE gets no special treatment when he returns home to Miami. When he walks into his mother's house, he's just one of her four children. "Doesn't matter what you do on the field," says his mom, Tracey Sellers. "When you are in Miss Tracey's home, please pick up your socks." She laughs, then explains. "One day you're gonna be somebody's husband, and I never want that young lady to carry the burden by herself."
Smith is the eldest of the four. "She had me at a very young age, so it was just me and her growing up," says the third-year starter, who has thrown for 7,457 yards and 56 touchdowns over his Mountaineers career. That includes a school-record 4,385 yards to go with 31 TDs (and just seven picks) in 2011. "She's my motivation. She keeps me humble. ... She never put pressure on me, but she wanted me to succeed. She preaches perfection and asks me to do my best."
That doesn't just apply to football. Says Sellers, "I'm the cheerleader for academics. I would do a cartwheel for an A."
Although Sellers encourages her son to focus on schoolwork and devote time to his favorite nonfootball pursuit, art (he received a scholarship to and almost attended the New World School of the Arts in Miami until he realized the commute would prevent him from playing sports in high school), football is front and center for Smith.
"It's my whole life," he says. In the first photo taken of him as a newborn in the hospital, his hands are held as if cradling a football. By the age of six, still an only child, he was running up and down the halls of the family's apartment complex, throwing the ball to himself. In elementary school he got into trouble for sneaking a football in his backpack for recess. At 10, his uncle signed him up for youth football, and he began competing against—and often outplaying—kids up to four years older than he was.
For Sellers, the depth of her son's love for the sport—and the excitement he could generate while playing it—came as a surprise. "I don't think I really understood his passion until I sat in the high school stands," she says of watching the Parade All-America at Miramar High. "In youth football I was just cutting orange slices and bringing Capri Sun. I never called him Geno, always Eugene. In the high school stands people would cheer, 'Geno!' They had shirts with his name on it."
Smith, of course, knew he was crazy about football. What he didn't realize until he got his first scholarship offer, from Boston College, was that he was really good. He would receive more than 20 offers but committed to play for the Mountaineers in November of his senior year.
Among his highlights at West Virginia has been the 70--33 rout of Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl, held at Sun Life Stadium, which he could see from his childhood home. (As a kid he use to climb atop the family minivan and watch games on the giant video screen.) Smith was named MVP and set Orange Bowl records with six touchdowns and 401 passing yards. Now a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, he won't lay odds on himself. "I could care less about [winning the Heisman]," he says. "I want to win 13 games. The way I see it, if we win every game and we win a national championship, then maybe. There's plenty of guys out there working as hard as I am."
Even if he does win the trophy, he'll still be picking up his own socks at home. "It wouldn't matter if he won the Heisman three times," his mother says with a laugh. "He still has his responsibilities."