The Oakland Invaders picked Smith in the first round of the USFL draft this year, for the same reasons the NFL is after him. Invader owner Tad Taube has vivid images of Billy Ray Smith, USFL star. "I see him as a player I could build my whole defense around, like the quarterback on offense," says Taube. So far Smith and his agent, Cleveland attorney George Kalafatis, have said neither yes nor no to Oakland, preferring to wait and see what Smith can fetch in the NFL.
Despite the football dealings going on around him, Billy Ray Jr. isn't at this moment thinking about sports. He's seated on a couch in the Houston home of Cynthia and John Dickinson, holding the hand of 20-year-old Nina (pronounced NINE-a) Dickinson and thinking about marriage. Nina is a stunner, one of those blonde Texas girls who seem to have longer legs and whiter teeth than normal humans. She and Billy Ray met at Arkansas several months ago, fell in love and are now engaged. They have flown to Houston to talk about their wedding plans with Nina's parents.
Billy Ray, who admits to being "kind of old-fashioned," had called the Dickinsons several weeks before to ask for Nina's hand. He did this even before asking Nina if she'd marry him. The couple is planning an Oct. 3 wedding, and the Dickinsons plainly are thrilled that their son-in-law will be a pro football player—a courteous, humble one at that. Cynthia, an elegant, impeccably dressed woman, admits that she and the rest of the family have always been big football fans. Nina chirps in that she watched the 1971 Super Bowl and remembers seeing Billy Ray Smith Sr. play in the game, the last before his retirement.
But pro football has its negative aspects, too. Indeed, it was Billy Ray Sr. who had called earlier in the day to bring up one of them. Billy Ray Jr. and Nina couldn't get married in October, he told Mrs. Dickinson, because no pro team would let Billy Ray Jr. off during the season. "The only possible day is a Monday," he said. "And even then, Billy might have a night game." Billy Ray Sr. then suggested that the couple wait a while before getting hitched. "What about December?" he asked Mrs. Dickinson. "Love should last sixty more days, shouldn't it?"
It was partly because his own marriage of 25 years ended in divorce two years ago that the elder Smith was urging his son to go slow. But Billy Ray Jr., who remains close to both his mother and father, would not bend. "I guess I'll have to have it written in my contract that I get two days off in the fall," he said.
Not long after he played in the Senior Bowl in January Billy Ray dropped out of school, despite having a B— average. With many awards banquets and pro camps to visit, he decided he'd have to re-enroll at Arkansas after his first pro season for his final semester toward a degree in finance and banking. It was a practical decision, but also an emotional one. It was time, Billy Ray felt, for him to earn his own keep, to become his own man, to break away from Dad.
Arkansas Head Coach Lou Holtz, who calls Billy Ray Jr. "the best football player I've ever been around," as well as "a joy to coach," "a complete person" and "an 11 on a scale of 10," admits that Smith came to Fayetteville pretty much fully packaged four years ago. Fundamental skills, agility, intellect, dedication—it was all there. Everything but beef: Smith was almost skinny as a freshman. But most significant, feels Holtz, was that Smith's attitude was already firmly developed. "I didn't say any of this while he was playing because I don't like to do that," says Holtz. "But Billy Ray is a universal donor. We have lots of universal recipients in the world, people who take from everybody. But Billy Ray is a donor, a person who gives to everybody just through his habits."
And who's responsible for this?
"His dad, really," says Holtz. "I don't think you can give him enough credit."
The irony, of course, is that once you take away the obvious similarities between father and son—size, athletic skill, noses, lower lips, names—you get two very different people. It's hard to figure how Billy Ray Sr. could have made Billy Ray Jr. The elder Smith's background alone separates him from most people. Raised in Augusta, Ark., a farm town close by Bald Knob and Pumpkin Bend, Billy Ray Sr. had to scratch for everything he got. "My dad had a third-grade education," Billy Ray Sr. says. "I used to say, 'I can't do it,' and he'd say, 'You mean, you can't hardly do it.' "