Size and brute strength were two vital elements in Billy Ray Sr.'s daily life. He became a boxer (Golden Gloves, NCAA and AAU) and a barroom brawler, and when his father, J.D., would ask, "When do you give up?" he'd answer, "Never!" When carnivals came to town and barkers asked if anybody thought they could whip their fighters, J.D. would yell, "I know somebody who can!" And Billy Ray would climb into the ring.
At Arkansas Billy Ray Sr. was a fierce all-conference defensive end on the field and a hell-raiser off it. Midway through his junior year he was kicked off the team for breaking curfew. As a pro he was a member of the old school of tough guys—those thick-bellied, underpaid, crew-cut fighters in black high-tops who seemed to play out of equal parts of meanness and pride. Smith hated to lose. When the Colts were upset by the New York Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl, he became, in his words, "hard to live with for a while." Billy Ray Jr. was at that game, and he remembers his father staring off oddly afterward, acting "differently than I've ever seen him before or since."
When the Colts returned to the Super Bowl to play the Cowboys in 1971, Billy Ray Sr. was a battered 35-year-old and ready to quit. But he wanted to go out a winner. Just after the half the Cowboys, leading 13-6, fumbled at the Baltimore goal line. Dallas Center Dave Manders later claimed he recovered the ball, with Smith and another Colt, Mike Curtis, falling on top of him. Manders said Smith began screaming in a convincing voice that the Colts had the ball and the referee believed him. Without that turnover Dallas almost certainly would have scored for a 20-6 lead. As it happened, the Cowboys did not score again, and Baltimore went on to win 16-13 on a field goal in the last five seconds.
As a boy Billy Ray Jr. used to visit his father at the Colts' training camp, which was just down the road from the family's home in Westminster, Md. Every year on his birthday, Aug. 10, he even got to spend the night at the camp. Billy Ray Jr. remembers a few things from those visits—that Dad's roommate, Bubba Smith, was frighteningly huge; that he once asked Colt Center Dick Szymanski if he were Johnny Unitas—but mostly the images are blurred. "I really didn't realize how privileged I was," he says. Privilege, indeed, is one of those things that often goes unnoticed in its passage from father to son. It was one of the things Billy Ray Sr. gave his family, and then wondered if he should have.
"Billy hasn't had the chance to fight in barrooms like I did," says Dad with something approaching regret. Billy Ray Sr. tried to get Billy Ray Jr. into boxing once, but the youngster rejected the sport. "I'm not as violent as he is," says Billy Ray Jr. "I don't like fights. Whenever I got in a fight in high school, I'd just hold the guy until the principal came."
The biggest privilege father provided for son was the chance to spend his junior high and high school years in Piano, Texas, a booming, middle-class, sports-minded Dallas suburb. Billy Ray Sr. moved the family there from Maryland in 1971. Billy Ray Jr. blossomed as an athlete in Piano, excelling in sports as disparate as baseball, swimming and soccer. The Piano football system, a sophisticated program that features a 15,000-seat, synthetic-turf stadium, modern weight and training rooms and many coaches, quickly fine-tuned Billy Ray's football skills. By the time he graduated from Piano Senior High, Billy Ray had twice played for the Texas State 4A Championship, with one of those games taking place in Texas Stadium before nearly 50,000 people.
Billy Ray Sr. gave his son a few pointers now and then, but he didn't interfere with the Piano program. "I've just seen too many boys ruined by their fathers," Billy Ray Sr. says. He couldn't help being perplexed, however, as he watched his son turn into a finesse player who got the job done through agility and craft rather than emotion and force.
"Billy never gets mad playing football. He's unusual" the father said recently in his Dallas office. Behind him a green computer screen blinked stock prices. Next to him was his folded sports coat, size 52 long. Around him curled a blue haze of cigar smoke. He used to chew tobacco. Billy Ray Jr. remembers that you could tell the Smith family car by the brown streaks running from the driver's door to the rear bumper.
The big man shook his head and smiled. "Now I used to get mad," he said. "When SMU beat Arkansas up in Fayetteville two years ago, I was so mad that I cried in the locker room. And Billy Ray just looked at me and said, 'Aw Dad.' "
Says Billy Ray Jr., "Dad is, well, the quintessential country boy, a great lesson in what football can do for you. He had it hard, and I had an easy ride. If I'd gone through what he did, I'd probably be a lot like him."