I got in touch with Bruce Smith yesterday for my retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Super Bowl XXV. Smith had just gotten out of a meeting at his offices in Virginia Bech. He owns a real estate development company. Bruce said he enjoys being a businessman, though "it's not that immediate gratification I'm used to getting with a sack."
Smith says he looks back fondly on the Super Bowl years, and mainly the relationships with his former coaches and teammates. The Hall of Fame defensive end says he talks to Darryl Talley and Thurman Thomas on a weekly basis. He talks with Jim Kelly, Marv Levy and many others.
"I don't think when we were actually going through it, we didn't realize at that age how much the experience would impact the rest of our lives. I wouldn't trade any moment of my NFL career for anything. Things happen for a reason. It makes you a better person, It opens your eyes and makes you realize there are more important things in life than whether you win or lose."
I wasn't fond of Smith's self-serving manner during his playing days. He seems a lot more mature now, more mellow and philosophical, like most of his old teammates. They were in their 20s back then. A lot of pro athletes are overgrown little boys in their playing days (sports writers aren't immune from that, either). They grow up. In retrospect, they have a greater appreciation for their time in Buffalo and the support of the fans.
Smith called back after our initial conversation. He wanted to make sure I knew about some of the humanitarian work he'd done recently. Bruce went to Kuwait and Iraq two Christmases ago on a USO trip to visit the American troops. That's the same trip that Andre Reed, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas went on last month, the one where Reed tore his Achilles.
"It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life," Smith said. "We were actually shot at by insurgents with rockets. We were at a pep rally and a gentleman came over the loudspeaker and said 'Incoming!' We had to hit the ground. This was New Year's Night. I encouraged Jim and Thurman to go. I said,it will be the most fulfilling trip you ever take. But I'll be honest. I was scared to death for a while."
Smith also volunteers with Operation Smile, a charity that helps repair cleft palates and other facial deformities of children and adults. Bruce said one of his Hall of Fame events raised a half million dollars for Operation Smile. He recalls carrying an 8-year-old child to surgery in his arms in Africa.
"We sit here and think about the score of a game," he said. "When we get older, we understand you can have more of an impact on someone else's life by doing some of these things and being a positive figure, rather than someone remembered for a sack."