"I developed my own style: crowd the ball, get as close to the center as possible, square my stance and get my hands into him quickly. If I was quick enough, he'd take me where I wanted to go. It was read on the run. I was like the Sundance Kid—couldn't shoot straight except when he would draw. That was me. I could read moving, but not sitting.
"Dwight Stephenson [the veteran Dolphin center] made me change my style—for him. He developed the technique of holding the ball way out away from him, and he was so fast that he'd use my momentum against me and throw me sideways. I had to change the angle of my charge. The AFC East was the home of the great centers. There wasn't a weak one in the bunch.
"Pete Brock of the Patriots, a class act all the way. He came out low and killed you. The first time I faced him, he broke my face mask on the opening play. Stephenson had blinding speed. You hit him, it was like you'd touched a live wire, his body was moving so quickly. There was Ray Donaldson of the Colts, a big guy who was coming on, and my nemesis, Joe Fields of the Jets.
"A magician in his prime, Fields did it with mirrors. He was the craftiest guy in football. The first time I played him he looked tight, short, small. Hey, I thought, I'm going to kill this guy. I tried to ram him, and he wound up on the side of me, on top of me. I punch him, he punches me. This guy doesn't look like a tough guy, but I can't lay a glove on him. He yells, 'I'm still here, you sonofabitch!' He was right. I couldn't figure out that guy's style. No one could."
As the Bills got good, Smerlas became one of the town's favorite sports figures. Remember that famous bit after Buffalo beat the Los Angeles Rams in overtime in 1980, when Smerlas, Haslett and Ritcher returned to the field in their T-shirts, formed a high-kick line with the cheerleaders and sang a chorus of the Bills' song, We're Talking Proud? Those were the high times—down-to-earth guys in a no-nonsense town.
Smerlas moved into a house with Ritcher, linebacker Chris Keating and defensive end Scott Hutchinson. They insisted that the house was haunted. "Hey, no kidding, it really was haunted," says Smerlas. "I'd be lying in bed and I'd hear deep breathing behind the walls. Remember that scene in The Amityville Horror with all the flies? Well, one day I saw the same thing, 50 million flies on one wall, I mean zillions of them. Then they were gone. I came home one night and there's Hutch sitting in his car outside. He wouldn't go in the house alone.
"Hutch had this BB rifle. One night he bet me he could run across the hall before I could shoot him. So I did. Then it was double or nothing. I got him again. Another double or nothing, only this time he tripped and tried to roll across. He flopped on his back and I got him six times. Ritcher was laughing so hard his muscles were swelling up.
"One day in practice I hit Ritcher in the head and got him mad. When I came home that night, Jim was sitting in front of the fireplace. He had a football card of me with 50 BB holes in it. He was sitting there shooting it."
In 1984 came the big slide. Coach Chuck Knox had left after the '82 season. The next year the Bills went 8-8 under Kay Stephenson but fell to 2-14 in '84. Stephenson was fired in his third season, and his replacement, Bullough, was fired in his second. Smerlas has had six defensive coordinators and six defensive line coaches. "Everyone tried to change my style," he says.
Before the '84 season Smerlas signed a four-year contract that made him the second-highest-paid Bill, after quarterback Joe Ferguson. But his sack total dropped that year, as did his tackles, and the fans started getting on him. He had a habit of jumping offside. In the old days the fans accepted it; now he was booed when he drew the penalty. In 1985, Bullough brought in former Atlanta Falcon Don Smith to replace Smerlas on passing downs. The following year Bullough signed journeyman Jerry Boyarsky to relieve him.