In the hills of Greece at the turn of the century there lived a giant. The giant's name was George Smerlas, but everyone called him the Tree. The Tree was seven feet tall and weighed 350 pounds, and in a country suffused with legend he soon earned a place in the folklore of the time. It was said that when he cleared the land, he would uproot trees with his hands. Once, when he was coming home from work, a mountain lion attacked him. The Tree grappled with the beast and ripped its tail off, and the lion fled. The story spread, and people would travel great distances to look at this modern Hercules.
The Tree's descendants eventually immigrated to America. They were sturdy people, hard workers, and some of them were athletes, but there were no giants among them. Then, on April 8, 1957, Peter Smerlas, who stood 5'10", and his 5'6" wife, Katina, gave birth to a robust boy they named Fred. He was the great-great-nephew of the Tree.
Fred was born with a full head of hair. The priest twice gave Peter and Katina permission to cut it before baptizing him. At six months Fred was already walking. "Nobody believes it," says Fred now. "But my mother will tell you it's true."
Soon after, he climbed onto a window ledge of his family's ranch-style home in Waltham, Mass. When his parents saw him, he was laughing. "He was a jovial baby," says Katina.
Fred was shaving in the eighth grade, bench-pressing 440 pounds in the 12th. By then he stood 6'3" and weighed 250 pounds. Two years later he would weigh 305. The Tree's genes had skipped two generations and settled in him.
In the hills of Greece, Fred would have been a worthy successor to his legendary ancestor, a mighty man with plow or ax, but in the New World a youngster with size, speed, power and quickness of hand and eye goes into sports. As a schoolboy Fred excelled at football, wrestling, weightlifting and the shot put, and at present he is thriving in an NFL career that is a testimony to his indestructibility.
Fred is in his 10th season with the Buffalo Bills, for whom he plays nose-guard, the most brutal position in football. Only one other player in NFL history—Rubin Carter, who played 152 games at noseguard for the Denver Broncos—has lined up at that spot more times than Smerlas, who has played in 140 games, 130 as a starter. Smerlas holds the record for consecutive starts—the number depends on how you want to handle last year's player strike. If you throw out the three strike games, then Smerlas, who didn't cross the picket line, is working on a string of 127. If you end the streak at the start of the strike, then the number is 107. Either way it's a record. Curley Culp, who set the standard by which nose-guards are measured, lasted 14 years in the league, but was at noseguard in only six of them—77 starts. The rest of the time he was a defensive tackle.
So how does Smerlas do it? First of all, you have to consider his body. Hairy as a bear, thick as a barrel, Smerlas weighs 290 to 300 pounds during the season and as much as 330 in the off-season. He's massive through the legs, which have absorbed a decade of cut-blocking, double-teams and crackbacks. Then there's the matter of pain. Smerlas hasn't missed a game because of injury since he partially tore cartilage in his right knee at the end of 1979, his rookie year.
"He's played with a hyperextended elbow and a pinched rotator cuff," says Bills trainer Eddie Abramoski. "He's played with a sprained ankle that was twice its normal size and a wrist that was so badly sprained he couldn't bend it. 'Tape me up,' he said. He puts pain out of his mind. He'll play as long as I tell him no permanent harm could result."
Loud and boisterous—you can stand in the hallway and know immediately whether Smerlas is in the locker room—he plays the game the way they did 50 years ago. "Are you Zorba the Greek?" a TV man asked him a few years ago after a game.