Bills legend followed his father’s lead

TAMPA, Fla. – Bruce Smith learned to catch quarterbacks by fishing.

No, that’s not how he honed the skills that went into those maddening pass-rush moves which overwhelmed left tackles around the NFL for 19 years, producing an NFL-record 200 sacks. Nor did sitting on a boat and relaxing the day away help develop the athletic ability that just as easily could have made Smith a great tight end or even a wide receiver.

Rather, what developed in those hours together with his father, George, was a precious father-son relationship. The lessons Smith learned from his father translated into pride and work ethic, leading the former to become one of the greatest players in NFL history.

And Saturday, they helped him get to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Smith’s selection was not surprising. He and cornerback/safety Rod Woodson, the NFL’s all-time interceptions leaders, both made the hall in their first year of eligibility. They were joined by former Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas, Dallas wide receiver Bob Hayes, Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson Jr. and guard Randall McDaniel, who played primarily in Minnesota.

For as much as Smith’s path to the hall seemed as smoothly paved as an ice rink, it nonetheless inspired a crying jag. As Smith reached the lectern to address the crowd of media and other on-lookers here on Saturday, he started and stopped in a rush of emotions. He remembered his father, a man who labored for minimum wage but taught his son to strive for greatness.

“He wanted me to have a life better than he had for himself,” Smith said, his voice cracking. “I just wish he was with me.”

George Smith died in 2000 after a battle with emphysema. Smith’s father served in the army, drove a cab and worked on dump trucks to support his family. Bruce Smith remembered the days when his father would return home, muddy and grimy, yet still with enough energy to take his youngest child to the park for baseball practice or to the gym for basketball.

These days, Bruce Smith has turned down opportunities to get into television, instead opting to spend time with his own son Alston, an aspiring 14-year-old athlete. Smith, a smooth and eloquent speaker, said he once had an offer to work for the NFL Network.

“As parents, we have a very small window of opportunity to be with our children, to mold them,” Smith said as he put his monstrous hands into the mock shape of a window frame. “I wanted to be there with my son the way my father was there for me. … We have a short time to be with our children before they go off to be with their friends. In a couple of years, my son is going to be 17, 18 and going off to college.”

Raised in Norfolk, Va., Smith became one of the most explosive athletes in NFL history after being taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1985 draft. He was an 11-time Pro Bowler, nine time All-Pro and made the All-Decade teams for both the 1980s and 1990s. He is considered by many to be the greatest right defensive end in NFL history, a spot reserved for the truly elite pass rusher. Reggie White, a contemporary of Smith, is considered the greatest left end ever.

Smith also helped Buffalo reach a record four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990 to 1993, although the Bills lost all four. He and Wilson join former coach Marv Levy, quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas from those dominant Bills teams as members in the Hall of Fame.

While the Bills never completed the journey to a title, Wilson joked that they haven’t been the same in recent years.

“We haven’t given [the fans] much of a product lately, not since this guy left,” Wilson said as he sat on the stage next to Smith.

Wilson was among dozens of people Smith thanked, including his mother, Annie, who spent 11 years working in a plastics factory, and his many coaches and friends.

But Saturday morning, as he went to work out at the hotel where he was staying, Smith thought of his father and was overcome by the time they spent – hours that led to a powerful moment as he spoke.

Flecks of gray stubble topped his shaved head and added a glisten of light that accentuated the tears that flowed. Bruce Smith made no apologies for the tears he shed, saying it was because he was a man that he could cry in front of so many.

And Smith, ready to dispense knowledge, understands the responsibilities men have.

“There’s a special talent in each and every one of you,” Bruce Smith said, referring to all the children who might be watching. “And it’s up to us as adults [to bring it out].”

Just like George Smith did for him.