"Sometimes we'd go down to this restaurant in Sudbury—JT's. It's closed now. Lobster, all you can eat, for $19.95. One night 10 guys ate 180 lobsters. There'd be a line of fat people outside. It looked like a zoo. I'd be ashamed to go there. It was the fat persons' fix. They'd take 'em out in a forklift."
Smerlas weighed 305 when he came home during his sophomore year. "Muscle shirt, pants with suspenders, Fu Manchu, long hair—my mother started crying when she saw me," he says. "She said, 'It doesn't look like you.' "
In his senior year, though, the BC coach, Ed Chlebek, decided he wanted a leaner squad. "He said he wanted a running team," says Smerlas. "He wouldn't let me eat. I dropped to 265 and looked like a skeleton."
The Eagles went 0-11, but the scouts were impressed by Smerlas, who was a defensive end. He never took a play off. "I had no technique," he says. "I just wanted to kill the guy in front of me. We used to beat people up and lose. We had something like 35 turnovers in our first five games. I was out of control. I'd spit and scream and grab face masks. I remember someone once talking to me on the field and how weird it felt, so I started doing it. I wouldn't go to our defensive huddle. Instead, I'd stand there yelling at the other team. Our linebacker, Jeff Dziama, would say, 'Shut up, Freddy.' I'd say, 'You shut up!' "
The Bills drafted Smerlas with the first of two second-round picks; they took Haslett, out of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with the other. In Haslett, who once said, "I don't like any hobbies where you sit down, like playing the guitar or collecting stamps," Smerlas had a teammate who was as zany as he was. In bars people would come up to them and say, "Yeah, you're the crazy ones."
"We'd put on acts, throw stuff at each other, start wrestling," says Smerlas. "People would ask me, 'How'd you get so big, lifting weights?' I'd say, 'Nah, I wrapped cookies.' "
Smerlas and the two inside linebackers behind him, Haslett and Shane Nelson, became the Bermuda Triangle, the heart of a defense that went from 24th in the league in 1978 (and last against the run) to first in 1980. Smerlas made his first trip to the Pro Bowl, and the Bills reached the playoffs for the first time in six years. They went again in '81. Smerlas and Haslett got their own call-in radio show on WBEN. It was wild, naturally.
"We'd say anything that came into our heads," says Smerlas. "We'd have guess-the-combined-length-of-our-noses contests, guess-the-name-of-Haslett's-dog contests. The callers would get out of control sometimes. Our fingers would be on the click button to turn 'em off if things got too bad. Sometimes all you'd hear would be click-click-click."
As wild as he was off the field, Smerlas was deadly serious about his profession. Plenty of sleep, no drinking Tuesday nights through Saturday nights. "I had no idea how to play noseguard when I started," he says. "I'd been a penetrating end in college. One of our coaches told me I would never be able to play in the NFL. I went back to my apartment. I can't play? What am I going to do for a living?
"I got films of all the good noseguards and defensive tackles, and I'd watch them after practice. I broke it all down. Bob Baumhower, head butt and pull, body leverage. Curley Culp, a bull, a straight-ahead banger. Rubin Carter, the swim and the arm-over. Randy White, mesmerize 'em with the head, shake and bake.