by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

ATLANTA — Not that I spend a lot of time looking at other men’s bodies, but I’ll tell you this: Bruce Smith is an eyeful. He will grab your attention. This is not a human, this is a sculpture. This is a block of granite in comic-book proportions. The Incredible Hulk? The Thing? Schwarzenegger’s role model?

This is a chest so huge and tight, you’d swear someone inflated it with an air hose. These are arms so thick and wide, you could tattoo upon them the Declaration of Independence — and read it. This is a neck that could support two heads. A butt the size of Milwaukee. The feet? They’re as if he stepped in wet concrete, waited until it dried, then walked away, with the blocks attached. What’s his size? 14EEE?

The whole package, especially when he adds the hat and the sunglasses — which I have to assume are specially made, unless stores now carry brands marked XX-HUGE — combines to make Bruce Smith a fearsome behemoth who blocks the light. And this is when he’s sitting down.

No wonder Dennis Hopper is shaking. In the now-popular Nike TV ads, Hopper plays a nervous character who sneaks into an empty Bills locker room. With his dirty overcoat and shifty eyes, Hopper fondles Smith’s shoes and mumbles, “You know what would happen if Bruce caught me with these? Bad things, man.

Bad things.”

The commercial is so hot that even his teammates can’t resist. The day after it premiered, lineman Mike Lodish sat waiting at Smith’s locker.

“What’s wrong with you?” Smith asked.

Lodish snarled, “Bad things, man. Bad things.”

So it began.

“That commercial is great,” says linebacker Darryl Talley. “Except for one thing. In real life, Hopper wouldn’t get within 10 feet of Bruce’s shoes. The smell would kill him.”

Oooh, Bruce. Did you hear that?

Bad things, man. Bad things.

One too many fat jokes

And yet, oddly enough, Smith was more used to taking such abuse than giving it — at least in his younger days. He did not play football as a child. He did not fight. Mostly what he did was eat.

He ate. And ate. And ate again. He’d do one meal at his parents’ house, another at his girlfriend’s house, another at a friend’s house, and then come home for dinner. He once claimed to gain five pounds in a day. He weighed 285 in high school — more than he does now — before his friends talked him into football. This was about the same time he lost patience with a lifetime of kids calling him “fatso” and “lard- butt.” Outside school one day, a couple of bullies got on his case, pushed him too far, and for some reason, well, Bruce Smith snapped.

For all we know, they are still picking up the pieces. “I, uh, took care of them pretty good,” Smith says now, somewhat sheepishly.

“Were you surprised at your own strength once you used it?” he is asked.

“Yeah,” he says. “I was.”

Bad things, man.

Of course, from that point on, it was the world discovering Smith’s power, not Smith himself. The All-America honors at Virginia Tech. The Outland Trophy. When the Bills made him the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft, he celebrated by coming to Buffalo, going out to a chicken joint, and, according to reports, ordering the entire left side of the menu.

Who was going to tell him no? Can you see some puny front- office exec, leaning across the table and whispering, “Bruce, I think you’ve had enough”?

Whomph! Bad things, man. Bad things.

With success comes celebrity

And yet, as it turns out, that was exactly what Smith needed. His diet grew as out of control as his perspective. He became an enigma. Here was a guy so out of shape his rookie year, he was demoted to second string, a guy who got busted for violating the league’s drug policy, who whined about lack of respect, who was tailed by a private detective at the Bills’ request. Yet here was also a guy who boasted he was “better than Lawrence Taylor” — and threatened to prove it by sacking the Colts’ Jeff George four times in 14 minutes. In his first Pro Bowl, he was the MVP. A defensive lineman? MVP?

“He’s the strongest guy on the team, but he’s so fast. He moves like a guy half his size,” Lodish says.

Which is still a pretty big guy. Smith has straightened up, devoted himself to exercise, and has been a portrait of power since. At 30, he is a perennial Pro Bowl choice and a resident quarterback menace. He is a huge
(pardon the adjective) part of the Bills’ chances to finally win a Super Bowl on Sunday against Dallas.

But he has already pulled off a Super feat: He’s a national celebrity, playing in Buffalo. The Nike ad — and a potato chip ad — have made him one.

“Talley’s right,” says a grinning Thurman Thomas. “Hopper wouldn’t get near Bruce’s shoes after a game . . . and he especially wouldn’t get near his breath.”

These Bills, they’ve got guts, I’ll tell ya.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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