A newspaper reporter is interviewing Smerlas after the Sept. 25 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Are you afraid of overconfidence now that you're 4-0?" asks the scribe.
"Nah, it's not the makeup of this team," says Smerlas.
"What is its makeup?"
"Light eyeliner, a little blush," Smerlas says.
When he was at Boston College, a few of the coaches termed Smerlas uncoachable. "You know why?" he says. "Because I asked questions. When I'm interviewed, I say what I want to say. Hank Bullough, the coach who was fired when they brought Marv Levy in here, said, 'You're one of those quotable guys, aren't you?' Then I was told not to talk. Me not talk. Sure."
In his later years, though, Smerlas has learned obedience—of sorts. "We have a dress code on trips," he says. "Shirt, tie and jacket. I've got this Hawaiian shirt I wear every trip. This year one of the rookies said, 'Oh, that's a Hawaiian shirt,' and I said, 'Very good, you pass the test.' I wear that shirt and a red tie I haven't unknotted in five years. I just slip it over."
When linebacker Jim Haslett was with the Bills, he and Smerlas had an unusual pregame ritual. "We'd go through the game program in the locker room and compare our pictures with the other team's and then vote, position by position, to see which team was uglier. The Patriots were a team we always beat. Ugliest team of the '80s? Atlanta.
"If I was in early enough, I'd get a whole box of game programs. I'd cut out the eyes and the nose of Joe Danelo, our kicker. You know, he had that great big schnozz, and I'd paste it over everyone's picture. I'd make a whole team of Joe Danelos. Then I'd cut out Jim Ritcher's face and make a Mr. Potato Head and paste Reggie McKenzie's bald fringe on top. This kid, Joe Azelby, a linebacker from Harvard, came by one time, and he said, I always wondered how you prepared for a game. Now I know.' "
So what's the story? Was Smerlas always a wacko, or has he just played too many games at noseguard? "He was a pudgy kid with ears sticking out," says Smerlas's older brother, Peter, who holds a master's in psychology from the University of Massachusetts. "Every year he wanted a chemistry set. He was like a little mad scientist. He wasn't interested in sports. He'd make bombs. You'd leave him in the cellar alone, and pretty soon you'd hear a boom. Then at night he'd talk to himself. That's why I studied psychology, to figure him out."
"Right up to high school I was a nice quiet kid, very mellow, never wanted to fight," says Smerlas. "My first day at Central Junior High, here was old Freddy in his checkered pants and penny loafers. I walked down the aisle in my first class, and a kid sucker-punched me. I went down to the nurse. 'What happened?' she said. I said, 'I don't know.'