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Knocked out: How Jets QB Geno Smith views The Punch one year later

ESPN Illustration

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On Aug. 11, 2015, Geno Smith arrived early to the New York Jets' facility, eager for the final practice before he started at quarterback in the first preseason game. He never made it to that practice.

Or the game.

Or back to his old job.

In a split second, Smith's career arc was destroyed by a teammate's fist. There was a locker room altercation with IK Enemkpali, and Smith was punched in the face by the 260-pound linebacker. The punch fractured his jaw in two places, and Smith needed surgery. It became national news that transcended sports: NFL starting quarterback gets sacked by teammate!

Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the incident that blindsided the Jets and stunned the NFL. Smith's post-punch job status hasn't changed -- he's still backing up Ryan Fitzpatrick -- but there's a noticeable difference in his demeanor.

In an interview with ESPN.com, Smith spoke openly about that day and how it has affected his life, in stark contrast to last season's clipped and sometimes grumpy comments. This time, he was upbeat. Smith painted it as a positive turning point and called it the day he became a man. In his next breath, the 25-year-old morphed into fiery competitor mode, revealing an inner obsession.

"It was so easy to say, 'Hey, this is not my fault. I'm the victim here, and this guy should be going to jail.' Instead, I manned up. I owned it. I took responsibility for whatever actions I had in that altercation, and I chose to let that fuel me to become a better man and a better player." Geno Smith, on his outlook a year after being punched by a teammate

"Every day I'm pissed off until I get my job back," he said. "Until I'm a starting quarterback, I'm pissed off every day. That's my mentality, that's my competitive nature. I want to win so badly, deep inside of me. I'm not pissed off at anyone, but I do believe I'm a starting quarterback in this league, and I believe I can do great things."

After the punch, Smith's leadership was questioned by some in the media, with an undercurrent of criticism that suggested he instigated the incident because he hadn't paid a $600 debt to Enemkpali. There were similar whispers among teammates, only a few of whom offered strong public support. Two people in the locker room that day declined to comment for this story, with one saying, "I'm not touching that one."

It's still a sensitive subject around the team. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall was hesitant to discuss it. "A lot of us were in awe, shocked a little bit because he was doing so well," he said.

Smith was upset by the way it was portrayed. "Sometimes perception is reality," he said. But he never lashed out at Enemkpali, who was released by the Jets and picked up immediately by the Buffalo Bills.

"When I look back on this when I'm 40, 50 years old, I'll ask myself, 'What time in my life made me a man?' I think this was that time in my life," he said. "It was so easy to say, 'Hey, this is not my fault. I'm the victim here, and this guy should be going to jail.' Instead, I manned up. I owned it. I took responsibility for whatever actions I had in that altercation, and I chose to let that fuel me to become a better man and a better player."

Smith wasn't entrenched as the Jets' quarterback, but he was the presumptive opening day starter. He got Wally Pipped, as Fitzpatrick played well and became a locker room favorite. Smith, who was 11-18 as the starter in 2013 and 2014, felt he was entitled to his starting role upon returning from his two-month injury.

"I was so mad for a bunch of reasons, but I didn't know who to direct the anger at," he said. "I leaned on Brandon, and I leaned on my faith. I read the [Bible] more, and I really started to understand that, in life, some things just aren't fair.

"Of course, yeah, I expected to get my job back once I came back, but that didn't happen. So what do you do? Do you begin to pout? Do you give up on your dreams? Or do you keep moving forward, keep pressing forward and understand that things will come back around?"

Marshall became the quarterback's biggest ally and visited Smith at home during breaks in training camp. He tried to lighten the mood by bringing Smith candy even though he couldn't eat solid food. Marshall saw his friend on an emotional roller coaster.

"He had some good days and some bad days, but every day he got up and he just fought," Marshall said. "I remember there were days when I saw it in his eyes. He was down. We sat down, and we talked, and we just got through it together. There were days where he was awesome. But every single day was the same approach, whether it was good or bad."

Smith made it through the season but played in only one game as an injury replacement for Fitzpatrick. On the morning after Super Bowl 50, he started offseason workouts with Bo Smith, who runs a training facility in Miami. They were all-day workouts five days a week, until the Jets' offseason program began in April. Workouts included weight-room sessions, sprints, aerobics and passing drills.

Smith returned to the Jets as the nominal starter, as he held the job during Fitzpatrick's contract dispute. He told friends he was ready to lead the team, but you know what happened: Fitzpatrick signed on the eve of training camp, and it was back to No. 2 for Smith.

First it was a punch in the jaw, then it was a kick in the gut.

Trying to find a silver lining, Marshall said Smith's post-punch time on the bench "was the best thing that could've happened for him in his career. He was able to take a step back and slow down the learning process, see how Fitz works, sit back in the meeting rooms and watch how Fitz communicates."

It has been a turbulent three-plus years for Smith, who admitted he sometimes asked himself, "Why is this happening?" Despite two inconsistent seasons, he firmly believes he can be an outstanding quarterback.

"If you look at the history of great quarterbacks, from Joe Montana being picked late to Tom Brady being picked late to Steve Young and what he faced in his early years to Kurt Warner ... I mean, all those guys -- Troy Aikman -- struggled in the beginning," Smith said. "But somehow, they continued to press on and got better."

Smith, a free agent after this season, said his career will make "a great story" someday. In reality, there's no way to know if he'll get another chance to lead a football team. Ironically, Enemkpali could get a chance to be a starter for the Bills because first-round pick Shaq Lawson is injured.

Everything changed in the blink of an eye one year ago.

"It seems like an eternity because I've buried it behind me and I've gotten so much better on the field and off the field from that point," Smith said. "It seems like an eternity. You're right, it was only a year ago, but that goes to show how much someone can improve and how much you can grow in just a year."