However, the same selflessness and versatility that made him so valuable also prevented him from mastering one position. In his only start of the 1991 season, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Paup lined up at inside linebacker and racked up an amazing 4.5 sacks. It was equally amazing that the Packers did not make him a regular starter until '94. Even then, in his first Pro Bowl year, Paup started at four positions. When he became an unrestricted free agent after that season, the Bills offered him a three-year, $7.6 million contract. In what he has since termed a "miscalculation," Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf made no attempt to keep Paup in Titletown.
A few weeks ago, as Paup sat nursing a grapefruit juice in a Buffalo sports bar, the Packers' lack of confidence in him was one of the few subjects that seemed to quicken his pulse. "They didn't think I was that good," he says. What about his 32½ total sacks from 1991 to '94? "They thought I was feeding off Reggie"—that is, taking advantage of the frequent double-team blocks opponents used to contain Green Bay defensive end Reggie White. Even if he was living off White, Paup reasons, so what: "Someone's got to finish the play."
He makes no effort to conceal his bitterness toward Packers management. "For some reason they thought I was a guy who'll give you a hundred percent but isn't a very good athlete—a try-hard guy," he says. Which is, of course, precisely what Paup has been all his life. The youngest of three boys growing up on the family farm in Iowa, he always brought an intensity to the task at hand, whether it was cleaning beans, pulling weeds, digging ditches or taking potshots at his brothers with a BB gun.
No one ever described Scranton High as a football factory. There were 19 people in Paup's graduating class in 1986; only 19 boys in the entire school went out for football his senior year. Many of them worked out in the Paups' disused chicken house, which Bryce, having bought a set of weights and welded together his own lifting bench, had converted into a weight room. As a senior, Paup was a sculpted 6'4", 200 pounds. He was also playing in obscurity. His coach's letters to Iowa and Iowa State—the latter school just 50 miles due east of Scranton on Route 30—were politely rejected.
That fall Denise was a freshman at Northern Iowa, and Terry Allen, now the Panthers' football coach, was an assistant. One night Denise and a friend approached Allen and another coach at a pizza joint and told them that they ought to consider recruiting Bryce. Oh, boy, here we go, Allen thought. "We've got a game next weekend, tell him to come on up," he said. Paup showed up, and the coaches liked what they saw. They asked him to send some game tapes. "The tape Bryce sent had been shot out of the back of a guy's truck," recalls Allen. "But there was Bryce, about a football taller than anyone else. He kept making plays. We offered him a full ride."
Coming from a small high school, Paup felt he had much to prove at Northern Iowa, where he became a third-team All-America his senior year. He had a similar feeling four years later when he reported to the Packers as a rookie, and again last summer, in his first training camp with the Bills. Buffalo management had decided not to re-sign 34-year-old linebacker Darryl Talley, who was much beloved by his teammates and Bills fans. In fact, during last May's minicamp, running back Thurman Thomas and defensive end Bruce Smith each wore one of Talley's practice jerseys. "I thought, Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?" recalls Paup.
But what he'd gotten himself into was an optimal situation. In the off-season Buffalo coach Marv Levy had hired former Denver Broncos coach Wade Phillips to be his defensive coordinator. Phillips installed a hyperaggressive 3-4 scheme that the players loved. While the Packers had moved Paup around like a chess piece, Phillips had a very specific job in mind for him: Paup was going to line up over the tight end and rush the quarterback all game.
Opposing offenses had to pick their poison; they couldn't double-team both Smith and Paup. "All of a sudden our defense was three notches better," says Bills receiver and special teams commando Steve Tasker. "Our defensive backfield was playing like it had never played before. We were making interceptions, knocking down passes, getting sacks all over the place."
In Buffalo's two wins over Indianapolis last fall, Paup had six sacks combined. "We were trying to block him with a tight end," says Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh. "We quickly realized that's not the way to block Bryce Paup."
He is well respected by his peers, if not well known. Harbaugh made those comments at this year's Pro Bowl, where, off the field, Paup had little interaction with his fellow players. While other guys went in search of tee times and the Honolulu nightlife, Paup retreated into the bosom of his family—Denise and their two sons, Alex, 4, and Nathan, 1½—preferring to pass the afternoon with them at places like Sea Life.