Upholding tradition, Bruce Smith showed up when he was good and ready Thursday night for his meeting with the media. OK, he was only six minutes late for his news conference rather than a few weeks late for practice, which was often the case when the Bills had training camp in Fredonia.
Smith revealed a softer, gentler side to his personality that he kept hidden during his career with the Bills. For once, the Hall of Fame defensive end experienced what it was like competing against Bruce Smith. You could count on one hand the number of left tackles who contained him during his 15 seasons in Buffalo.
On Thursday, he had problems containing himself while explaining how much he appreciated the Bills retiring his No. 78 jersey. The superhuman defensive end proved to be human after all. He choked back tears, paused several times and barely spoke above a whisper while talking about his career with the Bills.
“I don’t know if I’m … worthy or … lucky enough to deserve all this,” Smith said between sniffles while struggling to collect his emotions. “I’m going to try to enjoy it. My family is here. I had some folks put their heart and soul into making this go without any blemishes. I’m so grateful. I’m grateful.”
At age 53, it was refreshing to see Bruce sounding humbled and leaving himself vulnerable. He confirmed what many had hoped: Playing in Buffalo meant more than money and fame. Years ago, he was so wrapped up with his bulletproof image that it was never clear how much he truly cared about the people.
“I’ve always been a caring and emotional guy,” he said. “But there was a side of me that I had to be strong. I had to be bold playing in a small market. The things that we did as a team, it strengthened us individually. It carried over into life after football. I’m a little older, a little more mature.
“This maturation process is still going on. I’m 53 now, and I looked at the world, and I look at things, a little bit differently. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”
Smith’s return was a reminder of the passage of time, how players were more connected with fans sitting in the stands than they are today. There was something special, something exponentially more genuine, about the relationship between the Bills during the glory days and the people they took along for the ride.
Winning helps, of course. Smith was part of the best era in franchise history, a time in which winning was expected if not taken for granted. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Smith and the other players from the Super Bowl teams warned anyone willing to listen that there would never be another time quite like the 1990s.
It feels like yesterday.
Smith allowed us to rewind the clock and remember a time in which greatness was expected, if not taken for granted. Buffalo fans from a previous generation were jittery, too, you know. Bills Nation worked itself into a panic when they lost six games in a season. These days, 10-6 is grounds for celebration.
People forget that the old Bills had their problems. It took a while before the alpha males sorted out their status in the locker room. The Bills were criticized for their massive egos and selfishness, starting with Bruce. They found trouble off the field. It wasn’t always sunshine and Super Bowls around here.
But they won.
That’s why, more than any other reason, they’re still revered all these years later. There are reporters covering the Bills this season who were in diapers when they played in their last Super Bowl. Buffalo hasn’t won a playoff game since 1995, which Don Shula’s last game as a head coach.
Fans, particularly the younger generation, are quick to dismiss the past because the glory days have no bearing on the current team. Once a week, in one form or another, somebody asks why the '90s Bills are still used as a reference point. Would you rather we discussed the good old days of 2005, when they were 5-11?
People old enough remember good football.
It’s hard to look at Rex Ryan and not think about Chuck Dickerson, a loudmouth boob who also made his living with defense and had an oversized opinion of himself. The Bills had enough talent on the field and enough intellect on the coaching staff to overcome Dickerson’s shortcomings.
It would be nice if 20-somethings today tasted success the way their parents did, back when the Bills were winning and Buffalo was buzzing in a way only few cities can. Young people don’t know what they’ve been missing while the Bills bumbled and stumbled around the NFL for 16 straight seasons.
For years, people feared losing Buffalo sports teams and began accepting them losing on the scoreboard. Fans rationalized defeat in a way that never would have been accepted when Smith arrived in 1985 as the first pick overall and certainly not in the decades that followed. Over the years, the standards were lowered.
The poster boy for the 21st century Bills was none other than Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who stood on the opposite sideline Thursday night with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Both were NFL mediocrities, good guys who tried hard but ultimately weren’t good enough.
“It’s been tough, but I am encouraged,” Smith said. “We have the right ownership. Terry and Kim Pegula, I think they’re going to get this team together. I think they’re going to move in the right direction in the future. It may take a year or two.”
Consider the source, an authority on such matters. It’s better late than never.