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Lean, Mean Sack Machine

Sept. 02, 1991
Sept. 02, 1991

Table of Contents
Sept. 2, 1991

Yesterday
World Championships
NFL Preview 1991
Focus
Point After

Lean, Mean Sack Machine

A dedicated Bruce Smith establishes a blistering pace for the Buffalo Bills in their drive to another Super Bowl

Life is a treadmill, of course. Bruce Smith has turned that axiom around: The treadmill is his life. The pedals go up and down, the chain goes around and around, and the Buffalo Bills’ All-Pro defensive end churns his massive legs, grits his teeth and sweats like a frosted mug in the sun. Stair after stair, floor after floor, mile after mile, calorie after calorie, time after time.

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 1991 issue Original Layout

Smith's particular engine of torture is a stair-climbing machine, the same gadget the ladies use down at the health club, the one with the cherry-red lights to display hills and valleys, and with little beeps to signal the end of the ride. Wherever he goes, Smith finds one of these machines and rides it like a cowboy on a steer. He punches in the numbers given him by Bills strength coach Rusty Jones, overriding the normal computerized program, and for 20 or 30 minutes he is possessed. At home Smith has a bright, glass-walled room containing nothing but his own stair climber, which he has positioned so that he has a view of his backyard pool and the saltwater inlet that meanders lazily to Chesapeake Bay. Smith seldom has time these days for the pool, but the stair climber is beginning to rust from the constant torrent of sweat that pours onto it. "Bruce Smith does a workout designed for defensive backs, wide receivers and marathoners," says Jones. In a 20-minute workout, Smith climbs the equivalent of 148 floors, running 3.5 miles, burning off 800 calories.

The Bills got into stair climbers three years ago because the machines are good aerobic conditioners, they're easy on the knees and "because there is a great carryover from the stair climber to the field," says Jones. Smith got into stair climbers because he is on a mission.

So, it seems, are the Bills. They came within two points—missing a 48-yard field goal attempt in the last eight seconds—of beating the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV last January. If the Bills had won, we would be talking about them as the team of the '90s instead of questioning whether they can stick together long enough to make another run at the championship. But the Bickering Bills of 1989 seem dead—all the feuding and finger-pointing over tough losses has ceased—and the Boisterous Bills have arrived.

Recently Smith guaranteed a group of sportswriters that the Bills would win the Super Bowl this year—a statement that might have created havoc on the team in the past, but not now. "A lot of players feel the same way," says Thurman Thomas, the Bills' All-Pro running back. "I do. We probably have more talent than anybody in the league."

That talent has to get along with itself, however. Thomas and quarterback Jim Kelly, who were once among the finger-pointers, are now happy pals. "We just put our differences aside," says Thomas. And Kelly and Smith, the offensive and defensive superstars with the all-world egos, are cheerful competitors now. "We like to jack with each other," says Kelly. "Everybody likes competition, and in practice Bruce will try to rush in and get real close to me, and if he does, I shove him. He enjoys the game, and so do I. Nobody bows to Bruce, we just bring him down to our level."

Kicker Scott Norwood, who missed that last-second field goal in the Super Bowl, bows to Smith just a bit. "Afterward he gave me a big hug at the hotel, telling me it wasn't me who lost the game," says Norwood. "It meant a lot to me, and that's an example of how the team has come together." The team also has benefited from Smith's willingness to assume the role of marked man, the guy whole offenses will try to defeat, using traps, crackbacks, rollouts away from him, three-step quarterback drops and wave after wave of blockers trying to nullify his charge.

"It's frustrating, but I accept it," Smith says. His philosophy has been helped by worshipful Bills defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson, who tells Smith before games, "You think they aren't going to find you? You're being complimented in a special way. Take it on. Make the —— bleed!"

Smith's personal goal is to be the best ever at his position and to be acknowledged as such. "It's hard to get recognition in Buffalo," he sighs. Which is why he sometimes blows his own trumpet more than he should. He also does so because he is consumed with being a football player these days, and because he feels that judgment of him on the field is judgment of him as a person. He is still two semesters away from a degree in sociology, and he has no precise plans for his post-football career except to "help people" in some type of charitable way.

He wants his money to last so he can always take care of his "small, tight-knit family"—wife, parents, brother, sister and only nephew. He bought his parents a $140,000 house in 1986, and he wants to be the patriarch of the Smith family some day. Bruce wants to pay it all back. It's why he has settled down, why he appreciates the blessings he has.

"To be out there now in front of 80,000 people and millions more on TV, and just take control of a situation.... It's like, addictive," he says. "No, it is addictive." Clearly, he's into the game now.

When he came to the Bills as the first player picked in the 1985 draft, all Smith was into was blubber. He was a fatso, proud enough of his 300 pounds to have his picture taken his senior year at Virginia Tech with his jersey tied in a knot, his belly hanging out like a walrus pup. People still talk about Smith's first night in Buffalo after he signed his contract, when he went to a seafood restaurant with the Bills' p.r. director at the time, Budd Thalman, and basically ordered the left side of the menu. In his first time out with his new teammates, he visited the Big Tree Inn near the stadium and ate enough Buffalo wings to affect chicken prices in Arkansas.

"The most I ever ate?" says Smith now. "In one sitting? Maybe four big plates of fried chicken, biscuits, chitlins, gravy. Then dessert. Apple pie, sweet potato pie. My mother cooked that stuff, good Southern food, and when I was 300 pounds I never missed a meal. As a kid I'd eat at my mother's house, then go down the road to my girlfriend's and eat, and then sometimes go to my friend's house and eat again. I could gain five pounds in a day. In a week, there wouldn't be a scale to weigh me."

And there wouldn't have been a scale to weigh Buffalo's embarrassment had Smith continued on the course in which he was heading, that of a cocky, overrated, out-of-shape, first-round loser. Buffalo didn't have the greatest record with first-rounders—Walt Patulski was a dud in 1972; Tom Cousineau blew off the Bills for the Canadian Football League in '79; and even Kelly, their first pick in '83, headed to the USFL for two seasons before joining the Bills in '86. The heat was on the franchise to do something right.

"There was a lot of public sentiment for us to take Doug Flutie that year," recalls general manager Bill Polian, who was the director of pro personnel at the time. "But we were absolutely convinced Smith was the best player around. We got into a pretty good bidding war with the [USFL] Baltimore Stars for him. "The Bills won, but what had they signed—the Blob with an attitude?

Smith started 13 games his first season and had 6½ sacks, but Buffalo's defense was terrible, and Smith was undisciplined and getting by on raw talent. He was "very self-indulgent," says coach Marv Levy, who took over during the '86 season. "I didn't have my priorities in order," says Smith.

But that was the pretreadmill Smith. He now carries 265 pounds or less year-round on his 6'4" frame and looks like a terminator sculpted from carbon. He has a 19-inch neck, a 37-inch inseam, 37½-inch sleeves, size 14EE shoes and, as he puts it, "a great big ass." That's just one of the muscle groups that give him the power to knife in on quarterbacks at impossible angles, scattering would-be blockers as he goes.

"You're talking about a guy who is stronger than a 300-pounder and faster than a linebacker," says Bills All-Pro center Kent Hull. "His speed around the corner is unreal. And if you move out, he'll take one step upfield, spin inside and he's gone. I think he's double-jointed. He'll line up over me, and I'll try to hit him, and there's nothing there—he's going back and coming forward at the same time. I can't even explain it. There's no way a human being should do what he does."

"Sometimes I've been in pass coverage and just laughed," says Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, Smith's good friend and roommate on the road. "The other team will have a tackle and a guard and a back blocking him, and if he beats them, the center comes over to help. It's just funny to see. It's like they're bees and Bruce has got sugar on him, like he's dipped in honey. But the most amazing thing to watch is his rush. Cornelius [Bennett, another Bills linebacker] and I can't figure it out—it's like a speed skater coming around the corner, he's so low to the ground, almost flat, with offensive linemen literally chasing him."

"His greatest asset is his ability to adjust, to use his momentum to his advantage," says Cincinnati Bengal tackle Anthony Munoz. "His quickness reminds me of Lee Roy Selmon and Fred Dean, but they were 15 to 30 pounds lighter. You can tell he'd be a great basketball player." Indeed, Smith was just that, leading Booker T. Washington High to the 1980 Virginia state Group AAA championship game as a high-scoring, if overweight, center.

But Smith doesn't eat junk anymore. Fat is his mortal enemy. The last time he had a steak was four months ago. Before that it was a year. "I haven't had a Big Mac in three or four years," he says proudly. "Whopper, about the same." It's all pasta, fish and hold the mayo. On a recent airline flight he just looked at his complimentary pack of almonds. He hadn't eaten for hours, and he loves almonds. Finally, he opened the pack, smelled the aroma, ate one tiny nut and threw the rest away. "It's all about discipline," he says.

A hungry man is a mean man, and just before Bills camp opened this summer Smith attacked the stair climbers in an awesome frenzy at Wareing's Gym in Virginia Beach, Va., where he now lives. He rode one so furiously that the chain snapped. He moved over to the next machine and overheated the computer, sending the lights into spasms of gibberish. Bob Wareing, a co-owner of the gym, marvels at Smith's dedication. "Two weeks after last season, he was right back in here," says Wareing. "I just said, 'Damn!' "

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"It's just funny to see. It's like they're bees and Bruce has got sugar on him, like he's dipped in honey."

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Of course, that was shortly after Smith was named 1990 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His 19 sacks were the second-highest total in the NFL and a Bills team record, breaking his own mark of 15, set in '86. He so dominated some games, notably back-to-back December contests against the Indianapolis Colts and the Giants,that it seemed he could stop an opponent's passing attack by himself. Against the Colts, he sacked quarterback Jeff George four times in a span of 14 minutes. George's head looked as if it were on a lazy Susan. Once George was so startled to see Smith bearing down on him right after the snap that he nearly fainted. "His eyes were big as plums," says Smith. "He said, 'Oh ——!' and ran for his life."

The Bills played the Giants again in the Super Bowl and lost 20–19, but Smith had one of the big plays in the game, sacking Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter to give Buffalo a 12–3 lead. After playing in his fourth straight Pro Bowl, he was back on the treadmill. Fat waits for no one.

Indeed, fat has come to symbolize the swift wickedness of the world to Bruce Smith. Grease and cholesterol are traps waiting for him, ready to destroy what he's earned, ready to take away his $1.5 million average annual salary, his fame, his skill, his purpose. It's just like those forces that want to take away his father, too. Just when Smith was on a roll, signing with the Bills as a rookie after winning the Outland Trophy as the best college interior lineman of 1984, just when things looked the best for a former fat kid who was regularly whupped by bullies, his dad's health went into a steady decline. George Smith, 69, has had a few minor heart attacks, wears a pacemaker and suffers from arthritis and emphysema. He is bedridden and hooked to an oxygen tank, and his adoring 28-year-old son doesn't know what to do. "With all the things I've accomplished, I just feel so helpless with my dad," he says.

Not so with his own body. If he can't whip fate, he can at least whip his mortal pile of flesh. Smith feels compassion for 350-pound William Perry of the Chicago Bears, a man who has had considerably less success controlling the weight yo yo."Everything he has is in jeopardy," says Smith. "Losing and gaining weight is terrible. Half the battle is just knowing when to get up from the table. I should know."

"The first thing Bruce does in the morning is go to the mirror and look at his stomach, to see if it's sticking out any more than yesterday," says Carmen Smith, his wife of one year. Smith came into training camp this year honed to a razor's edge. He weighed in at 262 pounds, with 6.2% body fat. That's less body fat than most linebackers and many running backs can boast.

But the treadmill never stops. In late July he underwent arthroscopic surgery to have loose bone particles removed from his left knee. When he came to in the recovery room, he felt queasy, but the first thing he did was reach under his hospital gown and grab the skin around his belly. Was it thicker? Had he put on weight in surgery? He slowly sat up and placed his feet on the floor. He walked unsteadily to the door. He had to find something. There, out in the hall, he saw it. A scale. He climbed on and weighed himself. Good news. He'd lost over half a pound since checking into the hospital. "It's funny," says Smith. "But I have to do that. I have to know."

As he progresses through rehab—Smith expects to be ready to play in Sunday's season opener against the Miami Dolphins—he continues to weigh himself many times each day. "Wherever I go, I'll find a scale," he says. "Even when Carmen and I went on a cruise last spring, the first thing I did was find one."

O.K., this weight thing is an obsession. But there are few places where obsessiveness is rewarded as handsomely as it is in the NFL. Smith thinks about former defensive end Lyle Alzado, now suffering from inoperable brain cancer caused, Alzado believes, by his illicit use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone. "Back when Lyle was playing, there wasn't much emphasis on not using steroids," says Smith. "There wasn't much emphasis on anything but playing. I've been guilty of [breaking the drug policy] myself. But it's not how you fall down, it's how you get back up."

Smith tested positive for illegal drug use before the 1988 season and was suspended by the NFL for the first four games. He had been on a roll since dedicating himself to weight loss and conditioning the year before, getting named Miller Lite/NFL Defensive Lineman of the Year and the MVP of the Pro Bowl in '87. But now he was again flirting with disaster. Had he used anabolic steroids? No. "Hey, I've always been big," he says. Smith suggested that he'd used a particular party drug.

Why did he use it? To feel good? To keep the game high going? "It was a combination of everything," he says. "The feeling of being indestructible was part of it. I'm not proud of what happened, but I'll never let it interfere with my life again. I was very embarrassed for my family, but they were very supportive of me. They loved me."

Indeed they did. His parents, who have been married 39 years, have always been there for Bruce. There was never a lot of money in the Smith household—George was a shipping clerk and then a truck driver, and Annie worked at a variety of jobs and, at 60, currently drives a bus for the city of Norfolk—but Bruce and his brother, George, 32, and sister, Linda, 38, never went without three things: food, love and discipline. "My parents did an excellent job of bringing me up with values," says Smith. His mother, who at 5'11" was a center on her high school basketball team in Elizabethtown, N.C., still impresses him with her work ethic.

"I've been trying to make her quit driving the bus, but she won't," he says with a sigh. "I've always thought of women as being stronger than men, anyway. A man can impregnate a woman, but what a gift—to give life, to bear a child! Strength comes from that. Emotionally and spiritually, women may be able to lift the world."

Smith wants children of his own. "He's worrying me to death about having kids," says Carmen. "And he'll be a great dad—he's very loving, patient and generous. I always say to him, 'I don't know why people are so afraid of you.'" The children will come in due time, they both agree, and all Smith will do is try to be like his dad. "My role model was the man I saw at home every day," he says.

Once when Bruce was a boy, he and George went fishing far out in the Atlantic in the family's 14-foot boat. They ran out of gas, a storm came, and Bruce thought that maybe they were going to die. When the pair was rescued by another boat, Bruce knew it was because his father was with him and nothing could go wrong. When Bruce was 13, he and George went deer hunting on the family's timberland in North Carolina. They split up, Bruce going with another man and George heading out on his own, all of them agreeing to meet back at the car at a certain time. Bruce and the man returned on time, but George didn't. After a few minutes Bruce started crying, then he began screaming his father's name into the woods in a panic. When George returned an hour later, Bruce ran to him, sobbing, and hugged him without ever wanting to let go.

"I wanted him to be there," he says. "He was my protector. He was my dad. I never forgot that."

Smith visits his dad daily when he's home in Virginia Beach—their houses are only 15 minutes apart—and when he travels, he calls his parents' home at least once a day to check up on him. "Bruce takes things seriously, sometimes too seriously," says Carmen. "He worries about everything, even things he can't control."

Talley remembers the night he and Smith went into Manhattan before playing the Giants. They walked into a chicken joint downtown, and Smith immediately approached the security guard. "Bruce was scared of New York and nervous as a cat," says Talley. "He said, 'You're going to take care of me now, aren't you? They shot John Lennon in this town! They don't give a damn about me.' The guard was a little guy, and he laughed. But Bruce was serious."

Carmen occasionally will look out the window of their house and see Bruce sitting alone in the hot tub in the backyard, gesturing with his hands, arguing with someone who is not there, trying to sort things out and make it all right. "I guess I do talk to myself," he says. "But I'm concerned about things. I worry about whether we're safe."

It's so different on the field. Bruce Smith climbs off the treadmill at game time. "I just love being out there and running wild," he says.

"He'll screw up the whole defense if you give him a chance," says Bills defensive coordinator Walt Corey. "He just wants to go get 'em. Darryl's the only one who can control him." But Corey also tells his other players, "If you want to make a name for yourself, you better take advantage of this guy being on your team."

Smith's celebrations after sacks are among the gaudiest in the league, and they have earned him a warning letter from the NFL office. His antics also have gotten under the skin of many opposing offensive linemen. "I'll talk about his football skills," says the Bengals' Munoz. "But on his personality, I have no comment."

Smith is probably the victim of more chop blocks than any defender in the league. Foes pay him the respect of making him a marked man, and he looks for respect in other ways as well. When he told the New York media last season that he was better than Lawrence Taylor, creating a minor hurricane in the Big Apple sports pages, he was simply telling the truth. When he plays, he wears the smallest pads he can find, no hip pads at all, no gloves and only a tiny bit of tape on his hands and wrists for support. On turf he wears basketball shoes. He comes stripped and ready to embrace whatever you can throw at him. "I consider myself a gladiator," he says.

"He's got a horn coming out of the middle of his head, and he'll gore you with it," says Dickerson, the Bills' line coach, who cuts his own film of Smith's exploits just to watch by himself for pure pleasure. "I look in his eyes on Sunday and I see a different game there. I see white heat. He's one of the unique players who operates in a different freaking world than the rest of us. The true warriors. Think it doesn't move me? Huh? Look at that." The old coach lifts his right arm to show the goose bumps that run from his biceps to his wrist.

Bruce Smith at the bedside of his father, George.
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Bruce Smith at the bedside of his father, George.

Bruce Smith watches as his father, a former amateur boxer, breathes hard and slowly signs his name to the papers held in front of him by family attorney Bob Romm. Also at the sickbed is Bruce's mother. George Smith is executing his last will and testament, approving the distribution, upon his demise, of various assets to his family. Bruce gets a shotgun. The timberland in North Carolina goes to the three children.

The legal business completed, George Smith sinks back and haltingly begins to say goodbye to his family.

"Dad, you're not going anywhere," Bruce says gently.

Funny how you never know when the end will come. After Smith was suspended by the league for drug use, the Bills hired off-duty police to follow him and make sure he stayed clean. Smith spotted a car tailing him one day on I-90 in Buffalo and called Talley on his car phone to give Talley the license number of the car following him, in case Smith should die mysteriously. You're not being paranoid if someone really is after you. Smith speeded up, then slowed down, and the tail went flying past him, smoke pouring from under the hood of the car. The cop had blown his engine—and his cover. At first the Bills denied the surveillance scheme, but now Polian says it was just "a misunderstanding." Hamburg, N.Y., police chief Mathew Czerwiec, whose men were hired for the work, says he's sorry the story got out, but it was true. "I love the Bills," says the chief. "But I'm not going to lie about this. I'm not on their payroll."

Smith now calls the incident "very bad comedy," but at the time it was a reminder of his own mortality. Now he talks to his dad about another such incident, about that day they ran out of gas in the boat.

"Remember? You raised the oar with the life jacket on it," says Bruce. "We both thought it was all over."

"We did," George Smith says, with some difficulty.

But it wasn't. The treadmill goes on and on, and sometimes it's not such a bad ride, at that.