West Virginia's Smith, Bailey connect on faith, football field

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In the quiet moments before the noise and spectacle of a college football game blasts his senses, Stedman Bailey sits quietly at his locker, frees his mind and prays.

In those same moments, Geno Smith puts aside his final game preparation to say his own prayer: "Let your will be done."

Long before quarterback Smith and receiver Bailey connected for those highlight-reel passes that have helped No. 9 West Virginia step into the national spotlight this season, the two came together for something far deeper -- a faith in God that first bonded them one Sunday morning in the back of a quiet church in the Miami suburbs. Today, in an understated way, it still connects them.

"One thing that I know, win or lose, I still have a lot to live for. It's only a game," said Smith.

The two knew of one another in middle school, but connected during a teen prayer group one Sunday morning while they were in high school, asking the other about his Friday night game. They went to different high schools at the time.

"We talked about everyday life, and that's how we started our bond, just sitting in church," said Bailey. "It got us thinking."

Said Smith: "I'd see him on TV, but that's really how we met, in church. We figured out we probably should play together."

Soon, both would be attending and playing for the same Florida high school, Miramar, and praying alongside one another on Sundays before making their way to the mountains of West Virginia.

Today, their families attend services at New Direction Christian Center in Miami Lakes, Fla., where Bailey's mom is a fervent supporter and church leader and where Smith's paternal grandmother, Joann Smith, is a pastor.

"I believe God has the answers," said Smith. "The Lord has always been a part of my life, he's always leading me, guiding me in the right direction."

Neither family thrusts their beliefs upon others but simply have a deep faith and strong spiritual side, said Tracey Sellers, Smith's mother.

"I would say we're very spiritual people. We are not overly religious," said Sellers. "Even when Geno was in high school and they played football, you'd always see them kneel and pray together.

"It's not an act. It's actually who they are. It's not about football. I think that stability has kept them grounded. Knowing they have to be accountable."

That's the important message, said the pair's spiritual leader, Pastor Harry T. McCain who sees a humility in Smith and Bailey that he believes comes from that connection to something bigger than themselves.

McCain makes it a ritual to call Bailey and Smith every week on the phone when they are at school, usually Fridays around 9 p.m., sometimes again on game-day morning.

"I pray with them over the phone. I encourage them and pray that they have success and are free of injuries," said McCain.

He has known Bailey for more than 15 years.

"Stedman truly loves the Lord. That's first and foremost. What I really respect about Stedman is that with all of his success his humility amazes me the most," said McCain. "It doesn't matter how well he does in a game, how many yards he has, he's so humble. He's really rooted and grounded because the success hasn't gone to his head."

When home, neither misses a Sunday morning service.

"My pastor is a really great guy," said Smith. "He always calls me, wishes us well, says a prayer for us. I think it really helps us out, makes us comfortable."

In a time when Smith is on the cover of national magazines and a front-runner for his sport's most coveted award, the Heisman Trophy, the connection to something bigger than himself is important, said Sellers.

Bailey is among college football's most-talented receivers, making plays each week that will undoubtedly lead him to the NFL soon.

In three games this year the pair have combined for 28 pass completions, 332 yards and 5 touchdowns.

"When I think of those two, it makes me a little teary-eyed sometimes. They play two different positions but they have a lot of things in common," Sellers said. "They're like brothers more so than friends. They went to the same school, fellowship at the same church. That's what you call a friendship."

Bailey also prays with his mom on Friday nights, then, after waking up in the team's hotel on game days, reads an excerpt from the athlete's prayer.

"Once I get to the sideline, I look up in the sky and say to myself that was for you God," said Bailey.

He finds his strength in Philippians 4:13.

"I can do all things through Christ. He strengthens me," said Bailey.

"That's something I repeat to myself just about every day. There's times I may be feeling down about something or may be facing something I may think I can't get through, I lean on this.

"If God is with me, then nothing can come against me."


Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JennMenendez. First Published September 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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