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Quarterbacks beware, Bubba Smith has begun his comeback season as a prideful member of the Oakland Raiders, for whom he plans to vindicate a trade and wake up an old cheer. Not that you would have noticed it last Saturday at the University of California, where Smith, the 6'8", 260-pound defensive end, made his first start of the NFL exhibition season against the Minnesota Vikings. For one thing, he played little more than a quarter and, at best, got a draw against the Vikes' Ron Yary, who may be the finest offensive tackle in the game. For another, the Raiders had four turnovers, costly penalties and other miscellaneous misfortunes that contributed to a 34-10 defeat. Lastly, Bubba was upstaged by a couple of rookies, Minnesota's Chuck Foreman, who quicked his way to two touchdowns, and Oakland's Ray Guy, who punted far and high enough to ice the ball.
Neither Smith's limited duty nor the lopsided score, however, could diminish the happy revelation that the game was for Bubba, who aims to prove some things this season and who now knows his right knee is sound enough to help him make his case.
The idea that Big Bubba would ever have to prove himself as a football player would have seemed ludicrous two seasons ago at Baltimore, where he was a devastating pass rusher and the bulwark of a Colt defense that limited the opposition to 140 points in 14 games. Last season, though, Smith got entangled in a down marker and chain during an exhibition game and suffered what one Colt executive described as "one of the worst knee injuries our team doctor had ever seen." Even before he was hurt, Smith's feelings toward the Colts had changed because General Manager Joe Thomas didn't see fit to renegotiate the last year of a six-year contract. But sitting in a wheelchair on the sideline watching the Colts lose was intolerable.
" Joe Thomas was bad enough," Bubba said last week, "but not playing was terrible. I didn't want to show my face in public. I don't know if it was that we were losing, or what, but it almost drove me crazy."
Bubba had resigned himself to doing his best for the Colts when he came to camp in July. "I was in a cast for seven or eight weeks," he said, "and when I got out of it, my calf and thigh had deteriorated, like I had polio. I worked on the knee by running stadium steps at the L.A. Coliseum and by working with weights at USC. The assistant trainer there, Paul Williams, really helped me. He showed me my strength at each point and he even went out to run with me. He gave me the encouragement to work harder. Besides that, I wanted to get ready, if for no other reason than to tell Joe Thomas to kiss my foot."
Thomas may have read Bubba's signals, for in one of the 19 trades he has made since January he sent the 28-year-old Smith to Oakland for Tight End Raymond Chester, a good blocker who in his three seasons scored 22 touchdowns on 104 receptions. Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, was criticized for giving up so valuable a property as Chester for Smith, whose physical condition is suspect. For his part, and for a love of gamesmanship, Davis encourages the talk about " Al Davis' first mistake" because it may turn out to be an extra incentive in Bubba's comeback. In truth, the trade is likely to help both teams.
"This decision wasn't made in a week, or two weeks, or three," Davis says. "We've always liked Bubba and we kept tabs on his rehabilitation all last spring. We took a calculated risk because the defense in pro football today has to dominate, not just play well."
"We've never had a guy like him before," says Ron Wolf, Oakland's director of player personnel. "If he can do what he did at Baltimore, it means the other teams have to play us a man short. They need two guys to handle him and they won't be able to run on us as much."
Toward that end, Bubba has been progressing daily with the formidable help of Bob (The Boomer) Brown, the All-Pro offensive tackle who himself has come back from four knee operations. The kindly Dr. Brown's therapy involves treating his friend Smith to all the pad-popping "100-megaton shots" he can muster when they square off against each other in camp. "They're both tough competitors," says Offensive Line Coach Ollie Spencer, "and each of them hates to get beat. The other day Bob really cut him, right on that leg. It was purely a reflex action, but if Bubba could take that he can take anything."
"I've been down the pike four times with knees," Brown says, "and I've told Bubba that the only thing he can do is play with reckless abandon. You worry about losing the things you can do until you get hit on it, then you find out you can still do them."