Before Bruce Smith was wreaking havoc in opposing backfields, he was overweight and disinterested. There were no thoughts of Hall of Fame inductions or number retirements.
Former Bills head coach Marv Levy remembers this turnaround well.
The No. 1 overall pick in 1985 needed motivation... and he got it from two people specifically.
"He was overweight, self-indulgent, didn't have great practice habits, all of those things," Levy said on a conference call Wednesday. "Two people had quite an impact in turning him around. One was his coveted teammate, Darryl Talley. He gave him that proverbial kick in the butt to get going. But the other, in the off-season, he went back to Virginia Tech to finish his degree, which is good, and there he met a woman counselor who put him on the right track in every respect. Boy, he dropped weight at the urging of her and Darryl, shaped up, got ready, his principles changed. He turned out to not only be the greatest player, he married that woman. And what a wife she was, his wife Carmen.
"So those people had a great impact on him. What a change in his practice habits, his excitement about playing the game, all of those things."
True, Smith weighed 310 pounds after his rookie season in 1985, eating far too many bags of Doritos. Smith got in shape, his sack total rose from 6.5 to 15.0 that first year with Levy and he proceeded to dominated offensive tackles the rest of his career with his rare combination of speed, power and explosion. Smith lost 35 pounds in all.
Despite playing end in a 3-4 scheme, the sacks kept on rolling. He had 12 straight double-digit sack seasons, not including an injury-shortened 1991 campaign.
A feared pass rusher, Smith was dependable vs. the run, too. Effort was not a problem again. In fact "effort" is the word Smith used Wednesday morning first when asked how he wants people to remember him years from now.
No, Levy could not have imagined this career for Smith back when he first met him.
"The odds were against it," Levy said. "A lot of things happen with the odds against it. He had an over-impressive impression of himself at that time and how it ought to be. But he really did turn the corner and Darryl Talley had a big impact on him and I think the teammates that did keep coming in (did too). Bill Polian and I, along with Mr. Wilson, made the agreement we would bring in only players of high character onto our team. The personalities might be very different of each other. Some extroverts, some more quiet and laid back. They all eventually had a great impact on each other."
Levy plans on being there at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the number retirement.
While he's only met Terry Pegula once, briefly on an elevator, he's grateful the current owners are paying homage to the past.
"Very meaningful and very gratifying to see," Levy said. "I'm just so delighted that Mr. Pegula and his family were the purchasers of the Buffalo Bills. I knew immediately they had plans to keep it there. That's where it belongs. Now, he's reaching back. He belongs in tradition and, like me, he's a little bit of a historian."
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