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One year they tried putting Bubba into a boxing program to toughen him up. It didn't work.
"When I was 13, I was scheduled to fight in a Police Athletic League recreational program," he says. "I weighed 162. Everyone's sitting around and someone said, 'Look at the guy you're supposed to fight.' The sumbitch had a mustache, and he came in with his wife and little girl, and he started making sounds while he was warming up, hooh, hooh. I thought, 'Doesn't this guy know this is for recreation?' Luckily my mind has a good relationship with my body, so I started throwing up. They said, 'This kid is sick,' and I didn't have to fight. The truth is that in the ring or on the football field or the street, I wanted no part of getting beaten up." By the time he was a senior, though, he had attracted notice, if only because of his size. "I got recruited by all the people I didn't like," he says. He remembers a trip to Alabama and meeting Bear Bryant. "I was in and out of his office so fast," he says. "I went out to Oklahoma and felt like a big Jersey cow. It was a factory. I saw about 30 guys lifting weights, redshirts, waiting to play." He settled on Colorado State because the coaches said he could play both football and basketball.
He majored in sociology, but though he never received a degree, Bubba likes to say, "I got a B.S. in BS." In basketball he was a two-year letterman and good enough to get a tryout with Golden State, where he lasted about two weeks. Football was different.
"One year they tried me at tight end," he says. "I could just about catch anything. I could catch BBs in a hailstorm. But then it dawned on me, what happens if I do catch the ball? Everyone on the field gets a hit on me. So I lost interest in catching the ball."
He was an indifferent offensive lineman for 2 l/2 years. "We had a coach, Charley Armey, who used to say, 'Stick your face in the guy's chest. Express yourself by hitting.' I thought, 'There's got to be a better way of doing things.' "
In his junior year a new world opened up. Three games into the season they tried him at defensive end, as a pass-rush specialist. Now he could be cute; he could use his quick feet and his basketball moves and his long arms. "It seemed so natural to me," he says. "I got 11 sacks my junior year, 20 as a senior."
The Lions drafted him in the second round in 1978. He got 23 sacks and made Defensive Rookie of the Year. A new world opened up.
"Everything happened to me so fast I didn't have a chance to enjoy it," Bubba says. "Girls would come up to me in a bar and tell me, 'You've got cute eyes,' and it would be so dark in there they couldn't even see your face. Cute? In my mind I was still the fat kid from Newark with the corduroy pants."
Along about his third year, though, as he was getting ready to play in his second Pro Bowl, a nasty realization dawned. He wasn't making much money. He'd gotten a $50,000 rookie bonus and salaries of $40,000, $45,000 and $50,000. When he said he needed $15,000 to help pay for a house for his mother in Irvington, N.J., they said sure, we'll give it to you if you sign for $70,000 next year.
In 1982, his fifth year in the NFL, he negotiated his current contract, $85,000, $155,000 and $175,000, and in this, his option year, he will make $192,500, small change in the era of half-million-dollar contracts for defensive linemen with similar credentials. His last years in Detroit were downers. He had expected former coach Monte Clark to go to bat for him in his contract negotiations and he had been disappointed.