HOF: Smith shed weight to become NFL sack leader
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Bruce Smith looked in the mirror and saw too much Bruce Smith staring back.
Bloated and weighing more than 300 pounds, Smith had just finished his rookie NFL season in 1985. He was still able to manhandle hulking offensive linemen 50 or more pounds heavier than him, but he didn’t look like the dominant college player the Buffalo Bills had drafted No. 1 overall.
This wouldn’t do. The pro career Smith envisioned wasn’t going to be derailed by a diet of Doritos.
“I wouldn’t say there was fear. I would say there was an extreme amount of pressure,” Smith said, recalling a key turning point. “When I ballooned up to 310 pounds, I quickly realized I wasn’t going to become the player that I wanted to be.”
Everyone knows what followed: Smith dropped the chips — and 35 pounds.
Trimming his 6-foot-4 frame to a lean 275, Smith went on to become the NFL’s sacks leader over a 19-year career that will be honored this weekend, when he is formally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“I made some adjustments,” said Smith. “That’s when I got it, and when you get it, that’s when special things happen.”
Smith’s 200 sacks are two more than the record previously held by Reggie White, though White reached that number in four fewer seasons. Smith was a two-time NFL defensive player of the year and an 11-time Pro Bowl selection. He ranks first in notching 10 or more sacks in 13 seasons, and proved astoundingly durable for a player at his demanding position. His 279 games played in 15 seasons with Buffalo and the final four with Washington rank 13th among NFL players.
“I’ve said this before so I might as well say it again, I think he’s the greatest defensive end who’s ever played the game,” said Marv Levy, Smith’s former Bills coach and a fellow Hall of Famer.
Smith was the centerpiece of an aggressive and speedy Bills defense, and part of a star-laden team that also featured future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas. Together, they ushered in the franchise’s golden era in the early 1990s, when the Bills made an unmatched four straight Super Bowl appearances, though they lost all four.
Once he got his weight under control, Smith was nearly unstoppable, even when opponents devised plans to contain him. With an athletic build at his height, Smith had a rare combination of being quick, agile, powerful and instinctive.
Levy recalled watching game film with former general manager Bill Polian, now with Indianapolis.
“Bruce would do something that would just be amazing, but it would look so right,” Levy said. “Bill used to say to me, ‘Why doesn’t everybody do it that way?’ He made it look easy, but it wasn’t.”
Former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley got an even closer perspective, particularly remembering the time Smith picked up former Indianapolis tackle Chris Hinton and slammed him to the ground.
“I had a catbird’s seat and saw an individual do things a lot of people couldn’t imagine,” Talley said. “Let’s put it this way, when you see a guy grab an All-Pro tackle that’s 320 pounds and launch him 5 yards, what would you think?”
Talley did more than watch. Aside from motivating Smith to get in shape, Talley helped his teammate learn how to study film and how to attack weaknesses in opponents. The two developed such a chemistry that they would play off each other on the field.
Smith hasn’t forgotten Talley’s influence, calling him “the greatest teammate a person could ever have. I love him to death.”
Smith now heads a real estate development company, Bruce Smith Enterprises, based in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. The one shadow on his induction is Smith recently being convicted of drunken driving and speeding, a decision he is appealing.
Smith’s best statistical season came in 1990, when he was credited with 101 tackles, 19 sacks and four forced fumbles. That’s when he earned his first NFL defensive player of the year honor. Smith won the award again in 1996, when he had 120 tackles, 13 1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles.
What’s most impressive is that Smith registered many of his 171 sacks in Buffalo while playing in a 3-4 defense, which should have made it easier for opponents to stop him. It’s a feat Smith is quick to point out.
“When you’re able to accomplish that in a 3-4 defense, you have to sit back, shake your head and say, ‘That’s pretty darn impressive,”‘ Smith said. “It’s incredible, to be quite honest with you.”
Smith has always been known for having a healthy ego, never afraid to draw attention to his accomplishments.
“He’s the best and he’ll tell you he’s the best and mean it,” Talley said.
But Talley noted that Smith backed up his words on the field and that’s why he is entering the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
“It’s almost like watching your brother go up there and receiving a huge reward,” Talley said. “And there is no greater award than what he’s getting.”
And to think that the Bills once debated over whether to select Smith with the No. 1 pick. The other candidate was Texas A&M defensive end Ray Childress, who was drafted No. 3 by Houston and enjoyed a solid — but not a Hall-of-Fame — career.
Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who will be inducted into the Hall alongside Smith, ended that debate shortly after watching Smith play for Virginia Tech in a televised game in the fall of 1984. All it took was for Wilson to see Smith run across the width of the field to register a sack.
“I said, ‘Gee, this guy’s a real good player,”‘ Wilson said. “Someone said, ‘But there’s a guy named Childress who’s better.’ I said, ‘Take Bruce.’ I didn’t know anything about Childress. But I knew this guy was a good player.”
Among the very best, it turned out.