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It was a peculiar sight for those who have observed Buffalo Bills' training camps over the years. There he was, Bruce Smith, running and hitting and sweating like all the others.

With no offseason surgery or contract disputes to get in the way, Smith was a willing participant in the preseason workouts. He even seemed to take pleasure in it.

Entering his 15th NFL season, Smith is happy and at ease with himself. But it has little to do with his health or bank account. To find the reason for his contentment, you have to go all the way to Africa.

For a couple of weeks during the offseason, Smith and his family took a trip to Kenya. But this wasn't just a vacation. Their visit had a more profound cause.

Smith was there as a representative of Operation Smile. The Norfolk, Va.-based charitable organization provides reconstructive facial and dental surgery to indigent children and young adults in developing countries and the United States. It also provides education and training to physicians and other health care professionals in foreign lands so they can achieve long-term self-sufficiency.

OpSmile, which began in 1982, has chapters in 23 states. During the last 17 years, it has treated more than 50,000 children here and abroad. Smith's trip was part of the organization's World Journey of Hope '99 mission, which provided successful surgeries for more than 5,000 children in 18 European, Asian, African and Latin American countries and the U.S. over nine weeks.

"I've been on the board of directors for Operation Smile for the last six years, and I said when I got the time I was going to make sure I got a chance to take part in some field work," Smith said. "Since I didn't have any offseason surgeries, this was the perfect opportunity for me. I tell you, it was the most incredible and fulfilling experience I've ever had."

Smith, his wife, Carmen, and 5-year-old son, Alston, spent several days in the Kenyan cities Eldoret and Nairobi. Smith observed and even assisted doctors during an operation on a child aboard The Flying Hospital, a specially equipped airplane. After the procedure, Smith took the child and returned him to his mother's arms.

"To see a child or an adult with a cleft lip, a cleft palate and other facial deformities, and then to see them 45 minutes to an hour later after surgery and they have a normal face . . . ," said Smith, closing his eyes as if trying to recapture the moving images. "It was just incredible."

"Bruce handled himself really well," said Dick Maxwell, a fellow OpSmile board member who was on the same trip. "I think Dr. Bill Magee, a co-founder of Operation Smile, wanted him to see first hand the kind of work the organization does. Being involved with those kids before, during and after the operations, is captivating. I think it impacted Bruce greatly to be involved. You could see he was moved by the whole experience."

One of the most enlightening aspects of the trip for Smith was observing the Kenyan culture and how people live by the smallest of means.

"In Nairobi (Kenya's capital city), the average income is $30 a month. A month!" he said. "Over here, I think you could spend that much at a fast food restaurant in one or two trips. It makes you realize how much we take for granted over here. You just can't go through the experiences I had and not be changed."

Change is good, especially for a guy whose playing career is winding down. There are those who think the end is a lot closer at hand after last season's performance by the 36-year-old defensive end.

Despite 74 tackles, 10 sacks (his 12th year in double figures and seventh straight), 26 quarterback pressures and an 11th Pro Bowl selection, some say 1998 was not up to the future Hall of Famer's usual standards.

However, there is no panic on the Bills' coaching staff, which expects another big year from Smith, beginning with today's game against the Indianapolis Colts at the RCA Dome.

"Bruce has looked great in preseason, and I think it will carry over into the regular season," coach Wade Phillips said. "He's going into the season healthy, too, so that should help him get off to a fast start."

It's not how Smith starts the season, but rather how he finishes, that counts most. The Bills are expected to rotate defensive linemen more this season in an effort to keep everyone fresh.

The Bills also want to get third-year pro Marcellus Wiley more experience. By subbing Wiley for Smith, they accomplish both objectives.

"We want to get Marcellus on the field, but a lot of that will depend on his performance and how Bruce feels (physically)," defensive line coach Dan Levra said. "But Bruce is still a guy we're looking to for a big year. He's a great football player who still has a lot to give."

So how does Smith feel about reduced playing time?

"I think that's pretty much the same structure that Reggie (White) had last year and he ended up being the defensive player of the year," Smith said of the all-time sacks leader who retired from the Green Bay Packers. "If that will help us be a better team, if it will allow Marcellus to get some time and make me stronger and faster towards the end of the game so I can make bigger plays, then so be it. I'm supportive of that."

No matter how much playing time Smith gets, he is looking forward to the OVER 34 LNsseason. Unfortunately for him, the excitement of playing the Colts is tempered by concern over his ailing father.

George Smith, who has battled health problems for several years, took a turn for the worse a couple of weeks ago. Bruce has been in Virginia as much as possible to be at his father's side.

"It's tough to focus on the game because my father is always on my mind. As you go through life, you realize that you only have one father and that's something you can't take for granted. My father has always been there for me. . . . Maybe it was just a shoulder to lean on or someone to talk to.

"It's very difficult being in another state while he's at home suffering somewhat. But while I have a job to do here, a part of me is in Virginia at all times."

Smith's love for his father is obvious. He lavishes the same affection on Alston. Family, not football, is what sustains Smith.

"It was wonderful to have my son there so he could see how fortunate and blessed we have it," said Smith, who took the family on an African safari after the Kenyan mission. "To have a chance to spend time with family in Africa, the home of our ancestors, was a special moment I'll cherish the rest of my life."

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