"Kids would roll apples and pennies down the aisles. One kid threw a knife and it stuck in the wall next to the teacher. I'd go home and look in the mirror—chubby, goofy-looking kid with big ears—and I'd say, 'Man, I've got to do something to survive here.' So I started lifting weights. And I'd hit a speed bag—I was always quick with my hands—and run with combat boots on. My body started to change.
"I never forgot, though. When I was in junior high a kid jacked me up one day and stole a quarter. Seven years later, when I was at BC, I saw him downtown in a Volkswagen. I ran over and started smashing the car with my fists. He said, 'What the hell are you doing?'
"I said, 'Seven years ago you stole a quarter from me.'
"He said, 'What are you, nuts or something?'
"I said, 'You shouldn't have done it. See, it's come back to haunt you.' "
Smerlas started playing football as a 190-pound 10th-grader. Eventually he became a high school All-America as well as the New England heavyweight wrestling champ in his junior and senior years. He was 60-0 on the mat during that span. Fifty-eight of those victories came on pins, 50 in the first period. "Wrestling was natural for me," he says. "I'd look at a move and I'd know it. In my senior year a kid lasted 1:01 and got a standing ovation. Mothers used to come up to me and say, 'Don't hurt my son.' I'd tell them, 'I'm not going to hurt him, just pin him.' "
Smerlas ran around with a lively group. It was called Freddy's Army, and everyone wore a trench coat. Among the enlistees were Rockhead McCarthy; the Martin brothers, Tiny and George; Paul Delaney, who was nicknamed Muncher because he used to take bites out of people; and Tommy Hernandez, who was known as Tommy the Pimp because he drove a big green Cadillac. "One of the teachers thought he was a real pimp," says Smerlas. "He asked him to fix him up with a girl."
College recruiters were always around. "Every day when I came home from school, there would be someone showing my parents movies of some college," says Smerlas.
He wound up at BC with his friend David Poirier, whose father had coached them at Waltham High. "David was a quarterback in high school," says Smerlas, "but they made him a linebacker at BC. He had a head like concrete. Once he was running down the field, and he lost his helmet hitting a guy. So he hit another guy without it. He'd point to his forehead and say, 'Go ahead, hit me.' I did—and broke a knuckle.
"Six guys were in our room at BC. We had pig roasts out back. I must have been thrown out of the dorm six times—and reinstated. In the summers we'd go back to the P & P Gym in Waltham and lift weights. The place was filled with 250-and 260-pound screamers. Eat and sweat and lift, that's all they did. This one guy—he was about 40—had tattoos all over his body, even his ears. He was from Europe—he'd been in prison for five years and had stowed away on a boat. He used to beat himself with a wire brush until the blood flowed to get ready to lift.