Before Bruce Smith established himself as one of the greatest players in NFL history, he was a rookie defensive end with plenty to learn.
In 1985, after joining the Buffalo Bills as the top overall pick of the draft, Smith found a teammate at his position near the end of his career who was willing to provide many valuable lessons that helped Smith become the league's all-time leader in quarterback sacks and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For that, Smith is eternally grateful to Ben Williams, who passed away from natural causes Monday at age 65.
"I certainly owe a lot to Ben for embracing me as a young rookie coming into the league," Smith said by phone. "And not only on the field, but off the field as well. I can't thank him enough for what he did for me in my career."
"He was a once-in-a-lifetime guy," Fred Smerlas, a five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle for the Bills, said by phone.
Williams spent his 10 NFL seasons with the Bills after joining them in 1976 as a third-round draft pick from the University of Mississippi. He was the first African-American player from Ole Miss drafted by the NFL.
Known to teammates as "Gentle Ben" because of his friendliness and kind nature, and as "Dollar Bill" because he worked at a bank in the offseason, Williams contributed significantly to the Bills' playoff appearances under coach Chuck Knox in 1980 and '81. He had a career-best 10 sacks in 1983, a year after being selected to the Pro Bowl.
Williams' final season with the Bills was 1985, giving Smith only one year to soak in the knowledge Williams willingly offered. But it went a long way.
"When I was drafted to the Bills, Benny was one of the first people to take me under his wings," Smith said. "He told me a long time ago, 'If they can't grab you, they can't hold you.' And I would try and emulate the use of my hands the way he used this hands against (former Bill) Joe Devlin and so many other offensive tackles, trying to prevent them from getting a secure grip on the jersey and doing everything you can to make yourself small while you are making progress towards a quarterback.
"He was just a fun-loving guy who wanted to pass that knowledge on to that next player that was coming on the scene. He just didn't want all of that valuable information that he had learned over the years to go to waste. So he gave of it freely and wanted to make sure that he was part of the process of helping guys to go through this maturation process that could take them to the next level."
When the Bills released Williams, Smith remembers being brought to tears.
"I was lost for a short period of time, because of (losing) his mentoring and him being like a big brother to me in my youth and eagerness to get out there and play this game at a high level," Smith said. "Ben was one of the first that allowed me to go through this maturation process and become that impact player."
After joining the Bills as a second-round draft pick in 1983, Darryl Talley received some of the most valuable advice that anyone gave him during his career. It came from Williams, who urged Talley and other rookies to get to know "who they were playing for" by traveling throughout Western New York and especially Buffalo's inner-city.
"He said, 'You can't play for somebody and not have a feel for who they are,' " Talley said by phone. "What you remember is you remember a guy teaching you how to be a pro. When you come out of college, you have no idea about any of this stuff that goes on or how it's done or anything. And to have Benny and Sherman White and Phil Villapiano around to help you, to teach you how to get started in the National Football League, I learned from some pretty good guys how to do things."
Smerlas said Williams was greatly underappreciated as a player and a person.
"Most people don't know how good a guy he was, how good a player he was, how good a teammate he was," Smerlas said.
Smerlas' most lasting memory of Williams was that he was a much-needed calming force for him after he joined the Bills as a second-round draft pick in 1979.
"When I was coming out of college, I was a little angry, I had a lot of excess adrenaline," he said. "So when I got there, I was getting in a fight with every offensive lineman. When I watched Benny play, I was very impressed. He had a lot of control of the team and he pulled me aside and said, 'Listen, rookie. You'd better slow the (expletive) down or you're going to get us all killed.' He calmed me down, brought me back to level. He was just a guy that everybody wanted to listen to."
At 6-foot-3 and 251 pounds, Williams didn't look all that physically imposing. However, he had a great deal of strength and agility.
"He had the ability to change direction with his hips going one way and his elbows going the other way," Smerlas said.
"You would think, when you'd see him line up, you'd go, 'OK, I've got this guy, I don't have to worry about him,' " Talley said. "The next thing you know, as he'd put it, he'd slap you upside the head and go on by you. He was really good with his hands, taught Bruce how to use his. And just him being around saying, 'Look, you don't do things this way, you've got to do it this way. You've got to be a little smarter about what you're doing.' He actually showed us how to practice and how to get the most out of it. That was 'Dollar.' "