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Rick Telander
September 02, 1991
A dedicated Bruce Smith establishes a blistering pace for the Buffalo Bills in their drive to another Super Bowl
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September 02, 1991

Lean, Mean Sack Machine

A dedicated Bruce Smith establishes a blistering pace for the Buffalo Bills in their drive to another Super Bowl

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"To be out there now in front of 80,000 people and millions more on TV, and just take control of a situation.... It's like, addictive," he says. "No, it is addictive." Clearly, he's into the game now.

When he came to the Bills as the first player picked in the 1985 draft, all Smith was into was blubber. He was a fatso, proud enough of his 300 pounds to have his picture taken his senior year at Virginia Tech with his jersey tied in a knot, his belly hanging out like a walrus pup. People still talk about Smith's first night in Buffalo after he signed his contract, when he went to a seafood restaurant with the Bills' p.r. director at the time, Budd Thalman, and basically ordered the left side of the menu. In his first time out with his new teammates, he visited the Big Tree Inn near the stadium and ate enough Buffalo wings to affect chicken prices in Arkansas.

"The most I ever ate?" says Smith now. "In one sitting? Maybe four big plates of fried chicken, biscuits, chitlins, gravy. Then dessert. Apple pie, sweet potato pie. My mother cooked that stuff, good Southern food, and when I was 300 pounds I never missed a meal. As a kid I'd eat at my mother's house, then go down the road to my girlfriend's and eat, and then sometimes go to my friend's house and eat again. I could gain five pounds in a day. In a week, there wouldn't be a scale to weigh me."

And there wouldn't have been a scale to weigh Buffalo's embarrassment had Smith continued on the course in which he was heading, that of a cocky, overrated, out-of-shape, first-round loser. Buffalo didn't have the greatest record with first-rounders—Walt Patulski was a dud in 1972; Tom Cousineau blew off the Bills for the Canadian Football League in '79; and even Kelly, their first pick in '83, headed to the USFL for two seasons before joining the Bills in '86. The heat was on the franchise to do something right.

"There was a lot of public sentiment for us to take Doug Flutie that year," recalls general manager Bill Polian, who was the director of pro personnel at the time. "But we were absolutely convinced Smith was the best player around. We got into a pretty good bidding war with the [USFL] Baltimore Stars for him." The Bills won, but what had they signed—the Blob with an attitude?

Smith started 13 games his first season and had 6½ sacks, but Buffalo's defense was terrible, and Smith was undisciplined and getting by on raw talent. He was "very self-indulgent," says coach Marv Levy, who took over during the '86 season. "I didn't have my priorities in order," says Smith.

But that was the pretreadmill Smith. He now carries 265 pounds or less year-round on his 6'4" frame and looks like a terminator sculpted from carbon. He has a 19-inch neck, a 37-inch inseam, 37½-inch sleeves, size 14EE shoes and, as he puts it, "a great big ass." That's just one of the muscle groups that give him the power to knife in on quarterbacks at impossible angles, scattering would-be blockers as he goes.

"You're talking about a guy who is stronger than a 300-pounder and faster than a linebacker," says Bills All-Pro center Kent Hull. "His speed around the corner is unreal. And if you move out, he'll take one step upfield, spin inside and he's gone. I think he's double-jointed. He'll line up over me, and I'll try to hit him, and there's nothing there—he's going back and coming forward at the same time. I can't even explain it. There's no way a human being should do what he does."

"Sometimes I've been in pass coverage and just laughed," says Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, Smith's good friend and roommate on the road. "The other team will have a tackle and a guard and a back blocking him, and if he beats them, the center comes over to help. It's just funny to see. It's like they're bees and Bruce has got sugar on him, like he's dipped in honey. But the most amazing thing to watch is his rush. Cornelius [Bennett, another Bills linebacker] and I can't figure it out—it's like a speed skater coming around the corner, he's so low to the ground, almost flat, with offensive linemen literally chasing him."

"His greatest asset is his ability to adjust, to use his momentum to his advantage," says Cincinnati Bengal tackle Anthony Munoz. "His quickness reminds me of Lee Roy Selmon and Fred Dean, but they were 15 to 30 pounds lighter. You can tell he'd be a great basketball player." Indeed, Smith was just that, leading Booker T. Washington High to the 1980 Virginia state Group AAA championship game as a high-scoring, if overweight, center.

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