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Athletic Delusion In Sports: Russell Shepard, Geno Smith & Uncle Rico

Why is it that so many athletes can't manage their lives? Because they can't be honest with themselves.

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia QB Geno Smith made headlines during the NFL draft, slipping out of the first round into the second (and from the building itself) as the second QB taken overall behind EJ Manuel, but it was his activities post-draft that confirmed my sense of what will probably be a brief professional career.

After Geno's fall, which was not any great surprise, he lashed out by firing his agent.

Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News wrote that Smith believed he "would be and should be" the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. When he didn't make the first round, the agents paid the price.

The absurdity of a client firing his agent after being embarrassed by a free market assessment of his talent is odd enough, even if that sports agent was doing shiatsu on his client's ego, because it also requires a willingness to be dishonest about your own reality and to be deceived by a support network of friends and family looking to promulgate the lie. Athletes that live a lie, no matter how talented, either grow up very quickly or they fail miserably.

Especially in New York. Ask Tim Tebow.

Former 5 star Texas recruit and LSU disappointment Russell Shepard would have benefitted from a chat with reality, too. His explanation for not being drafted?

"I actually took myself off the draft board during the draft," Shepard told Matt Moscona of WNXX, via "Teams started calling me probably in the middle of the sixth-round asking me 'is it true that you’ve signed with a team already?' and I actually got it out of the way before the draft was over, because that was the perfect fit for me."

Unfortunately, that's not true. Shepard's self-perception as an elite football player and his actual college career are still in contradiction, and he doesn't have the tools to reconcile them. See, I could have been drafted if I'd wanted to, but I'd already signed with the Eagles!

That forced the Philadelphia Eagles to end his fanciful imaginings, by issuing this statement:

"Russell Shepard has not signed a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. However, we did come to terms on a contract with he and his agent after the draft was completed. We anticipate he, like all of the rookie free agents we have agreed to terms with, will take a physical examination upon arriving in Philadelphia prior to next week’s rookie mini-camp and then sign a contract."

This delusional impulse isn't limited to pro athletes, of course.

My favorite non-sports threads on sports boards, aside from the ones where an international model or gorgeous actress is ruthlessly picked apart for her physical appearance by social misfits with chronic eczema, are the ones in which people detail their fabled high school athletic exploits, bulwarked by claims of outlandish 40 times, David Thompsonesque vertical leaps, and a ridiculous bench press.

Surprisingly, all of these dominant anonymous athletes had their future NFL/NBA/MLB/pro boxing careers sidetracked by a knee injury, a coach unfairly benching them, or having to quit the sport because they wanted to focus on slide trombone and their grandma's medical bills. What might have been!

So maybe this as much a human impulse as an athletic one. The difference is that internet bullshitting about your athletic prowess won't actively interfere with your ability to make a living as an accountant. And there's no support network for your folly. At worst, it just makes you douchey. However, athletes who can't be honest about their game and, in the larger sense, their lives, are in real peril. What's the impetus for growth and improvement?

Which reminds me of an interview I once saw years ago with a bunch of different NBA players, talking about what they'd be doing if they hadn't played basketball. A collection of dudes who largely couldn't crack 850 on the SAT held forth about how they'd be high powered sports agents, CEOs, fashion designers with their own clothing line, media moguls, and professional rappers. All of them would still be famous. All of them would still be rich.

Until they got to Laker great Magic Johnson.

Magic said, "I'd have gone to work on the assembly line in Flint., Michigan. With some luck, I'd have worked myself up to shift manager. If the plant closed down, I'd be in a really tough spot."

Many of those players who earned millions never maximized their playing potential and are struggling financially today, in part because they were never capable of honest self-appraisal.

Today, Magic Johnson is one of the best five players to ever play the game, Magic Johnson Enterpises is worth over a billion dollars, Johnson holds a partnership stake (worth 50 million) in the LA Dodgers, and he has a personal net worth somewhere north of 500 million.