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Bruce Smith stays in pursuit
He spent 19 years terrorizing NFL quarterbacks and embarrassing their blockers, but now he fills that need for competition by attacking a little white ball.
Unlike many other retired superstars, Bruce Smith is basically content with life after football. The 46-year-old spends his days relaxing with his wife, Carmen, and 15-year-old son, Alston, while trying to lower his 10 handicap by playing 18 holes with pals Darren Perry and Darrin Hyman. But it’s not all play; he works with such charities as Norfolk-based Operation Smile and develops real estate projects such as the just-opened Smith’s Landing off-campus apartments next door to his alma mater, Virginia Tech.
Smith’s eyes light up when he discusses the development that replaced the hotel where he stayed during his 1980 recruiting visit to Blacksburg, Va. The NFL’s all-time sack leader still works out regularly at his home or at nearby Bayside Wellness and Fitness Center to maintain his playing weight of 273 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. But he’s just as passionate about watching a family of hawks nesting on the pier that juts into the Lynnhaven River from the expansive deck of his Virginia Beach mansion.
Only the Aug. 27 appeals hearing on the suspension of his driver’s license following his third DUI arrest since 1997 casts a shadow over the life of Smith, who will be inducted on Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
“I didn’t want to leave this area for a number of reasons,” said Smith, who grew up geographically close, in Norfolk, but economically in a different world. “My mother and Carmen’s parents were here. The cost of living is relatively moderate. We have great weather at least eight months of the year, and you still get the four seasons. I had a relationship with [Virginia Beach development firm] Armada Hoffler. I have the opportunity to see nature at its best. Anytime I want to go out back, drop a line in the water and catch some fish, I’m able to do that. There are tons of crabs back there and an oyster bed. It’s the best of all worlds.”
Smith’s world changed radically when he retired after the 2003 season, having finally surpassed the late Reggie White with his 199th sack. From the time the Buffalo Bills made him the top overall selection in the 1985 draft through his final four years closer to home with the Washington Redskins, Smith’s mission was to get to the quarterback. He arguably did that better than anyone else. But out of football at 40, what he was going to do?
Fortunately for Smith, he had met Dan Hoffler, chairman of Armada Hoffler, at an Operation Smile fundraiser in 1993 - the year Smith’s Bills made the last of four straight Super Bowl appearances - and became an investor in the firm in 1995.
“We talked a little bit about what he wanted to do, how he wanted to move forward and I recognized Bruce’s business acumen right off the bat,” said Hoffler, sitting in his expansive 21st floor office, a few steps from the much smaller workspace Smith maintains as the president of Bruce Smith Enterprises. “The real estate business to a large degree is about your instincts, and Bruce’s instincts about locations and the types of deals that will work or won’t work are extremely good.
“Bruce has a combination of instinct and intelligence. Not everyone possesses that. That’s why you see so many guys who get out of the game and can’t move forward. They go backward. Bruce has moved forward.”
But Smith, who wears expensive suits and carries a Louis Vuitton briefcase in his business dealings, hasn’t fully moved on from football. Nor has he gotten too far from the working-class teenager who reached Booker T. Washington High School with rare athletic gifts - he could outrun teammates who weighed 40 pounds less, and he won the state wrestling title in between games of the state basketball tournament - and the desire to become a superstar.
At Booker T. Washington, Smith brought coffee cans filled with concrete to school to show his skeptical basketball teammates the importance of weightlifting. On the court, the superb rebounder and defender made sure that no one messed with his teammates. That was also true on the football field, but in a different way. Coach Cal Davidson wouldn’t let Smith take part in most contact drills as a prep senior out of fear that he would injure his teammates.
Today, there’s an alcove in Smith’s home where he displays many of the awards he accumulated in the NFL. His helmets from Virginia Tech, the Bills and Redskins sit alongside autographed headgear from such admired opponents as Dan Marino, Eric Dickerson and Derrick Thomas. Downstairs, autographed jerseys of legends White, Joe Montana and Magic Johnson as well as those of Bills teammates Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley line the walls along with large mementos of the record-breaking 199th sack.
“Some people get the wrong impression about Bruce,” said Perry, a native of nearby Chesapeake, Va., who played nine NFL seasons and now coaches the Green Bay Packers’ safeties. “They see arrogance, but most successful people have some arrogance. Bruce has toned down from when he played, but if you don’t respect him, he’s going to let it be known.”
While Smith said he gives Alston football advice only when asked, he often attends his 6-3, 225-pound son’s practices at Cox High School, where Alston plays defensive end and offensive tackle.
“If I’m asked for advice, I give it,” Smith said. “I give Alston as much as he can digest. One thing I don’t want to do is turn him off by day-in, day-out preaching to him.”
Smith’s father George, a construction worker, preached the importance of family, faith and education to his son. Smith honors his late father’s memory by providing scholarships for students from Queen Street Baptist Church as well as scholarships for Booker T. Washington graduates to attend Virginia Tech. Smith also arranged for a busload of students and chaperones from Norfolk to attend his Hall of Fame induction.
“Bruce was a really great football player, but I admire the way he lives his life more than the way I admire he played the game,” Hoffler said.
Said Zeke Avery, Smith’s basketball coach at Booker T. Washington: “Bruce is very passionate about helping his community and being a role model for kids.”
During Smith’s NFL career, he did the heavy lifting when Avery moved to a new home and paid for the award jackets, watches and clocks for the coach’s state championship basketball team.
“If I hadn’t done what I did on the football field, I wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunity to give back in such a fashion,” Smith said as he drove from the office where he spends about 15 hours a week to one of the golf courses where he does the same. “When I look at the young people around here, I see myself and I feel obligated to give back. I walked the same hallways, the same streets. I sat in the same classrooms and had to overcome the same adversities that they face.
To have them be a part of this [Hall of Fame] experience and witness firsthand the magnitude of what’s going to take place, I believe it should have a profound impact… on the direction and the choices they decide to make.”
Smith obviously made a poor choice when he was stopped for driving under the influence in Virginia Beach on May 15. After his July 9 conviction, the city canceled its tribute to its most famous resident. But Operation Smile, which provides cleft lip and palate repair surgeries for children worldwide, is going ahead with its Sept. 25 celebration of Smith.
Perry said his buddy is very shrewd and careful about his associates and decisions and is truly remorseful about his third DUI arrest. A 1997 conviction was later dismissed, and he was acquitted in a case six years ago.
“This human flesh… is full of faults,” Smith said. “That’s part of being human, part of living and learning. You learn a lot about people in the midst of adversity.
“I’m going to continue to believe in what got me to this point. And this point is extremely exciting, about to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
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