- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

Knee-deep in a ditch, a shovel in his hand, Bruce Smith figured out the rest of his life.

Smith had taken a job digging ditches after his sophomore year at Virginia Tech to earn spending money, and he was hard at work one day when a coworker realized the big man nearby wasn’t just another guy with a shovel.

What, the fellow wondered aloud, was Bruce Smith, a high school All-American and big man on campus at Blacksburg, doing here?

The question was casual, but for Smith it proved a life-changer, one that took him out of a ditch and put him on the road to pro football immortality.

“He said: ‘Why are you here? You got options. I don’t,’” Smith said. “Hard work wasn’t foreign to me because my father wanted us to understand what it was like to put in an honest day’s work. But after that conversation, I called my father, who hated his job earning $2.35 an hour hauling dirt and never wanted to see me doing the same job. I told him I had learned my lesson. He told me to come on home.

“That was the defining moment of my life. From that day forward, I decided there would be no more mediocrity in my life. I went back to school and improved my grades and became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.”

And after that, an 11-time Pro Bowl defensive end, a four-time AFC champion with the Buffalo Bills and the NFL’s all-time leader with 200 sacks.

Now Smith stands on the cusp of something still greater: an all-but-certain election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Jan. 31.

Smith wasn’t an immediate superstar with the Bills. He had 6.5 sacks as a rookie but also ballooned to 310 pounds, returning to the chunky build that caused him to be teased as a kid before he began starring in sports.

“Bruce was always a large human being, but he had to get in shape,” said Darryl Talley, who as Smith’s closest friend and teammate from 1985 to 1994 was instrumental in prodding him to get in shape. “I saw a big baby turn into a grown man. And once he turned into that grown man, he became a beast to deal with.

“When Bruce figured it out mentally, it was over for everybody else.”

Even for Hall of Famers.

Steve Tasker, a seven-time Pro Bowl player on special teams who played with Smith in Buffalo for more than a decade, hasn’t forgotten how Smith once gave Dolphins center Dwight Stephenson a case of the yips.

“The Dolphins had their first crucial third down, and Dan Marino was in the shotgun,” Tasker said. “Stephenson is getting ready to snap the ball when our defensive front shifted. Now Bruce is lined up over center, which he never did. Dwight looks up and sees Bruce, and he rolls the ball back to Marino. And, of course, they don’t make the first down.”

Stephenson can be forgiven for the mistake - Smith could undress even the best pass-blockers. Talley recalled with awe watching Smith toss Chris Hinton, a Pro Bowl tackle with the Indianapolis Colts, aside like a toy during a game in which he sacked quarterback Jeff George four times in the first 20 minutes.

Most coaches nag their players to practice with the same intensity with which they play, but Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly said Smith’s teammates appreciated him letting up a bit in practice.

“I thank God every day that Bruce Smith was on my team because I wouldn’t have wanted to play against him,” Kelly said. “Very rarely was Bruce ever single-handedly blocked. You get a guy 265 pounds running 4.8 [seconds] in the 40 who was as quick as a cat going against some of those bigger [offensive linemen], and it wasn’t even a match. As a quarterback, you know which way you wanted your line to slide, and that was wherever Bruce Smith lined up.”

Kelly has been teasing legendary defensive end Deacon Jones - Jones was treated like the boss during a luncheon of fellow Hall of Famers last summer in Canton, Ohio - that after Jan. 31, he’s going to have to settle for being the second greatest behind Smith.

The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Smith averaged 12.5 sacks during his first 10 full seasons and still had enough left to record nine sacks with the Washington Redskins at age 39.

“Bruce played [19] years at a position where every snap you’re running into 300 pounds of dynamite, and I don’t think anybody ever played the position as well,” said Hall of Famer Marv Levy, who coached Smith for 12 years in Buffalo. “The statistics are even more surprising [since] he played in a 3-4 front, which isn’t usually as productive for sacks by defensive ends as the 4-3.”

The previous record-holder for sacks, Reggie White, played seven years with Clyde Simmons (13th all-time in sacks), three with Sean Jones (15th) and five with two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jerome Brown.

Smith, however, played with terrific linebackers but didn’t have a fellow Bills lineman join him in the Pro Bowl until his 13th season.

Talley had an ideal view of Smith as the outside linebacker on his side of the field.

“Bruce was exceptionally quick, nimble of foot and extremely powerful,” Talley said. “If you had to try to block him, you wanted to get your hands on him and hold on for the ride. Bruce was very good at hand-to-hand combat. You had to punch him, recoil and punch him again. If you punched him once, the next time you’d see him, he’d be on top of your quarterback.”

Levy arrived in Buffalo in 1986 and gave Smith the green light to rush the passer.

“It was like taking the chains off a wild dog and letting him hunt,” Talley said.

Smith set a team record with 15 sacks that season, was named All-Pro the next year and hit a high-water mark with 19 sacks in 1990 while leading Buffalo to its first Super Bowl.

“He had a motor that just kept going and going,” Levy said. “His ability to change direction, give you that one quick move this way and then come that way was great. All through practice and all through games, he played with a smile on his face. He always seemed to enjoy the game so much, and that spilled off on his teammates.”

Smith also made them laugh.

Having honed his physique, Smith was so proud of the results that he earned the nickname “Big Sexy” in the Bills’ locker room. He was good-natured enough to go along with the ribbing. After breaking White’s record in 2003, the last of his four seasons with the Washington Redskins, he donned a burgundy robe embroidered on the front with “All-Time” and “Mr. Smith.”

“During the majority of my career, the record was not my goal, but when I got close after all the pounding my body had taken through 11 surgeries, cracked ribs, concussions, dislocated fingers, a dislocated shoulder and a torn rotator cuff, it was special,” Smith said. “My tailor gave [the robe] to me as a gift. I wore it with a little humor behind it.”

There’s no doubt Smith will be voted into the Hall of Fame when the selectors meet in Tampa, Fla. Ironically, the game’s ultimate honor will be bestowed on him in the city where he suffered his most bitter defeat, the Bills’ 20-19 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV.

“I’m trusting… that the countless hours that I spent trying to set myself apart from the average speaks for itself,” Smith said. “I was committed to raising the bar for defensive ends. I would be the first one in to study film and oftentimes the last one to leave. I would come in on my days off and work out. I would spend time with Darryl and others showing how we needed to break down certain blocking schemes because without that knowledge we were dead. I would study film of defensive players who had success being double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed because I was outflanked 75 percent of the time.”

That loss to the Giants started an unprecedented run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Despite the presence of Kelly, Smith, Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas and receiver Andre Reed, also a 2009 Canton finalist, the Bills lost each time.

But Smith, now 45 and pursuing a second career as a real estate developer in Virginia Beach, uses those disappointments as a lesson in resiliency. In his frequent motivational speeches, he tries to inspire young people in the Tidewater’s cities in the same way that Cal Davidson and Zeke Avery, his football and basketball coaches at Norfolk’s Booker T. Washington High School, inspired him.

“They saw more in me than I saw in myself,” Smith said.

And starting with that day he walked out of the ditch, there was always plenty worth watching.

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