Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame DE Bruce Smith Conference Call
Q: Where does this honor rank compared to the others you received on your career?
A: First of all, I am humbled beyond words. I didn’t have a great start to this week, I’ll get to your question, but I didn’t have a great start to this week. With it being Mother’s Day on Sunday and having remembrance of my mom and my relationship with her and just all the many blessings that has been bestowed on my life because of my mother and my relationship with God. And I was sitting in church and while I felt alone, I was sitting about two rows back from where my mother sat, and a little sad, but I didn’t feel alone, and just reflecting on the relationship that my wife has with our child, it brought some peace and great amount of joy to my heart. And to receive this news a day later, it just shows how great God is and he just continues to bless my career, the hard work, just everything surrounding my career. So, where it sits, I think it fits right at the top with being inducted into the Hall of Fame. And there’s so many other honors that have been bestowed upon me. I’m very grateful and thankful.
Q: Just wondering, when you got the call the next day, what must have been your first reaction if you can recall that and who informed you?
A: Well, I was a little numb. I was in somewhat of, I would say disbelief. Russ Brandon and I had a number of conversations and I just didn’t know when it was going to take place and I think about a month or so ago Russ had informed me that this was going to happen. He had had discussions with Kim and Terry Pegula and first and foremost, I want to say thank you to the Pegula’s because they have reached back into history, the rich history, of the Buffalo Bills. They’re making a concerted effort of leaving no stones unturned when it comes to recognizing that rich history and this is a perfect example of that. So that’s why the Pegula’s were an excellent fit to become the next owners of the Buffalo Bills. To answer your question, Russ Brandon pretty much told me that this was going to happen and I received a phone call that the announcement was going to be made by Scott Berchtold.
Q: Bruce, when did your mother pass? I don’t recall.
A: Yeah, my mother passed two years ago, in the spring. I still remember it as it was yesterday and now every Mother’s Day it kind of gets to me. She would have been very proud, extremely proud. She was there for my induction and I know she’s watching down from afar and she’s one of those angels who just continues to pray for me. I’m very blessed.
Q: Years from now, how do you want people to remember you?
A: Well, I want people to remember the effort and dedication and commitment that I put into playing this game, trying to make the fans feel proud and give them a source of entertainment for three hours every week and just that things will to continue to get better. To be a champion, to be the best and bring that energy that was one of the missing pieces to a great and historical sports town for so many years. I think that with the area, or the city of Buffalo, when it went through the Great Depression, when the water waves and the steel mills closed down--obviously it was a depressing time for workers and the community and I would hope that we gave them something to look forward to during that era and during Sundays and Mondays when we took the field. You could see it in the energy, in the cheers, and you could see it in just the expression and the way people would walk around and feel so proud and talk about the Buffalo Bills and their players.
Q: Recently, ESPN produced a documentary about the Bills, “Four Falls of Buffalo.” This year’s Super Bowl pre-game did kind of a revisionist history as if the Bills had won four straight Super Bowls. Are you satisfied that now the football public is gaining a new appreciation for just how hard it was for you guys to keep going back year after year and maybe get a better appreciation for just how talented those teams really were?
A: Well, you know, Marv (Levy) and Bill Polian and so many others, and particularly guys from other teams that we played against and even other coaches, I would always tell us as the years passed and when you look back at history, people will have a better understanding of the impact that Buffalo Bills team had on the NFL and on sports. And there were a lot of life lessons for young kids that were growing up. So, we as a team and internally and in particularly a lot of the guys that were close together, while we wouldn’t have very many discussions about it, when we did, we would often wonder how would history portray us? And when we go our separate ways and we talked to other players that have played this game for a significant amount of time, and maybe even won one Super Bowl or in other cases never even have a chance to play in a Super Bowl, they really put things into perspective. You know, one of the quotes that some of the guys have often said, “You guys were a dynasty that never won a Super Bowl, but look at all the things that you guys have accomplished. Four times the AFC Champions, obviously representing the AFC in four straight Super Bowls and just the number of Hall of Famers you guys were able to put out from the coach to the GM to so many players and what you did for the city of Buffalo, what you did for Buffalo Bills fans that are all over the country.” It’s nice to hear those kind words after it’s all said and done.
Q: What was your mother’s name and the significance of how you got the number 78?
A: Annie Lee Smith was my mother’s name. My father’s name was George Washington Smith. I have to tell you I got all of my attributes from them obviously, the tangibles, the intangibles. Particularly my work ethic, my dedication. My father always told me whatever you decide to do in life son you be the best at it. You give it your all it doesn’t make a difference what you decide to do, whether you are a janitor, whether you are a construction worker, whatever it is, whether you are playing football at whatever level. You always give it everything you have and don’t leave to chance. That how I would like to be remembered and honoring my father’s words and trying to do the things that he taught me.
Q: Where did the No. 78 come from?
A: Well it wasn’t any really, I would say headline stories about how I picked out 78. I know I wore number 70 in high school and then when I got to Virginia Tech I decided to go with the No. 78 and from that point I just fell in love with and I wanted to make that number special. Obviously with hard work, dedication, and commitment, and overcoming adversity, and a number of other factors obviously if you put your mind to something you can accomplish it.
Q: Can you tell us what this means to you and your family with the ceremony being a prime time game and the home opener?
A: We are excited, extremely excited. Nationally televised game, the fact that this decision was made by the Pegula’s to honor the number 78 and my family. To again go back and honor the rich history. This will be a celebration for the fans, the Buffalo Bills organization, and the NFL. I think it is very important to highlight those factors and obviously my teammates. Guys like Darryl Talley, Cornelius Bennett, Phil Hansen, and some many and I am just speaking from a defensive stand point because obviously the offensive guys are well known. All the other guys on the offensive side of the ball like Thurman [Thomas], and Jim [Kelly], and Andre [Reed], and even James Lofton are all Hall of Famers. But the defensive side of the ball we don’t talk about as much because we had such a prolific and dynamic offensive side of the ball.
This will be great for the organization. We still have guys that are there and I think one of the best PR guys in the National Football League, Scott Berchtold. We have got Bud Carpenter who is still there, we have secretaries that are still around. So this is going to be huge for the organization. Obviously it is going to be huge for the 12th man, the Buffalo Bills fans.
I am excited, I am humbled, I couldn’t sleep last just thinking about the memories of being drafted, the first player picked in the draft in 1985 and being a young kid from Norfolk, Virginia. Not having traveled the world, or seen very many things so I didn’t know exactly what I was getting in to with the expectations, but I quickly learned. I got to tell you it was one of the most fulfilling experiences that God could have placed in front of me. I am truly grateful and thankful.
Guys I do have to tell you this little quick story, you guys might get a kick out of it. We were out in Sonoma Valley this past Super Bowl. I had a friend set up a trip for us, we also invited Thurman [Thomas], Andre [Reed], Jim [Kelly], actually Andre couldn’t make it, Darryl [Talley], Steve Tasker, and Cornelius [Bennett] and the wives and we invited everybody out. And we got around and right before the Super Bowl and we were there for about three or four days and it set up by a friend of mine. And we got around and we got to drinking and you guys know the relationship we give each other shit all the time, laugh, we joke and at the end of day nobody takes anything personally. And the subject of jerseys being retired come up, and you know me being a little, I like to instigate things and stuff like between Thurman and me. I looked at Jim and said after about the third or fourth glass of wine and said, “Jim how did you get your jersey retired before us you weren’t even the best player on the team.” I mean he must have died laughing, and we just talked, and laughed, and ate for four days. I got to tell you that trip probably brought us closer together, particularly since Jim was just getting somewhat of a clean bill of health from his tumultuous experience with going through cancer. We all needed that just to get together and not have anyone else around other than our family. So it was a great experience, but I thought you guys would get a big kick out of it.
Q: What did Jim say Bruce?
A: He laughed, you have, when you see at the ceremony or you see us all together, we always, someone always comes up with something creative to say to instigate a laugh or start a conversation. You just feel like you are right at home. You feel like although it has been a couple of decades since we actually player together, a couple of decades plus some. It feels like it was just yesterday because of experiences like that. And just, we just feel like we are brother and this is family and when you are around family, you know how you sit around and you are watching the game and you say something to your brother that will be off beat or off basis and it just breaks the ice immediately and you just feel the love in the room.
Buffalo Bills Managing Partner and President Russ Brandon
Opening Statement: Obviously, it’s an honor for everyone involved in the organization, certain with Terry and Kim Pegula, and everyone involved in the organization. The announcement we made this morning to retire No. 78, Bruce Smith’s number, one of the greatest players not only in Bills’ history, but obviously in the history of the National Football League. It’s going to be an electric night on September 15 against the New York Jets and we’ll have a special half-time ceremony to honor one of the all-time greats.
Q: Is this the first number to be retired since Jim Kelly’s in 2001?
A: Correct. Jim is the only number that’s retired and now we will retire No. 78.
Q: Is Jack Kemp’s retired?
Q: Personally, what’s just been your fondest memory, fondest story, of Bruce?
A: I can’t repeat any of those stories. I broke into the business with Bruce when Bruce was a player here in Buffalo. He was obviously someone I looked up to within the organization. In all seriousness, how hard he played each and every Sunday, his commitment to the game. And I remember after a game, something I’ll take with me the rest of my life was a pretty tough defeat, I can’t remember what game it was, pretty down the next day and Bruce came up to the office and said, “There’s a 24 hour rule and this is how we’ve been so successful in the organization. You and everyone else needs to get over this like we do because we need to go back to work.” And that was kind of the work ethic and intensity that Bruce and that entire team brought each and every day. So, just watching him at his craft, he was an amazing, unbelievable player and I know the numbers speak for themselves but he meant a lot to everyone who’s been around here I long time like I’ve been.
Q: Having been 15 years since you last retired a number in Jim’s case, what was the reason for retiring another number?
A: Well, it was certainly a conversation within the organization. At the time, it was something that I spoke to Terry and Kim about. The complexities of the sale and getting through that whole process and some of the things that we discussed and this was one of them. As you may or may not know, No. 78 has never been issued since the last time he took it off and it will never be issued again. His accomplishments and his career speaks for itself. Like I said, you can make an argument that Bruce is one of the greatest players not only in Bills history, but one of the greatest NFL players in history so it’s a well-deserved honor and it’s going to be a tremendous evening.
Q: Do you expect to follow Thurman (Thomas) getting his number retired?
A: I want to keep today about Bruce. We’ll address those issues down the road.
Q: A lot of fans were excited about the announcement and then there was also a pretty solid contingent wondering what took so long because he stopped being a Bill in 1999, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, so, that’s been a popular question.
A: Yeah, and rightfully so. It’s something that is a tough question to answer. We have a lot of different honors here. The ultimate honor is to be on the Bills Wall of Fame, something we take very seriously with our committee, and it was really something, like I said, once the sale went down, it was on my list of things to discuss with Terry and Kim and also the organization. It really wasn’t about time, it was about being the right time and the right time is now.
Q: Did you have these discussions with Mr. (Ralph) Wilson earlier?
A: To be honest with you, I don’t recall much of those conversations at the time, but this was something, like I said, that was on my list for many years to discuss with Terry and Kim. Not many years I should say, the last couple of years once we went through that process. I’m just happy it’s here and it will be a great evening like I mentioned.
Q: What goes in that process? You got a lot of those 90s Bills, you could retire a lot of those numbers, so what makes it to the point where you say, “this is a number that’s sacred?”
A: Well, one of the things is that you look at the accomplishments of the player and you also, as I mentioned, there’s three numbers in the modern era that have never been issued and will never be issued. And we know what those numbers are and one’s already retired. And another one will be retired on September 15 so it sorts of transcends…they all have yellow jackets, the people we’re talking about as well, so their accomplishments now only with the Bills but their place in NFL history is unquestioned and Bruce is, in our opinion, our organization’s opinion, unquestioned. You can say he’s the greatest player of all time in league history.
Q: Did the league, the NFL, have any say in this?
A: No, it’s an organizational decision. Like I said, it starts and stops with Terry and Kim.
Q: How much bigger does it make the moment knowing that the game is on prime-time, Thursday night?
A: Oh, it’s going to be an incredible atmosphere against a division rival, one that Bruce had a lot of success against when he was playing. First time we’ve had a night game in a few years, it’s our home opener. If we had a roof, it would probably blow off on that night. It’s going to be a great atmosphere and to bring back a legend like Bruce, usually what follows are the other legends from that team and characters from that team and so many alumni that will be back on that weekend. It’s going to be a very special weekend, week. We’ll probably be celebrating all summer with Bruce so it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about his reaction when you told him this was happening?
A: It was a little emotional, you know? Bruce and I, like I said, we’ve sort of grown up together here and it’s a well-deserved honor for him and someone I personally have so much respect for, both personally and professionally. Just a great opportunity to connect with him on it and we’ve had some fun chatting about it over the last few months and then just some of the other conversations with some the other guys, it’s been a lot of fun.
Q: Is that Thursday night game sold out or close to being sold out?
A: Yeah, season-ticket wise right now we’re over the 55,000 mark and continuing to sell through that. It will be a packed house all year with our great fans and that game will be, with all the games, a tough ticket.
Q: Do you expect the players to wear ceremonial 78 jerseys during the warmups?
A: That’s a good question. We haven’t gone through all the logistics of that evening but it’s going to be a special night throughout the organization. Everyone, a lot of these guys were close to not being born when Bruce played, but everyone knows who Bruce Smith is and just like I know who Gale Sayers was. There’s certain guys that transcend the game with the history of the game and obviously Bruce is one of them.
Q: From discussion and consideration be made, Russ, for maybe reissuing the jersey for sale for a limited period of time?
A: Everything’s on the table. We did not, and Scott can attest to this and everyone who works here, no one knew about this internally. There were a lot of surprised people this morning, in a very positive way, when they saw the email to the staff. It’s the first people have ever heard of it. We haven’t game-planned for it at all, the game-plan starts now. We’ll make it a special time for not only Bruce but also for Bills fans. I’m sure we’ll work with our partners and do some pretty creative things like we try to do. I think people will really get a big charge out of what’s ahead.
Q: When was the first time you met Bruce and what did you come away thinking just after experiencing him for the first time?
A: First time I met him was in ’97 and he came up to my office with Jim Kelly, with Thurman (Thomas) and Kent Hull. And I was basically told, and at the time, I worked in marketing/business administration, and they came up and told me what it meant to be a Buffalo Bill and what was expected. I was blown away by it based on the fact that I was a guy basically running a marketing and business department and they felt it was necessary to make sure that I knew what was ahead of us and what was expected not only of me, but of our entire department. I walked out of there and the first thing I said to myself was, “Boy, I know why this team has won so much.” And my first couple of years we went to the playoffs and it was really from the residue of the leadership of those guys and that’s the thing that will always stand out to me; is not only how close-knit they were, but the leadership that was exuded throughout the entire building.
Q: Were you able to get together and talk to him in person when you told him or on the phone?
A: I spoke to him on the phone, but I’ve also had a couple conversations with him in person during the course of the year.
Hall of Fame Head Coach Marv Levy
Q: What was your reaction this morning when you heard the news of Bruce’s number being retired?
A: Well several emotions, really gratified, I was excited to hear, I did get a call from somebody else, one of the radio stations, I can’t say surprised because I feel it was so deserving, but still it was just very gratifying I know it is so worthwhile.
Q: Bruce had some issues before you showed up, what do you think led to his change?
A: John [Murphy] I know exactly the answer to that question. Yes, he was just as you described him in his early years even though he was a number one pick in the draft and so much was expected. He was overweight, self-indulgent, didn’t have great practice habits, all of those things. Two people had quite an impact on turning him around. One was his coveted teammate Darryl Talley, who really sort of gave him that proverbial kick in the butt to get going. But the other in the offseason I understand he went back to Virginia Tech to finish his degree, which was good. There he met a woman counselor who put him on the right track in every respect. Boy he dropped weight with the urgings of her and Darryl. Shaped up and got ready, his principles changed. He not only turned out to be the greatest player, he married that woman, what a wife she was, his wife Carmen. So those people had great impact on him. What a change in his practice habits, his excitement about playing the game, all of those things occurred.
Q: Could you have imagined him having the career he did when he was overweight and all that?
A: No, you wouldn’t, the odds were against it. But hey a lot of things happened with the odds against it. He had an over impressive impression of himself at that time and how it ought to be. He really did turn the corner and Darryl Talley had a big impact on him. And I think some of his teammates that did keep coming in, because Bill Polian and I, along with Mr. Wilson made the agreement that we would only bring players of high character onto our team. Now their personalities might be very different from each other, some extroverts, some more quiet and laid back but they all eventually had great impacts on each other.
Q: Are you going to be able to make it into town for the game and what do you think the atmosphere will be like?
A: Yes, I do plan to make it in town for that game and that event. I do understand that it is an alumni weekend as well. Opening game I think at home, I think that is the case, I am not positive. It is going to be exciting certainly with Bruce [Smith] there, I know that a tremendous number of his teammates will be there in attendance also. I am looking forward to it with great enthusiasm.
Q: Some say it took a little longer to officially retire his number than it should have?
A: Well it has been a long time since he left, but this is quite an honor and you know the NFL itself doesn’t encourage a lot of number retirements because pretty soon you run out of numbers a little bit. It is merited and just glad it is happening now somethings do take longer to occur than maybe you think they would have, I don’t have any criticisms of it. I am just elated and delighted his number is going to be retired. I know Bruce [Smith], he is smiling and will stay smiling now and all the way to that date.
Q: Have you had a chance to talk to Bruce yet and how excited is he?
A: I did not have a chance to talk to him about this. I talked to him fairly recently he was in Chicago during the draft thing and I live in Chicago. But I haven’t talked to him about this although on my to-do list today that is really right near the top of the list to give him a call.
Q: What does it mean to you to have the new owners honor and recognize what you guys were able to accomplish?
A: Very meaningful, and very gratifying to see. I have only met Mr. Pegula once very briefly on an elevator in a hotel downtown, I got off on the tenth floor. I have, I am 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 and that is where it belongs. Now he is reaching back, he believes in tradition again, he is a little bit of a historian.
Provided by the Buffalo Bills.
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