SI Vault
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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Life is a treadmill, of course. Bruce Smith has turned that axiom around: The treadmill is his life. The pedals go up and down, the chain goes around and around, and the Buffalo Bills' All-Pro defensive end churns his massive legs, grits his teeth and sweats like a frosted mug in the sun. Stair after stair, floor after floor, mile after mile, calorie after calorie, time after time.

Smith's particular engine of torture is a stair-climbing machine, the same gadget the ladies use down at the health club, the one with the cherry-red lights to display hills and valleys, and with little beeps to signal the end of the ride. Wherever he goes, Smith finds one of these machines and rides it like a cowboy on a steer. He punches in the numbers given him by Bills strength coach Rusty Jones, overriding the normal computerized program, and for 20 or 30 minutes he is possessed. At home Smith has a bright, glass-walled room containing nothing but his own stair climber, which he has positioned so that he has a view of his backyard pool and the saltwater inlet that meanders lazily to Chesapeake Bay. Smith seldom has time these days for the pool, but the stair climber is beginning to rust from the constant torrent of sweat that pours onto it. "Bruce Smith does a workout designed for defensive backs, wide receivers and marathoners," says Jones. In a 20-minute workout, Smith climbs the equivalent of 148 floors, running 3.5 miles, burning off 800 calories.

The Bills got into stair climbers three years ago because the machines are good aerobic conditioners, they're easy on the knees and "because there is a great carryover from the stair climber to the field," says Jones. Smith got into stair climbers because he is on a mission.

So, it seems, are the Bills. They came within two points-missing a 48-yard field goal attempt in the last eight seconds—of beating the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV last January. If the Bills had won, we would be talking about them as the team of the '90s instead of questioning whether they can stick together long enough to make another run at the championship. But the Bickering Bills of 1989 seem dead—all the feuding and finger-pointing over tough losses has ceased—and the Boisterous Bills have arrived.

Recently Smith guaranteed a group of sportswriters that the Bills would win the Super Bowl this year—a statement that might have created havoc on the team in the past, but not now. "A lot of players feel the same way," says Thurman Thomas, the Bills' All-Pro running back. "I do. We probably have more talent than anybody in the league."

That talent has to get along with itself, however. Thomas and quarterback Jim Kelly, who were once among the finger-pointers, are now happy pals. "We just put our differences aside," says Thomas. And Kelly and Smith, the offensive and defensive superstars with the all-world egos, are cheerful competitors now. "We like to jack with each other," says Kelly. "Everybody likes competition, and in practice Bruce will try to rush in and get real close to me, and if he does, I shove him. He enjoys the game, and so do I. Nobody bows to Bruce, we just bring him down to our level."

Kicker Scott Norwood, who missed that last-second field goal in the Super Bowl, bows to Smith just a bit. "Afterward he gave me a big hug at the hotel, telling me it wasn't me who lost the game," says Norwood. "It meant a lot to me, and that's an example of how the team has come together." The team also has benefited from Smith's willingness to assume the role of marked man, the guy whole offenses will try to defeat, using traps, crackbacks, rollouts away from him, three-step quarterback drops and wave after wave of blockers trying to nullify his charge.

"It's frustrating, but I accept it," Smith says. His philosophy has been helped by worshipful Bills defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson, who tells Smith before games, "You think they aren't going to find you? You're being complimented in a special way. Take it on. Make the——bleed!"

Smith's personal goal is to be the best ever at his position and to be acknowledged as such. "It's hard to get recognition in Buffalo," he sighs. Which is why he sometimes blows his own trumpet more than he should. He also does so because he is consumed with being a football player these days, and because he feels that judgment of him on the field is judgment of him as a person. He is still two semesters away from a degree in sociology, and he has no precise plans for his post-football career except to "help people" in some type of charitable way.

He wants his money to last so he can always take care of his "small, tight-knit family"—wife, parents, brother, sister and only nephew. He bought his parents a $140,000 house in 1986, and he wants to be the patriarch of the Smith family some day. Bruce wants to pay it all back. It's why he has settled down, why he appreciates the blessings he has.

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