FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Geno Smith still remembers what Jay-Z said. Three years after signing with the rap mogul’s sports agency, Roc Nation, the Jets’ backup quarterback still heeds the advice of its successful CEO.
“The best thing Jay-Z told me was: Always keep your feet on the ground because that way you don’t have to fall,” Smith told Newsday just before heading into the facility Tuesday. “So I’m never going to fall because I’m always 10 toes down. That keeps me focused and that allows me to hit a rough patch and not even think about it.”
Smith hit more than just “a rough patch.” He was hit in the face by former teammate Ikemefuna Enemkpali almost one year ago. That act of aggression in the Jets’ locker room on Aug. 11, 2015, became Smith’s career-altering moment.
He not only lost his starting job last summer to then-backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he also watched recently as Fitzpatrick returned from his seven-month free-agency hiatus to reclaim the No. 1 spot just as training camp began.
As Smith approached the year anniversary of “The Punch” — the exact moment his career was sent careening toward uncertainty — he didn’t mince words.
“I’m still (ticked) off,” he said. “Every man in this building should be (ticked) off if they’re not starting. And if they’re comfortable with just being here, then I think there’s something wrong.
“I’ve been a starter my whole life, leading a team my whole life, leading guys my whole life, so to take a step back is kind of different for me. But it’s not a negative thing. I’m not going to let it break me or define me. Instead, I choose to have a great attitude about it, I choose to get better at practice and allow certain things to fuel me. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
The punch stemmed from mounting frustrations over an unpaid $600 debt, sources said at the time. Smith’s jaw, which was broken in two places, had to be surgically repaired. But it wasn’t until September that he acknowledged the depths of his anger. “I’m extremely (ticked). But I have to keep my temper down,” he told Newsday on Sept. 16, 2015, in his first detailed comments about the punch.
On Nov. 10, 2015, Smith told Newsday he never was obligated to pay Enemkpali any money. “I didn’t owe him,” he said. “No. That’s the biggest misconception in America.’”
Although he’s done dwelling on the past, he sees why the altercation raised so many questions about his own mental makeup.
“I think the incident kind of took a shot at my character. And I understand it,” he said. “Because whatever it is, I’ve got to own and I’ve got to man up. And that’s why I chose not to ever make an excuse, to ever put it on anyone or point the finger. I just own it, suck it up. What do you do? Do you improve or do you allow it to define you?”
Smith doesn’t doubt his ability, nor does he question whether he’ll get another chance to be a starter. But he insisted he’s focused only on “what’s here in front of me with the Jets.”
“This was the team that drafted me to come here and be the franchise guy,” he said. “And I had my rough patches and I’ll honestly admit any mistake that I’ve made. But I’ve also gained a bunch of experience, I’ve gotten better in so many areas. And there’s a bunch of people that’ll tell you that. But when you’re not out there on the field and you can’t exhibit it, it’s hard for that to be proven.”
His audition for a starting job officially begins Thursday night in the Jets’ preseason opener against Jacksonville. But from the sound of it, Smith hasn’t given up hope that he could be the face of the organization again — even with Fitzpatrick here.
“I don’t feel like no door is closed,” Smith said. “Every guy’s got an opportunity to prove himself and become a franchise guy. And when that time comes, it’ll show. Whether you’re ready or not.”
But will he get the chance to be “the guy” with the Jets?
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” Smith said. “I believe in my ability, man. Being a backup quarterback isn’t the worst thing in the world. But I don’t see myself as a backup quarterback.
“I see this as the position I’m in right now and it’s a test of my character. It’s a test of, ‘Do you really believe that you’re as good as you say you are? Or do you just think it?’ Because if you believe it, you don’t worry about it.”