In the hills of Greece at the turn of the century there lived a giant. The giant's name was George Smerlas, but everyone called him the Tree. The Tree was seven feet tall and weighed 350 pounds, and in a country suffused with legend he soon earned a place in the folklore of the time. It was said that when he cleared the land, he would uproot trees with his hands. Once, when he was coming home from work, a mountain lion attacked him. The Tree grappled with the beast and ripped its tail off, and the lion fled. The story spread, and people would travel great distances to look at this modern Hercules.
The Tree's descendants eventually immigrated to America. They were sturdy people, hard workers, and some of them were athletes, but there were no giants among them. Then, on April 8, 1957, Peter Smerlas, who stood 5'10", and his 5'6" wife, Katina, gave birth to a robust boy they named Fred. He was the great-great-nephew of the Tree.
Fred was born with a full head of hair. The priest twice gave Peter and Katina permission to cut it before baptizing him. At six months Fred was already walking. "Nobody believes it," says Fred now. "But my mother will tell you it's true."
Soon after, he climbed onto a window ledge of his family's ranch-style home in Waltham, Mass. When his parents saw him, he was laughing. "He was a jovial baby," says Katina.
November 14, 1988
Fred was shaving in the eighth grade, bench-pressing 440 pounds in the 12th. By then he stood 6'3" and weighed 250 pounds. Two years later he would weigh 305. The Tree's genes had skipped two generations and settled in him.
In the hills of Greece, Fred would have been a worthy successor to his legendary ancestor, a mighty man with plow or ax, but in the New World a youngster with size, speed, power and quickness of hand and eye goes into sports. As a schoolboy Fred excelled at football, wrestling, weightlifting and the shot put, and at present he is thriving in an NFL career that is a testimony to his indestructibility.
Fred is in his 10th season with the Buffalo Bills, for whom he plays nose-guard, the most brutal position in football. Only one other player in NFL history—Rubin Carter, who played 152 games at noseguard for the Denver Broncos—has lined up at that spot more times than Smerlas, who has played in 140 games, 130 as a starter. Smerlas holds the record for consecutive starts—the number depends on how you want to handle last year's player strike. If you throw out the three strike games, then Smerlas, who didn't cross the picket line, is working on a string of 127. If you end the streak at the start of the strike, then the number is 107. Either way it's a record. Curley Culp, who set the standard by which nose-guards are measured, lasted 14 years in the league, but was at noseguard in only six of them—77 starts. The rest of the time he was a defensive tackle.
So how does Smerlas do it? First of all, you have to consider his body. Hairy as a bear, thick as a barrel, Smerlas weighs 290 to 300 pounds during the season and as much as 330 in the off-season. He's massive through the legs, which have absorbed a decade of cut-blocking, double-teams and crackbacks. Then there's the matter of pain. Smerlas hasn't missed a game because of injury since he partially tore cartilage in his right knee at the end of 1979, his rookie year.
"He's played with a hyperextended elbow and a pinched rotator cuff," says Bills trainer Eddie Abramoski. "He's played with a sprained ankle that was twice its normal size and a wrist that was so badly sprained he couldn't bend it. 'Tape me up,' he said. He puts pain out of his mind. He'll play as long as I tell him no permanent harm could result."
Loud and boisterous—you can stand in the hallway and know immediately whether Smerlas is in the locker room—he plays the game the way they did 50 years ago. "Are you Zorba the Greek?" a TV man asked him a few years ago after a game.
"Absorba the Greek," Smerlas said.
He ended four of his early seasons with appearances in the Pro Bowl. After that came a slump and rumors that he was washed up. Then a renaissance. "He's playing as well as he ever has," says Buffalo coach Marv Levy. "Even better."
History will judge Smerlas to have been one of the greatest noseguards ever. The guys in the locker room consider him a pain in the...well, Freddy's Freddy. "Look at that locker," Abramoski says, pointing to the chaos in Smerlas's cubicle. "Five years ago there was a mouse in here, but it wouldn't go in Freddy's locker. Too dirty."
"Yeah, but it ate there," says Smerlas.
"How about that desk you bought for $39?" yells Jim Kelly, the quarterback. "Tell him about your $39 desk."
"True Value was running a special on it all week for $39," says Smerlas. "A prefab you put together yourself. So I bought one. Now it's selling for $29."
"A prefab desk—that's you, Freddy!" says Kelly.
"Hey, Kelly, better put your hat on," Smerlas roars, pointing to Kelly's thinning hair. "An eagle's flying around, and he thinks your head is an egg."
"He calls up my wife, Harriett," says guard Jim Ritcher, the only Buffalo player who's hairier than Smerlas, "and he says, 'This is Frank's Landscaping. We've been hired to groom Jim's back.'
"Harriett says, 'Now Fred, you quit that,' and he says, 'Yeah, well I guess Jim needs to get a good night's sleep. He has to shave tomorrow.' "
A newspaper reporter is interviewing Smerlas after the Sept. 25 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Are you afraid of overconfidence now that you're 4-0?" asks the scribe.
"Nah, it's not the makeup of this team," says Smerlas.
"What is its makeup?"
"Light eyeliner, a little blush," Smerlas says.
When he was at Boston College, a few of the coaches termed Smerlas uncoachable. "You know why?" he says. "Because I asked questions. When I'm interviewed, I say what I want to say. Hank Bullough, the coach who was fired when they brought Marv Levy in here, said, 'You're one of those quotable guys, aren't you?' Then I was told not to talk. Me not talk. Sure."
In his later years, though, Smerlas has learned obedience—of sorts. "We have a dress code on trips," he says. "Shirt, tie and jacket. I've got this Hawaiian shirt I wear every trip. This year one of the rookies said, 'Oh, that's a Hawaiian shirt,' and I said, 'Very good, you pass the test.' I wear that shirt and a red tie I haven't unknotted in five years. I just slip it over."
When linebacker Jim Haslett was with the Bills, he and Smerlas had an unusual pregame ritual. "We'd go through the game program in the locker room and compare our pictures with the other team's and then vote, position by position, to see which team was uglier. The Patriots were a team we always beat. Ugliest team of the '80s? Atlanta.
"If I was in early enough, I'd get a whole box of game programs. I'd cut out the eyes and the nose of Joe Danelo, our kicker. You know, he had that great big schnozz, and I'd paste it over everyone's picture. I'd make a whole team of Joe Danelos. Then I'd cut out Jim Ritcher's face and make a Mr. Potato Head and paste Reggie McKenzie's bald fringe on top. This kid, Joe Azelby, a linebacker from Harvard, came by one time, and he said, I always wondered how you prepared for a game. Now I know.' "
So what's the story? Was Smerlas always a wacko, or has he just played too many games at noseguard? "He was a pudgy kid with ears sticking out," says Smerlas's older brother, Peter, who holds a master's in psychology from the University of Massachusetts. "Every year he wanted a chemistry set. He was like a little mad scientist. He wasn't interested in sports. He'd make bombs. You'd leave him in the cellar alone, and pretty soon you'd hear a boom. Then at night he'd talk to himself. That's why I studied psychology, to figure him out."
"Right up to high school I was a nice quiet kid, very mellow, never wanted to fight," says Smerlas. "My first day at Central Junior High, here was old Freddy in his checkered pants and penny loafers. I walked down the aisle in my first class, and a kid sucker-punched me. I went down to the nurse. 'What happened?' she said. I said, 'I don't know.'
"Kids would roll apples and pennies down the aisles. One kid threw a knife and it stuck in the wall next to the teacher. I'd go home and look in the mirror—chubby, goofy-looking kid with big ears—and I'd say, 'Man, I've got to do something to survive here.' So I started lifting weights. And I'd hit a speed bag—I was always quick with my hands—and run with combat boots on. My body started to change.
"I never forgot, though. When I was in junior high a kid jacked me up one day and stole a quarter. Seven years later, when I was at BC, I saw him downtown in a Volkswagen. I ran over and started smashing the car with my fists. He said, 'What the hell are you doing?'
"I said, 'Seven years ago you stole a quarter from me.'
"He said, 'What are you, nuts or something?'
"I said, 'You shouldn't have done it. See, it's come back to haunt you.' "
Smerlas started playing football as a 190-pound 10th-grader. Eventually he became a high school All-America as well as the New England heavyweight wrestling champ in his junior and senior years. He was 60-0 on the mat during that span. Fifty-eight of those victories came on pins, 50 in the first period. "Wrestling was natural for me," he says. "I'd look at a move and I'd know it. In my senior year a kid lasted 1:01 and got a standing ovation. Mothers used to come up to me and say, 'Don't hurt my son.' I'd tell them, 'I'm not going to hurt him, just pin him.' "
Smerlas ran around with a lively group. It was called Freddy's Army, and everyone wore a trench coat. Among the enlistees were Rockhead McCarthy; the Martin brothers, Tiny and George; Paul Delaney, who was nicknamed Muncher because he used to take bites out of people; and Tommy Hernandez, who was known as Tommy the Pimp because he drove a big green Cadillac. "One of the teachers thought he was a real pimp," says Smerlas. "He asked him to fix him up with a girl."
College recruiters were always around. "Every day when I came home from school, there would be someone showing my parents movies of some college," says Smerlas.
He wound up at BC with his friend David Poirier, whose father had coached them at Waltham High. "David was a quarterback in high school," says Smerlas, "but they made him a linebacker at BC. He had a head like concrete. Once he was running down the field, and he lost his helmet hitting a guy. So he hit another guy without it. He'd point to his forehead and say, 'Go ahead, hit me.' I did—and broke a knuckle.
"Six guys were in our room at BC. We had pig roasts out back. I must have been thrown out of the dorm six times—and reinstated. In the summers we'd go back to the P & P Gym in Waltham and lift weights. The place was filled with 250-and 260-pound screamers. Eat and sweat and lift, that's all they did. This one guy—he was about 40—had tattoos all over his body, even his ears. He was from Europe—he'd been in prison for five years and had stowed away on a boat. He used to beat himself with a wire brush until the blood flowed to get ready to lift.
"Sometimes we'd go down to this restaurant in Sudbury—JT's. It's closed now. Lobster, all you can eat, for $19.95. One night 10 guys ate 180 lobsters. There'd be a line of fat people outside. It looked like a zoo. I'd be ashamed to go there. It was the fat persons' fix. They'd take 'em out in a forklift."
Smerlas weighed 305 when he came home during his sophomore year. "Muscle shirt, pants with suspenders, Fu Manchu, long hair—my mother started crying when she saw me," he says. "She said, 'It doesn't look like you.' "
In his senior year, though, the BC coach, Ed Chlebek, decided he wanted a leaner squad. "He said he wanted a running team," says Smerlas. "He wouldn't let me eat. I dropped to 265 and looked like a skeleton."
The Eagles went 0-11, but the scouts were impressed by Smerlas, who was a defensive end. He never took a play off. "I had no technique," he says. "I just wanted to kill the guy in front of me. We used to beat people up and lose. We had something like 35 turnovers in our first five games. I was out of control. I'd spit and scream and grab face masks. I remember someone once talking to me on the field and how weird it felt, so I started doing it. I wouldn't go to our defensive huddle. Instead, I'd stand there yelling at the other team. Our linebacker, Jeff Dziama, would say, 'Shut up, Freddy.' I'd say, 'You shut up!' "
The Bills drafted Smerlas with the first of two second-round picks; they took Haslett, out of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with the other. In Haslett, who once said, "I don't like any hobbies where you sit down, like playing the guitar or collecting stamps," Smerlas had a teammate who was as zany as he was. In bars people would come up to them and say, "Yeah, you're the crazy ones."
"We'd put on acts, throw stuff at each other, start wrestling," says Smerlas. "People would ask me, 'How'd you get so big, lifting weights?' I'd say, 'Nah, I wrapped cookies.' "
Smerlas and the two inside linebackers behind him, Haslett and Shane Nelson, became the Bermuda Triangle, the heart of a defense that went from 24th in the league in 1978 (and last against the run) to first in 1980. Smerlas made his first trip to the Pro Bowl, and the Bills reached the playoffs for the first time in six years. They went again in '81. Smerlas and Haslett got their own call-in radio show on WBEN. It was wild, naturally.
"We'd say anything that came into our heads," says Smerlas. "We'd have guess-the-combined-length-of-our-noses contests, guess-the-name-of-Haslett's-dog contests. The callers would get out of control sometimes. Our fingers would be on the click button to turn 'em off if things got too bad. Sometimes all you'd hear would be click-click-click."
As wild as he was off the field, Smerlas was deadly serious about his profession. Plenty of sleep, no drinking Tuesday nights through Saturday nights. "I had no idea how to play noseguard when I started," he says. "I'd been a penetrating end in college. One of our coaches told me I would never be able to play in the NFL. I went back to my apartment. I can't play? What am I going to do for a living?
"I got films of all the good noseguards and defensive tackles, and I'd watch them after practice. I broke it all down. Bob Baumhower, head butt and pull, body leverage. Curley Culp, a bull, a straight-ahead banger. Rubin Carter, the swim and the arm-over. Randy White, mesmerize 'em with the head, shake and bake.
"I developed my own style: crowd the ball, get as close to the center as possible, square my stance and get my hands into him quickly. If I was quick enough, he'd take me where I wanted to go. It was read on the run. I was like the Sundance Kid—couldn't shoot straight except when he would draw. That was me. I could read moving, but not sitting.
"Dwight Stephenson [the veteran Dolphin center] made me change my style—for him. He developed the technique of holding the ball way out away from him, and he was so fast that he'd use my momentum against me and throw me sideways. I had to change the angle of my charge. The AFC East was the home of the great centers. There wasn't a weak one in the bunch.
"Pete Brock of the Patriots, a class act all the way. He came out low and killed you. The first time I faced him, he broke my face mask on the opening play. Stephenson had blinding speed. You hit him, it was like you'd touched a live wire, his body was moving so quickly. There was Ray Donaldson of the Colts, a big guy who was coming on, and my nemesis, Joe Fields of the Jets.
"A magician in his prime, Fields did it with mirrors. He was the craftiest guy in football. The first time I played him he looked tight, short, small. Hey, I thought, I'm going to kill this guy. I tried to ram him, and he wound up on the side of me, on top of me. I punch him, he punches me. This guy doesn't look like a tough guy, but I can't lay a glove on him. He yells, 'I'm still here, you sonofabitch!' He was right. I couldn't figure out that guy's style. No one could."
As the Bills got good, Smerlas became one of the town's favorite sports figures. Remember that famous bit after Buffalo beat the Los Angeles Rams in overtime in 1980, when Smerlas, Haslett and Ritcher returned to the field in their T-shirts, formed a high-kick line with the cheerleaders and sang a chorus of the Bills' song, We're Talking Proud? Those were the high times—down-to-earth guys in a no-nonsense town.
Smerlas moved into a house with Ritcher, linebacker Chris Keating and defensive end Scott Hutchinson. They insisted that the house was haunted. "Hey, no kidding, it really was haunted," says Smerlas. "I'd be lying in bed and I'd hear deep breathing behind the walls. Remember that scene in The Amityville Horror with all the flies? Well, one day I saw the same thing, 50 million flies on one wall, I mean zillions of them. Then they were gone. I came home one night and there's Hutch sitting in his car outside. He wouldn't go in the house alone.
"Hutch had this BB rifle. One night he bet me he could run across the hall before I could shoot him. So I did. Then it was double or nothing. I got him again. Another double or nothing, only this time he tripped and tried to roll across. He flopped on his back and I got him six times. Ritcher was laughing so hard his muscles were swelling up.
"One day in practice I hit Ritcher in the head and got him mad. When I came home that night, Jim was sitting in front of the fireplace. He had a football card of me with 50 BB holes in it. He was sitting there shooting it."
In 1984 came the big slide. Coach Chuck Knox had left after the '82 season. The next year the Bills went 8-8 under Kay Stephenson but fell to 2-14 in '84. Stephenson was fired in his third season, and his replacement, Bullough, was fired in his second. Smerlas has had six defensive coordinators and six defensive line coaches. "Everyone tried to change my style," he says.
Before the '84 season Smerlas signed a four-year contract that made him the second-highest-paid Bill, after quarterback Joe Ferguson. But his sack total dropped that year, as did his tackles, and the fans started getting on him. He had a habit of jumping offside. In the old days the fans accepted it; now he was booed when he drew the penalty. In 1985, Bullough brought in former Atlanta Falcon Don Smith to replace Smerlas on passing downs. The following year Bullough signed journeyman Jerry Boyarsky to relieve him.
"They were telling me, in a sense, that I was washed up," says Smerlas. "Guys would be on and off the team. You'd come into the locker room and see who'd parachuted into practice today."
After the '85 season, WBEN dropped Smerlas and Haslett's show. The team had gone 8-40 the last three seasons, from 1984 to '86. The gags were no longer funny. The only plus in his life was a woman he'd met through backup nose-guard Bill Acker. Acker had told him, "You've got to meet this beautiful teacher from Toronto, and she's Greek, too."
Kris Kefalas had said that the last thing she wanted in life was to marry a man of Greek heritage. Daddy was old world. A good Greek girl lives only to take care of her home and her husband. Not this Greek girl, said Kris. "When I was little," she says, "the only Greek words my father taught me were the ones to use to keep the boys away."
But she saw something in Smerlas. Sure, he was a big, rough guy, but he also was quick and bright. He asked her to call him—please—and one night she did. "I answered the phone, and sweat was pouring off me, I was so nervous," recalls Smerlas. "My roommate, Sean McNanie, the defensive end, started kidding around. I told him, 'Shut up, Sean. I swear to God I'll smash this chair over your head. I'll smash everything in this room over your head.' "
Fred and Kris dated for a couple of years and were married in February of this year. "Fred did two things for me," says Kris. "He made me proud to be Greek again, and he brought me back to being close with my father."
In 1987, Levy was in his first full year as coach. The team had young talent—Kelly, rookie linebackers Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett, defensive end Bruce Smith. Smerlas was 30 and in the last year of his contract. "The first game after the strike we played Miami and were down 21-3 at the half," he says. "I talked to Joe Devlin, our right offensive tackle and the oldest guy on the team. His contract was up after that year, too. Both of us felt our heads were in the noose, that it was all on the line for us, right then." The Bills won 34-31 in overtime and finished the year with a 7-8 record. Now they're leading the AFC East, and Smerlas and Devlin are playing top-quality football again.
Fred and Kris live a mile from the stadium in a modest house he and McNanie shared for four years. "It cost $60,000 when I bought it," he says, "and now it's been appraised at $61,000."
After 9½ years in the league Smerlas is still down-to-earth. "He bought me a sewing machine for a wedding present," says Kris, "but he wouldn't let me go downtown and pick it up until he was sure he had made the team."
"The farther along in my career I get, the more insecure I to hold on, keep working hard, get plenty of sleep. People get," he says. "You want get out of the game and they say, 'I don't need football anymore.' Then it's gone and they realize how much they need it.
"What would I like? To get a ring. You see guys who are second-stringers walking around with rings; you see strength coaches with 'em. I just want to play long enough to see what it's like."