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Janine Talley: The superhuman force of ‘Bruce,’ and a super friendship

Fred and Barney, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Jordan and Pippen: No matter the duo, one recognized the other’s strengths and was a counterweight to them. And so it went for Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley.

Bruce arrived in Buffalo the summer of 1985 the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. He was guarded, which some mistook for aloof, but Darryl had played against Bruce in college and knew he just needed to feel part of the fold. Bruce asked Darryl where he was living and Darryl told him Big Tree Manor Apartments. Bruce asked if it was close to the stadium, it was, and like that, Bruce and Darryl were teammates and neighbors.

Their relationship arose so organically, from being teammates to being neighbors to being roommates on the road to playing at each other’s hips, that it was destined to be harmonious. What no one could predict is that they’d become such necessary parts of a whole. Also unpredictable at the time is that 31 years later we’d be reassembling in Buffalo to see Bruce’s number, 78, retired.

Darryl has always been a student of football, and when old Bills games are televised the person he is most in awe of is Bruce. He illuminates at the sight of Bruce turning a corner. The way his body defied gravity. The way he aligned his shoulders and hips, akin to a speedskater, and was still able to run full-on. And his hands, Bruce was a master at using his hands. He possessed incredible strength. He could grab a 300-pound man with one hand, sling him, keep his balance and still run in a straight line to the center. Once he grabbed a lineman with his meat hooks, it was over for the quarterback.

One of Darryl’s all-time favorite Bruce moments came during a Bills vs. Colts game. He said he ran to the sideline and asked Cornelius Bennett if he just saw what he saw, referring to a play where Bruce launched All-Pro tackle Chris Hinton into the next area code. Darryl said he’d never seen anything like it; Hinton looked like a rag doll.

In the beginning of their association, Darryl tried to emulate the way Bruce executed his game but quickly found Bruce possessed skills that should have a patent. Once Darryl realized Bruce’s full potential, he worked to put Bruce in the most advantageous place within their defensive framework to do the most damage.

Their defensive coordinator, Walt Corey, told Darryl to “just get it done” and in his eyes putting Bruce in situations to make plays that defy Newton’s laws was “getting it done.” When you have someone that big, that strong and that skilled, you’ve got to give him the green light on the field. Bruce got the constant green light.

What was a successful duo on the field spilled over to a lasting friendship off of it. Some of my fondest memories are the early years of that friendship.

Darryl bought a reel-to-reel projector and he and Bruce studied film together. Bruce and his future wife, Carmen, would walk over to our apartment when it got dark outside. She and I would sit in the television room while Darryl and Bruce watched grainy footage of their opponents projected on to our dining room wall. We’d sit and listen to them evaluate their adversaries. They’d run the film from the contraption sitting atop our dining room table, see something and rerun the play over and over until they felt they had a grasp of the competitor’s scheme. Sometimes that evaluation would turn into a passionate debate on how to best handle their rivals.

The December of Bruce’s second year in the league, the four of us took an overnight trip to Manhattan. During a cab ride from midtown, Bruce sitting shotgun with the cabbie, and perhaps he and Darryl having had one tablespoon of wine too much, they got to joking and laughing.

Suddenly, as if in a movie, the taxi came to a screeching halt. The cab driver looked at Bruce and Darryl, and through broken English, told them he knew what they were trying to do to him (whatever that meant) and told us to get out of his car. I’ll never forget the look of befuddlement on Bruce’s face when he realized the driver was serious: his eyes wide, his mouth agape as we exited the cab.

So there the four of us stood in the dark and raw cold of winter, me six months pregnant, on a corner in lower Manhattan nowhere near our destination. Earnestly, Bruce and Darryl whistled and waved in vain as taxis whizzed past us, the lights up on their roofs signaling they were available for hire. Pathetic to say, but in 1986 New York City, it was difficult to find a cab driver willing to pick up two black men.

In order to get a ride, I had to walk about 20 feet from them, act as if I were alone and hail the taxi. When the driver stopped, Bruce, Carmen and Darryl scurried over and got in with me.

Bruce was Darryl’s best man at our wedding, Carmen my matron of honor. We’ve celebrated the births of babies, the high school graduations of those babies and Bruce’s Hall of Fame induction. We’ve shared countless meals, holidays and vacations. We’ve also shared in the grief of losing parents, the loss of children of teammates and the loss of teammates.

We’ve also shared in this sad journey of Darryl’s. Bruce was one of a few in whom I confided when I first figured out what was happening to Darryl. A couple of days after I broke the news to Bruce, I spoke with Carmen. She told me Bruce was having a difficult time processing what I’d just disclosed to him about his friend. Once he came to grips with it, he became one of Darryl’s biggest advocates.

That friendship came full-circle when Darryl was in the depths of his illnesses. Bruce, without reservation told me, “You take care of Darryl, I’ll take care of the rest.” He did. Without the unwavering friendship of Bruce, I don’t know where we’d be today. His loyalty to Darryl is immeasurable.

And so it goes for Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley. To be any closer, they would have to share DNA.

On a personal note: Bruce, congratulations on the long-overdue accolade of having your number, 78, retired from the Bills roster. To borrow a line from my favorite movie, Steel Magnolias: “I love you more than my luggage.”

Janine Talley, wife of Bills great Darryl Talley, writes an occasional column in The Buffalo News.

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