"They were telling me, in a sense, that I was washed up," says Smerlas. "Guys would be on and off the team. You'd come into the locker room and see who'd parachuted into practice today."
After the '85 season, WBEN dropped Smerlas and Haslett's show. The team had gone 8-40 the last three seasons, from 1984 to '86. The gags were no longer funny. The only plus in his life was a woman he'd met through backup nose-guard Bill Acker. Acker had told him, "You've got to meet this beautiful teacher from Toronto, and she's Greek, too."
Kris Kefalas had said that the last thing she wanted in life was to marry a man of Greek heritage. Daddy was old world. A good Greek girl lives only to take care of her home and her husband. Not this Greek girl, said Kris. "When I was little," she says, "the only Greek words my father taught me were the ones to use to keep the boys away."
But she saw something in Smerlas. Sure, he was a big, rough guy, but he also was quick and bright. He asked her to call him—please—and one night she did. "I answered the phone, and sweat was pouring off me, I was so nervous," recalls Smerlas. "My roommate, Sean McNanie, the defensive end, started kidding around. I told him, 'Shut up, Sean. I swear to God I'll smash this chair over your head. I'll smash everything in this room over your head.' "
Fred and Kris dated for a couple of years and were married in February of this year. "Fred did two things for me," says Kris. "He made me proud to be Greek again, and he brought me back to being close with my father."
In 1987, Levy was in his first full year as coach. The team had young talent—Kelly, rookie linebackers Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett, defensive end Bruce Smith. Smerlas was 30 and in the last year of his contract. "The first game after the strike we played Miami and were down 21-3 at the half," he says. "I talked to Joe Devlin, our right offensive tackle and the oldest guy on the team. His contract was up after that year, too. Both of us felt our heads were in the noose, that it was all on the line for us, right then." The Bills won 34-31 in overtime and finished the year with a 7-8 record. Now they're leading the AFC East, and Smerlas and Devlin are playing top-quality football again.
Fred and Kris live a mile from the stadium in a modest house he and McNanie shared for four years. "It cost $60,000 when I bought it," he says, "and now it's been appraised at $61,000."
After 9½ years in the league Smerlas is still down-to-earth. "He bought me a sewing machine for a wedding present," says Kris, "but he wouldn't let me go downtown and pick it up until he was sure he had made the team."
"The farther along in my career I get, the more insecure I to hold on, keep working hard, get plenty of sleep. People get," he says. "You want get out of the game and they say, 'I don't need football anymore.' Then it's gone and they realize how much they need it.
"What would I like? To get a ring. You see guys who are second-stringers walking around with rings; you see strength coaches with 'em. I just want to play long enough to see what it's like."