It took more than 33 years, but the reunion finally happened. Fred Smerlas, Jim Haslett and Shane Nelson – known as “The Bermuda Triangle” when they played for the Buffalo Bills – were together for the first time since going their separate ways after the 1982 NFL season.
They kept in touch with phone calls, emails and texts. But for one reason or another they never managed to be in the same place at the same time. That is, until Sunday morning, when the trio gathered in a lounge on the second floor of the Comfort Suites on Main Street in Buffalo, hours before their appearance at the Buffalo Auto Show.
They greeted each other with hugs and handshakes and beaming smiles. And it wasn’t long before they began sharing those priceless stories from the days when they formed that triangular nucleus of one of the best defenses in the league – Smerlas at nose tackle, Haslett at weak inside linebacker, Nelson at strong inside linebacker.
“We had ‘Rip’ and ‘Liz’ calls,” Haslett said of the signals he would yell to Smerlas before the snap. “Rip meant Fred was supposed to go to his right, Liz meant go left. So we were in the middle of a game, and Fred goes, ‘Jim, they figured out what the calls mean. Why don’t you change them up? I said, ‘OK, let’s use your number (76). When I say seven, you go left; when I say six, you go right.
“Remember, I was looking at Fred from behind. The first time I yelled, ‘Seven,’ he looked down at the front of his jersey … and went right.”
Laughter filled the room as Haslett rolled his eyes and shook his head, picking up right where they left off three decades ago.
Those were fun times. Heady ones, too, because as the nickname implied, running backs that dared to venture into the Bills’ “Bermuda Triangle” would disappear the way ships and aircraft are said to have mysteriously vanished in that foreboding region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean.
People haven’t forgotten. A long line formed for two hours inside the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, with people holding helmets, footballs, photographs and countless “Bermuda Triangle” posters for Smerlas, Haslett and Nelson to sign. They paid to do so – $10 for one item, $25 for three – with all of the proceeds going to the Buffalo Bills Alumni Foundation’s “Cure the Blue” initiative to spread awareness about prostate cancer. Smerlas was diagnosed with the disease in 2007, and is now cancer free. The Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association also donated $10,000 to the cause.
The “Bermuda Triangle” nickname, the brainchild of former Buffalo News sportswriter Mike Dodd, wasn’t part of some slick marketing campaign. It was simply a reflection of a bond that had developed on the field and carried over to a way of life off of it.
“We loved each other,” Smerlas, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, said in his thick Boston accent. “We hung out together, we ate together, we told jokes together. Everyone had a different type of personality, but they all fit. It was cohesiveness. We had confidence in each other. We would be in the huddle, and we would all want the same thing: to win.”
With Smerlas using brute force to control the middle of the line of scrimmage, freeing up Haslett and Nelson to make plays, “The Bermuda Triangle” was a formidable challenge for opposing offenses. “He was a beast,” Nelson, in his Texas drawl, said of Smerlas. “Baddest man on the planet.”
The moniker took hold in 1979, when Smerlas and Haslett joined the Bills as second-round draft picks from Boston College and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Nelson had been on the team since 1977, when after being the only player from an open tryout of 1,800 undrafted free agents to receive a contract offer from the Dallas Cowboys, the former Baylor Bear chose instead to join the Bills.
“I knew, right off the bat, that we were starting to create traction,” said Nelson, who runs a consulting business for personal and professional development in Corpus Christi, Texas. “I mean, ’79 was just an indicator that there were some really good things coming. You had three guys that loved to play the game, that were willing to sacrifice their body for each other. You had tremendous respect for each other. We all brought different skills that complemented each other.”
“Everybody had a specific thing they did well,” said Smerlas, who runs a sports promotion company and is a television and radio personality in Boston and Rochester. “Shane would knock guards out. Guard comes out, he clanks him. And I knew, if I got doubled, he was going to knock that guard off and play back side. I got front side. And Haz would be the guy that would run. Every time we’d get in the huddle, he’d say, ‘Keep those mothers off me … I don’t care if you take his eye out or tackle him.’”
Time hasn’t exactly stood still for the three. Hairlines have receded, especially for Haslett and Nelson. They all do more hobbling than walking, the damage of those countless violent collisions taking a significant toll on their bodies.
Smerlas, 58, is due to have both knees replaced later this month. Both elbows have already seen the business end of a surgeon’s knife multiple times, and the right one barely bends. Both ankles, he said, “are huge and purple.”
Haslett, 60, had both shoulders replaced in 2014. He said his left knee will need to be replaced, too. He said he has a “bad” right ankle.
Nelson, 60, has had five surgeries on his right knee. He has had four vertebrae fused, two “that need to be,” and a ruptured right Achilles tendon. He said he will eventually need his left hip replaced.
“But I wouldn’t change a thing,” Nelson said. “I would do it all again. It was all worth it.”
They didn’t just work off of each other to make plays. They looked out for one another. When you play as physically and as aggressively as this group did, there would often be consequences.
Smerlas recalled a game against the San Francisco 49ers when center Fred Quinlan clipped Haslett.
“So I turn back and take him out,” Smerlas said. “Then, a guy comes in and gets me and Haz sticks his fingers in his nose. We protected each other. It was a camaraderie that you very rarely see. It was fun.”
They would meet every Tuesday night, over pizza and wings, to study film. Nelson was the leader of the trio and the entire defense.
He remembered those awful Bills teams in 1977 and ’78 that won a combined eight games. He remembered the morale being as bad as he had ever witnessed at any level of football and a fractured locker room.
All of that changed in 1979, when Smerlas and Haslett arrived, along with other pieces to the playoff contender being built.
“We cared for one another,” said Haslett, who has worked in the NFL since 1993 as a head coach and an assistant and recently became a linebackers coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. “Here’s me, a guy from a small school; Shane, a free agent who worked out with 1,800 guys, and, Fred, a guy from a big school. We were all different with our personalities and the way that we played.”
On Sunday, after 33-plus years, they finally got together to share some memories.