Great story, too. Raised by grandparents Clara and John Smith in Millbrook, Ala., Antowain turned down a chance to play college football in 1990 because he had to help support the family. Clara was on kidney dialysis and John had lost one arm, so Antowain mixed dye at a nearby textile plant for $5.50 an hour. For 3½ years, until Clara died in '93, Antowain would take $20 or $30 a week for himself and turn over the rest of his paycheck to his grandparents to pay medical bills. "It's something I just had to do, and something I was honored to do," Smith says. He watched football games on TV—he remembers pulling for Thomas in the '91 Super Bowl against the New York Giants because he liked his running style—but never envisioned himself in the NFL.
Clara changed that. On her deathbed, she made her grandson promise he would get a college education. After playing for East Mississippi Community College in '94, he attended Houston on a football scholarship, majored in kinesiology, led the Cougars to the '96 Liberty Bowl and became a top pro prospect at age 25. Some teams thought he was too old, but the Bills snapped him up with the 23rd overall pick of the April draft.
A quiet man, Smith may have said more after Saturday's game than he did during his first couple of weeks of training camp. The biggest night of your life can do that to a person. "I'm living a dream," Smith said. "I went out on the held tonight, and there's Michael Dean Perry and Neil Smith on the Denver side, and it finally hit me: I'm in the NFL. All the adversity I had to overcome finally was worth it. I'm so happy I can't express it."
Thomas and Smith could be one of the most productive tandems in the league if Thomas wisely doesn't push to be the 285-carry-a-season workhorse that Bills fans are accustomed to seeing. "There may be four or five games where I'm a 30-carry guy, but I've taken a pounding over the years," says Thomas. "I think we've got the ability in our backfield now to have a bunch of guys run with it."
While he thinks people are underestimating the Bills, Thomas also admits that Buffalo's success depends largely on the status of Bruce Smith. "Without him, who knows?" he says.
At the heart of the hulking defensive end's dispute with the team is his claim of a broken promise. Smith, who didn't do himself any favors when he was charged with driving under the influence after an early Sunday incident in Virginia Beach, says that in renegotiating his contract at the club's request in '95, he consented to extending it a year (to '97, at $2.2 million) and flip-flopping his '95 salary ($2.2 million) with his '96 pay ($3.9 million). He says that in return for helping to clear room under the salary cap, Bills management told him that if he played up to his standard, the club would void the final year of the deal and do a new contract.
General manager John Butler vehemently denies making any such deal with Smith or his agent, but Wilson acknowledges that Smith's contract was to be reviewed after the '96 season. Smith wants about $25 million over five years, and because most football contracts are not guaranteed, he would like about $10 million of that (signing bonus and salary combined) in '97. Buffalo's offer provides a total of $6.2 million this season. "I do them a favor so they can clear some cap room to sign new players, and this is the thanks I get," Smith says.
"Baloney!" Wilson bellowed in his box at Mile High Stadium last Saturday. "This idea that Bruce did us a grandiose favor by redoing his contract is nonsense. Look, Bruce Smith is the best defensive end I've ever seen. He's been paid well over the years. It just so happens that our review of his contract and his review were about as far apart as this football field. I can't adjust my contract structure because of what Derrick Thomas gets, or because of what some owner in Albuquerque pays his guy. All I know is that at the end of last year, I told [Bills treasurer] Jeff Littmann, 'Give Bruce $100,000 more a year than [Packers defensive end] Reggie White got.' And we did, if you average the first three years of our offer to Bruce and compare it to Reggie's."
The bottom line, as linebacker Chris Spiel man says, is that most Bills players believe Smith will play for Buffalo and play hard. If he doesn't sign a new deal, he'll have to have another big year for prospective suitors to pay top dollar for a pass rusher who will be 35 next season.
Spielman, a free-agent pickup by the Bills in '96, has Buffalo's situation pegged when he says NFL teams don't go through classic rebuilding anymore. "Teams reload now," he says of quick-fix acquisitions. "We're in a pretty good reloading position. We've got good veterans and some rookies who look good. If the young guys live up to our standard, we won't fall off."