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It wasn't until he was in junior high that Billy Smith, the top-rated defensive player in next week's NFL draft, began signing his name Billy Ray Smith Jr. "I'd started improving athletically," says the son of the former NFL defensive tackle, "and I realized what might be ahead of me. I'd always had a reverence for the name Billy Ray Smith. Billy alone isn't very violent sounding. It sounds like the kind of guy who might spend all his time discussing Thoreau."
Billy Ray Smith Sr., now 48 and the branch manager of the Dallas office of an investment banking firm, doesn't agree with his son. The elder Smith was at training camp with the Baltimore Colts in 1961 when his second son was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His other son, born four years earlier, had been named Kevin Bruce. After that had come the first of his two daughters. Shelly. (The other, Shannon, was born in 1965.) Billy Ray Sr. had declared from the start that nobody in the Smith family, regardless of sex, was going to be named Billy Ray again. The name would end with him.
Then his father-in-law called to say the new baby had arrived. What had his wife, Carroll, named the boy? Billy Ray Smith Jr.
"I wish you hadn't done that," said Billy Ray Sr. later to his wife. "Life's hard enough as it is. A name like that'll teach you to fight."
But it didn't. What it did was make the boy proud—and eager to follow in his father's footsteps. Now he appears to be more than ready to fill his dad's shoes, which, by the way, are size 14. A four-year starter at various defensive line positions at Arkansas and a two-time All-America, Billy Ray Jr. was the winner of the Washington Touchdown Club Defensive Player of the Year Award for '82. In the words of University of Houston Coach Bill Yeoman, he's "just a freak of nature." At 6'3" and a weight that's climbing steadily from last season's 232 pounds, Billy Ray Jr., 21, is still smaller than Dad, who goes 6'4½", 250 pounds in his blue business suit. But he's faster than Dad ever was, and quicker, and stronger, and maybe smarter.
"An unusual boy. Very unusual," says Billy Ray Sr., who also played at Arkansas, before spending 13 years in the NFL with the Rams, Steelers and Colts. "If you ever show him why something happens, you don't have to show him again. I bet he'd score as high on an IQ test as any coach anywhere."
In fact, one NFL team has given Billy Ray Jr. an IQ test, but the club will say nothing about the results except that he scored "above 120." Smarts, at least of the football variety, are an important factor at draft time, and Billy Ray has them in abundance. As a stand-up defensive end, which he played his last two seasons at Arkansas, Smith seemed to be guided to the ball by something other than sight and sound. He would get off the snap so fast and move so unerringly toward the action that teams routinely assigned two linemen to keep him away. Last season Texas A&M used an offensive tackle as a tight end to help block Smith. "He was huge, all padded up, with thick gloves on," recalls Billy Ray Jr. "Of course, it meant they'd taken a receiver out of their pass patterns. But I thought it was a pretty good idea."
Navy added another twist to the double-team. The Midshipmen doubled up on Smith in the usual fashion, but if Smith got past one of the blockers, the other tried to tackle him. Yet despite these obstacles, Billy Ray set career records at Arkansas with 63 tackles behind the line for 343 yards in losses.
After high bench-press totals, low 40-yard times and incomprehensible neck sizes, pro scouts love "intangibles" most. That's why they covet Smith. "I think he'll have the same impact on his team as Lawrence Taylor had on the Giants two years ago," says Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' vice-president for personnel development. Brandt, like others, feels Smith will be the first defensive player taken in the draft, possibly right after everybody's first choice, Stanford Quarterback John Elway. Brandt sees Smith converting to linebacker in the NFL, probably on the outside, a position that would utilize Smith's blitzing abilities while protecting him from the heavies inside. Still, all the scouts note, it's Smith's personality that makes him the exceptional prize.
"He's one of the classiest people I've ever been around," says Brandt. "In the NFL you can take bad characters and use them—if you're winning. But when you're losing three straight, they're the ones who'll complain about the coach, the food, the speed of the airplane. Billy Ray's beyond that. He's a leader."