- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. | An 11-time Pro Bowl pick and the NFL’s all-time sacks leader, Bruce Smith was a lock for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame if there ever was one.

But Smith refused to be presumptuous about his sure enshrinement. So when the moment happened Saturday afternoon, the emotions overwhelmed the Norfolk native.

“Bear with me as I gather myself together,” Smith said, tears welling in his eyes. “I had a moment just thinking about my [late father, George Washington Smith] and all the sacrifices he and my mother [Annie] made as I was a child. I just wish he was with me. He would be extremely proud of this day. My mother and father encouraged me to go that extra mile, don’t ever give up on anything you decide to do.”

Smith, the first pick in the 1985 NFL Draft, starred for the Buffalo Bills from 1985 to 1999 before playing his final four seasons with the Washington Redskins.

The 45-year-old Virginia Beach resident joined Bills owner Ralph Wilson, 12-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel, the late nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Thomas, 11-time Pro Bowl defensive back Rod Woodson and the late receiver Bob Hayes, a Seniors Committee nominee, in the Class of 2009. Russ Grimm, four times an All-Pro guard during his 11 years with the Redskins, advanced past the first cut before being eliminated on the reduction to five modern-era finalists.

“I didn’t have any inclination about the Hall of Fame when I was growing up - I was just having fun, being a kid, running around playing basketball and football,” Smith said. “But I had two young men who came into my life, Cal Davidson and Zeke Avery, my football and basketball [coaches at Booker T. Washington High School]. They saw more in me than I saw in myself. They encouraged me. They inspired me. They made sure I wasn’t cutting classes.”

Smith said his parents’ struggles at minimum-wage jobs and his high school coaches’ nourishment of his athletic gifts helped motivate him.

After reconditioning his body following his rookie year with the prodding of his wife, Carmen, and teammate Darryl Talley - “We were like Batman and Robin,” Smith said - he broke Buffalo’s sacks record in 1986. The next year, he made the first of his eight All-Pro teams. In 1990, Smith was the league’s defensive player of the year as he helped the Bills reach the first of their record four straight Super Bowls.

“Bruce won a lot of games for us,” Wilson said.

McDaniel said while he enjoyed battling Smith in the Bills’ 3-4 defense, he was happy he was still on the bench as a rookie in 1988 when the Vikings played the Bills.

“Everyone talks about Bruce as a pass rusher, but he was pretty good against the run, too,” Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs said. “We always kept a tight end or a running back in to chip him and we ran away from him as much possible. He was special.”

Special enough to record 200 sacks, the last 29 of which came with the Redskins. Washington, which had won the NFC East the year before Smith’s arrival, didn’t have a winning season during his four-year tenure. But the Bills haven’t made the playoffs in the nine seasons since his departure.

“It would’ve been a storybook ending if I could’ve played my whole career with Buffalo, but I enjoyed playing for the Redskins,” Smith said. “The only thing I wish we had done more of is win.”

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