The transformation starts when the ball drops out of the sky into Reggie Smith's waiting grasp. At first, Smith, the Atlanta Falcons' kick returner, makes all of the usual moves. But he doesn't have much of a stride, and suddenly, in quick bursts, the pattern changes. Like this: His feet go step, step, step. Then they go step-step-step, and then stepstepstepstepstep into a circular blur. And as Smith accelerates, he huffs up his chest, hunches down his head and squares his shoulders with the distant goal line. To the oncoming defenders, the effect is absolutely screwy. In the few seconds before they collide with Smith, errant thoughts leap into their minds: This guy isn't really running—he's rolling at me like a red and silver bowling ball. And: Where do you grab hold of this thing?
So far, they've usually managed to stop Smith. That's fine; sudden stops are the expected fate of kick returners. But that's not what counts. Consider, if you will, the fierce sight of it: Reggie Smith is 5'4" and 159 pounds. He's darned near square. Officially, he's the smallest of all the 1,260 players in the NFL.
At last, there is someone in the game who can stand for all us normal folks. Our Mister Metaphor. The beauty is that Smith doesn't have to be the best—the game is already full of the best thises and thats—he just has to be the onlyest.
"I look at him this way," says Atlanta Coach Leeman Bennett. "Reggie isn't small; he's just short."
That explains it. In the Falcons' opening game two weeks ago, a 27-0 win over New Orleans, the first time Smith got his hands on the ball was on a first-quarter punt. He wheeled to start upfield and: thwack, thwack. Minus four yards. Saints Scott Pelleur and Chuck Evans fell on him. They are 6'2" and 6'3", respectively, and their combined weight is 450 pounds. One might have thought that Smith's season would end right there or, at least, that he would be suitably cowed. No way. Reggie got up, looked 'em right in the kneecaps and sneered.
At the start of the second half, Smith took the kickoff on the three-yard line and started step-step-stepping along until he reached the 25, where the sculptured curve of the Bermuda grass at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium gives way to the hard-packed dirt of the baseball infield. There waited one Frank Wattelet, an even six feet and 185 pounds. He determined that the best way to stop the roller was to throw himself in front of it. Other Saints piled on. All one could make out was a disorderly pile of buttocks and the backs of massive thighs and calves. Then Smith came crawling out. From the stands, one could see the principals exchanging pleasantries.
"It was just the usual greetings," Smith said later. "They all just smiled at me—that kind of wolfish smile—and they said, 'Sooner or later, we gonna bust your ass, little man.' "
That, of course, is what makes Smith's runs such shuddering fun. Little man, indeed. It's going to be that kind of year for all the Falcons, though, because collectively they are the lightest, yet assuredly not the most lightly regarded, team in the league. Last year Atlanta rolled through a 12-4 season only to lose to Dallas, 30-27, in the playoffs. This year the Falcons are 2-0 and see themselves playing in Super Bowl XVI.
In addition to the smallest, the Falcons also have the lightest NFL player—full-timer, that is; we're not counting one or two placekickers. The willowy Alfred Jenkins, All-Pro wide receiver with a team-leading 57 catches for 1,025 yards last season, comes in at a modest 5'9"—but weighs just 155 pounds, four fewer than Reggie Smith. He also has a 28-inch waist in a world where people have wrists at least that big around.
Smith and Jenkins sparked Atlanta's spectacular comeback in Sunday's 31-17 win at Green Bay. The Falcons were trailing 17-3 in the fourth quarter when Smith returned a punt 53 yards to the Packers' two-yard line. Atlanta scored on the next play and tied the game moments later when Jenkins caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Steve Bartkowski. For the game, Jenkins had five catches for 97 yards.
"We're like two midgets in a circus," says Smith. But Jenkins raises his eyebrows at that. "I beg your par-...."
"Well," says Smith, "you got to understand that there are tall midgets and there are short midgets."
"Oh, terrific," Jenkins says. "Are we gonna do our little-people jokes now? Is that it?" Jenkins affects a perpetual sardonic look—the sophisticate as opposed to Smith's wide-eyed, boyish appearance. Both men are neatly bearded, and both are handsome and relatively unscarred. Jenkins is 29, Smith 25. "Okaaaaaay, then," Jenkins says. "You want to know why Reggie Smith will never make the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED?"
Smith nods brightly. "Because...."
"Puh-leeze." Jenkins holds up a hand to silence his teammate. "I'll tell it. Reggie Smith will never make the cover because in the cover photograph only the top of his little bitty head and maybe his eyeballs would show up—and the rest of it would be blank space until you got to the magazine's name up at the top."
"Uh-huh," Smith says. "And what does Alfred Jenkins need so he could catch more passes and maybe become a real football hero?"
"Tell me," says Jenkins. "What do I need?"
"Elevator cleats," says Smith.
The road to survival in the NFL is tough enough, Lord knows, for the run-of-the-mill monster suety player, but it has been particularly rocky for these two. Both began as free agents, hats in hands, after every NFL club had, quite naturally, looked right over the tops of their heads in the draft.
Jenkins was the first to get established. At Atlanta's Morris Brown College he caught nine touchdown passes in his senior season, 1972. The following year he was signed by Houston as a walk-on and later cut. That disaster was followed by a stint in the World Football League; he was named MVP of the Birmingham Americans, who won the WFL's first and only championship, just in time for the whole team to crash, owing him about $8,500 in salary. Life in Atlanta has been much better. After Sunday's win at Green Bay, Jenkins was the Falcons' No. 2 alltime receiver—235 passes for 4,203 yards and 27 touchdowns—and ranked second in the NFL for receptions in consecutive games. Jenkins has caught passes in the past 75 games, but, heck, his whole NFL career is only 78 games. Mel Gray of the St. Louis Cardinals is the leader with 105. But when a player is 155 pounds and circling, he really takes a beating.
"Let's see here," Jenkins said after the New Orleans game. "I got a baaaad knot on my right leg where I was kicked. It'll swell all week. I got a bad cherry on my right hip. My shoulder throbs and my stomach hurts. And my tail.... Listen: I caught three passes today. After the third one, some friendly tackier said to me, 'Way to go, little guy,' and he patted me on the fanny. You know, the way that players do. Well, hell, his pat almost knocked me for five yards."
But all that is borderline-small stuff; more realistically, it is Reggie Smith's appearance as a full-fledged pro that is stunning. Now we're talking tiny. Just listen:
•"Actually, Reggie might have to stretch to make five-foot-four," says Bennett. "And the first impression upon seeing him is that he can't make it."
•"But he's got all that speed and hustle," says Eddie LeBaron, the Falcons' general manager, who isn't exactly towering himself at 5'7", and who was known as The Little General in his 11 years as a quarterback with the Redskins and Cowboys. "And Reggie Smith's got a certain charisma that heightens interest in the game. Uh, heightens interest—you get that?"
•"What I'd like is a guy who is 6'4" and weighs 250 pounds who can do all the same things that Smith does," says Jimmy Raye, the Falcons' receiver coach. "But what I got is Reggie. I admire him. It's not a little man's game, but he's got the ability and desire. In our exhibition game against Tampa Bay, he actually got lost behind the wedge and they couldn't find him." Raye pantomimes looking all around for Reggie, lifting his legs and shaking his pants cuffs. "And then, when they did find him, it was like they were trying to tackle a tree stump."
•And finally: "I've adjusted to rearing up, looking down at the ground just behind the line and spotting Reggie," says the 6'4" Bartkowski. "In case we need him, Smith is what you might call our fourth deputy assistant wide receiver. In fact, in a crisis, we could run a play designed just for...." He pauses to consider the wisdom of revealing the details of a play just for Smith. "But, well, just say that whenever he gets the call, he'll be ready."
He will, he will. Smith has a broad, open face, remarkably without guile, and there's no mistaking what's on his mind. He watches every game with a sort of little-boy wistfulness, head cocked, sometimes unconsciously swaying in response to the action on the field. And if there is one move he has mastered, it is the old follow-the-coach number: He drifts ghostlike behind the pacing Bennett, positioning himself so that every time the coach turns, he catches a glimpse of Reggie Smith—that is, if he looks down. Uh, hi there, Mister Bennett. I just happened to be in the neighborhood. Need any passes received?
"I've always, always wanted to do this," Smith says. "I've been a walk-on 'all my life. Listen: I didn't even start growing until I was a junior in college; I must have been all of five feet tall." This was in Durham, N.C. Smith has five sisters and one brother, and they're all little people—maybe an inch, no more, he says, between the tallest and the shortest. "And it was always the same," he says. " 'You've come to play football? Why, you'll get killed.' "
But Smith played ball, all right—kick returner and wide receiver for North Carolina Central College and by graduation in 1978 he not only hadn't been killed, but he was all-conference at both, positions. That accomplishment attracted the interest of seven pro scouts—until they actually saw Smith for real, instead of on paper. "And you know what they all told me," he says. "Ah, well."
Smith has earned not one, but two bachelor degrees, one in sociology, one in history, and after a year of grad school in guidance counseling at Indiana State he came back to Charlotte with a master plan: He would teach junior high by day and play semi-pro ball by night, for the Carolina Chargers of the American Football Association. There—at last!—an Atlanta scout spotted and signed him. But the little people in the audience shouldn't jump up and down just yet; there is more indignity to come.
"That was last year, and what I got was a free-agent trial," Smith says. "What that means is that first I had to make the 45-man roster, and then I had to make it through the first three games without being cut before I could even collect my bonus for signing." He sighs. "And it was a modest bonus." And then, after an impressive rookie start, 25 kickoff returns for a 20.5-yard average, he was injured at midseason. It isn't true that he was stepped on; he merely slipped and fell on some wet grass, spraining his right knee.
All of which meant that Smith had to make the team all over again this year. Seven punt returns for 51 yards in preseason play didn't hurt. Nor did four kickoff returns for 122 yards, an average of 30.5. Nor did five pass receptions for 74 yards, an average of 14.8. But still, the Falcons kept him hanging by his tiny thumbs until the final day of cuts. Big folks do that to little people a lot.
The specter of big folks also keeps little people awake in the wee hours. "We don't sleep well during the season," Jenkins says. "We're always thinking: Is this the day someone'll pop us off?"
"I don't like to play 'fair catch' the ball," Smith says. "I like to play let's run the ball. And I don't want to run around them; I want to run under them."
Jenkins shudders delicately at the thought. "But remember, my boy, when you're small, the officials can't see the awful things those guys do to you when they catch you."
"Thing is," says Smith, "that a bigger guy can take a bigger hit. Maybe the injury puts him down for a couple of games. But with us, if we get popped just the right way, we're out for the year. That's what makes this such an exciting gamble. Every game, man."
"Isn't he cute?" says Jenkins. "He's like a little teddy bear, isn't he?"
Well, perhaps just a little bit, at that. For a small man, Smith is deceptively wide—40-inch chest, 30-inch waist and 25-inch thighs. He's the strongest of the Falcon receivers, able to bench-press 265 pounds. He's a bachelor, whose only vices seem to be junk food and the TV soap General Hospital, and much of the time he's soberly reflective. "It's ironic, I know," he says, "but now that I've made the team, it isn't quite what I expected. I had thought all of it would be somehow more glamorous. The games are great, but keeping yourself up through the week is an enormous mental strain. I figure I'll play three more years, tops, If I'm lucky, I'll go out the way I came in: no operations, no cuts on my body. The minute somebody goes to cut me, I'm gone."
It is after the opening game now, and fresh from the shower, Smith produces a silver spray bottle of cologne. He fizzes a shot behind each ear. "When I retire, I'm going to operate a halfway house for underprivileged kids," he says. "By then, I'll have my master's degree in counseling." He tugs out the front of his plum-colored shirt and blasts a burst of the cologne down across his chest. The area just around his locker starts to take on a wildly heady aroma. "It sounds corny but I particularly want to help little kids...the runts of the world. Big kids get all the attention. I want to help the little kids gain a sense of confidence."
A few lockers away, Jenkins looks urbane and worldly, as ever. He pushes his tinted glasses up on his forehead, a studied gesture. He's wearing a pair of obviously expensive brown-and-white shoes that Fred Astaire would kill for. "As for me," he says, "I'm going to take it one season at a time, as the clichè has it. I mean, look at me: Right now I feel wonderful. That's because the adrenaline of the game is still flowing. But here's what'll happen: I'll go home and take a little nap. Then I'll get up for dinner about seven o'clock. I'll pour myself a little glass of wine. And just as I raise the wineglass to my lips: Wham! The pain will strike. And it will stay with me, everything hurting, until game time next Sunday."
"Ah, but listen," says Smith. "It's the game that counts."
Jenkins looks at his little pal and nods. It sums up their philosophy: the game, the game.
"You got it, shorty," he says.