Bruuuuuuuuuuce: One of the Best
by Greg Kehr
TSL Extra, Issue #1

It wasnít long ago that Bruce Smith was wreaking havoc in the backfields of the AFC East. Along with Reggie White, Bruce was and still is one of the most feared defensive ends in NFL history. Unfortunately for Bills fans, they donít get to see him play under the Western New York sky on Sundays anymore.

Bruce graduated from Virginia Tech in 1985 and remains to this day (until Michael Vick leaves), the biggest and best graduate the Hokies have ever produced, in terms of his NFL career. In the draft that year, the lowly Buffalo Bills had the first pick and decided to scoop up the talented defensive end from down south and bring him up north to form what would turn out to be one of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen.

Ever, you ask? What is that old clichť, defense wins championships? Well, four straight AFC titlesÖI think that bears consideration as "winning championships." Look at it this way, Bruce was the Rookie of the Year in 1985, having an instant impact on the National Football League, and then followed that up with 15 sacks the following year in 1986!

Jevon Kearse was the "freak" last year on his way to the Rookie of the Year, but what has he done this year? Not I am not comparing Jevon to Bruce yet; Jevon Kearse certainly has all the tools to get to that level. But Bruce Smith was the original "freak" when he was young, and in a way (heís a 37-year old man), he still is a freak. How else can you explain Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl, eleven in all, and holding the second spot in sacks all-time behind Reggie White (who incidentally is another freak -- man, thatís a lot of freaks! Freakiní this, freakiní thatÖbut I digress).

The point is, Bruce Smith is one of the best defensive players of all time, period. During his career in Buffalo, only three seasons didnít result in at least ten sacks. One was his rookie year, one was last year, and the last was 1991, when he was hurt. Give me that consistency year in and year out and Iíll take it.

Some may argue that he is the best ever, not just one of the best -- Iíll stay out of that one. But from a football playerís standpoint, seeing the specimen that is Bruce Smith coming at you, it had to be an unpleasant sight. Six-foot-four, 280 pounds and speed to boot!? I donít think so, funnyman.

I remember my first chance to see Bruce in person was back in 1988 at what was then called Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The game was against the New England Patriots and ironically, for those who follow the NFL closely, a little quarterback by the name of Doug Flutie led the Patriots (for those of you who are still confused, Doug now quarterbacks the Bills in Rob Johnsonís absence -- as Mel Allen used to say, "How about that!").

The game was close from beginning to end, and on the final play from scrimmage Doug Flutie, like he has his whole career, rolled out of the pocket and wandered out into the flat around the 40-yard line. The Patriots needed a touchdown, if I remember correctly, and the Hail Mary wasnít out of the realm of possibility (Flutie versus Miami in the Orange Bowl, we all know about that one).

As Flutie rolls toward the sideline and looks downfield, from mid-field you see number 78 get to his feet and start running for the quarterback. Heís ten, maybe fifteen yards away. But the entire stadium can see it coming: Flutie looking downfield, not finding anybody and his back to the best defensive end in the game, who is bearing down on him like a rabid dog foaming at the mouth.

You can probably guess what happensÖTOUCHDOWN!

NO, NO, NO! Bruce completely blind-sides Flutie, the ball is fumbled and rolls harmlessly out of bounds as time expires. Game over, and the chorus of "BRUUUUUCE!!!" echoes throughout Western New York as the Bills win.

If you are a Buffalo Bills fan, the glory days really started around that time. And that specific play was etched in my mind forever, simply because he never gave up. He was blocked, blocked again, had to run half-way across the field to chase down an elusive quarterback, and the best part about it was everyone in the stadium was watching and waiting for him to save the day.

He was Superman. We Hokie fans look at Michael Vick now like HE is Superman. Well, during his career in Buffalo, Bruce Smith was Superman every week, during every fall, for 15 years.

I actually had the chance to meet Bruce Smith one evening a couple of years ago, and again, he did something that will be etched in my mind forever, just like that play against the Patriots.

I was working during the Wade Phillips Show, which was a coaches show on our network up here in Upstate New York, and every week, Wade had a player join him to talk with their host Paul Maguire and answer questions from the audience.

I donít remember much about that particular show, but when we went to break, Bruce stood up, received an ovation from the audience, and made his way towards the doors leading out of the field house where we were broadcasting. As I was on the other side of the set/audience, a friend and co-worker of mine was escorting Bruce out and told him I was a Virginia Tech graduate.

Bruce didnít hesitate. He looked over at me and said, "Go Hokies." Thatís it. Nothing extravagant, nothing earth shattering, just something from the heart, something simple and meaningful. It wasnít the "hey-how-you-doing-Iíll-never-remember-you" that you get at an autograph signing or when passing a celebrity in a hallway. Instead it was timely - the Hokies were ranked and enjoying success that not even Bruce himself experienced during his Tech career Ė and it was sincere. Bruce has always been soft-spoken and quiet, and this was for the most part, vintage Bruce.

He didnít know my name and we didnít go out for drinks after the show. The point is, he didnít brush off the notion of having a Hokie in the building like some future HOFís may, he was proud of his school and its tradition, and he made a young, fellow alum feel damn good in the process. It may not seem like much, but to have Bruce Smith look you in the eye and say "Go Hokies" and smile, when you are someone as passionate as I am about my school, it was a moment that Iíll never forget.

Interestingly, fans and citizens of Western New York may not have all the rosy feelings that I do when it comes to Bruce Smith. There were hold-outs before training camps, the still mysterious drunk-driving/sleeping incident in Virginia Beach a few years ago, and probably countless other moments during the course of 15 years. Fans are fickle and some hold onto negatives more so than the positives.

The facts though, are very simple for Bruce Smith, the football player. He did as much on the field for the Buffalo Bills as anyone who has ever put on a uniform, at any level, for any team. He almost single-handedly put the Bills into the upper echelon of the National Football League, a perch they have maintained for more than a decade now.

It is probably safe to say that Bruce Smith epitomizes football in Buffalo. Many will say Jim Kelly; others will say Thurman Thomas. I, on the other hand, will say Bruce Smith. Not because he is a Hokie, though that does help. He is Buffalo Bills football because he was here first, he helped lead the identity of this team throughout his career and in doing so, was and still is one of the greatest players ever in the NFL.

You donít get to where you are in life on pure talent. It happens all the time in all walks of life. There is luck, there is fate, and there is help along the way given by countless numbers of people. Bruce Smith, on his rise to Hall of Fame status had all these. He chose to stay in-state and go to Tech. He played on a team that allowed him to be an utter menace to opposing teams. He was given the tools, his body, to be a star. But he worked and worked to make those tools better.

The people at Tech, the people in the Bills organization and many others deserve special thanks for making Bruce what he is today. A rural school in Blacksburg and a small market in Buffalo gave Bruce Smith the stage. But teammates, coaches and a winning attitude made Bruce Smith the football player he is today. The Vince Lombardi Trophy has been the only thing to elude him. And with a little luck, or maybe some fate, it lookís like heís got a very good chance to get another shot at winning it.

Buffalo Bills fans miss him on Sundays. I just hope all the Redskins fans understand and appreciate what itís like to have him on that field doing what needs to get done for that precious victory.

A word to the wise though: when you ĎSkins fans are shelling out 20 bucks next year at camp just to park your car, donít complain if Bruce isnít thereÖhe never really liked training camp.


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