Bruce Smith is still seizing the day
Over two decades, the Bills great cemented his status as one of the best players in NFL history. Now? He's traveling the world, challenging his mind and hitting the deck on a loud "Boom!" in Iraq.
No player in NFL history has more sacks than Bruce Smith, who made a living wrecking quarterbacks for 19 pro seasons. It’s a record that may never be broken.
His number is now retired in Buffalo. He is a Hall-of-Famer. He is arguably the greatest player in Buffalo Bills history.
Football was a joy and we talk plenty of football but, these days, Smith finds true fulfillment outside of the game. In this week’s Go Long Q&A, Smith opens up about his health and how he keeps his mind sharp after those blackout concussions on the field. He relives the trips around the globe that changed his life… including one “Welcome to Iraq” moment he’ll never forget. (Smith had to hit the deck.) And Smith breaks down everything he is doing now to try to make the world a better place.
He knows his career was at a crossroads in 1988 and he took it the right direction for good.
What gets you up in the morning these days? What is your passion today that really gives you fulfillment?
Smith: I’m recovering after surgery. An ulnar nerve transfer from playing ball. So I think this takes me up to my 12th surgery. Somewhere in that neighborhood. When I was playing, we kept the majority of my surgeries quiet and did them during the offseason and rehab during the offseason at home. But I had a great medical staff with the team understanding I was going to go out and seek the best medical doctors that existed.
What kind of surgery was this again? Your nerves?
Smith: Ulnar nerve. A bone was pressing on my ulnar nerve and it causes the ring finger and the pinky finger to go numb. And it got so bad that I started having atrophy in my hands and arms and my fingers were going so numb at night it would wake me up. I have to shake my hand until I get the feeling back in them. That doesn’t make for a peaceful night of sleep when you’re waking up because your fingers in your hand are going numb. So they had to transfer the nerve from that location over about an inch or two. And it comes from lifting weights and, obviously, falling on Astro Turf. The bone becomes damaged and it presses on the nerve.
I had never heard of the ulnar nerve before but just Googling it here, yeah, that’s about as important a nerve as you can imagine. You use it every day. That had to be horrifying when the atrophy kicks in and you can’t do anything.
Smith: I had my right arm done about four or five years ago and needed to get my left one done. Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. It was just interrupting my quality of life. So, it was a priority to get it done. Thank God for the great medical attention that I had already had a relationship with.
Is that a common ailment for ex-players at this point of life?
Smith: For athletes, yeah. But quite frankly it’s more common for people in general to have this done as well. Having said that, obviously the beating that the body takes from playing sports. It allows it to happen more frequently.
I think the last time we saw each other was Jim Kelly’s golf outing five years ago and you were pretty candid then on all of the problems you were having with your memory, your brain and that you were seeing these effects day to day. Since then, how is your memory? In light of who knows how many concussions in your years playing?
Smith: Just to reflect back, I remember three concussions that I actually had because I was actually knocked out on the field. I was basically asleep. And they had to wake me up with smelling salts. And on two of the occasions, I went back in the game. On one occasion — which was the last game of my career — I did not. So, that doesn’t calculate all the other dings or I got my bell rung or my head just felt cloudy from hits. Those were all concussions. But recently, there’s been so much emphasis on concussions and the concussion protocol that now we can sit back and understand what was happening in real time when we were out there playing. It was a common thing to get your bell rung out during my era playing football.
And who knows how many instances there were with getting your bell rung. The three times you “fell asleep” on the field, you went back in twice?
Smith: I was knocked out. Let’s make that perfectly clear. It’s waking up and not really having an account — because it happened so quickly and abruptly. You’re waking up and there’s 80,000 people in the stands and you really can’t hear anything or have a sense of awareness to what’s going on. It’s pretty scary.
When were those?
Smith: One was in ’03. Another was in 2002, I believe. One was against the Denver Broncos. The other was against Philadelphia. The other one was when I was with the Bills. So one with the Bills and two with the Washington Football Team.
We’re talking and you’re sharp as a tack. You’re on top of everything going on in the world today. Your brain seems to be humming on all cylinders. But are you concerned about later in life? Are you seeing effects already? Where are you at with the effects of all these concussions down the road?
Smith: I am concerned. But I think one of the things I try to engage in is keeping my mind and my brain stimulated from a standpoint of, I read a lot. I engage in meaningful conversations. I like to be up to date on politics, policies, laws, the community, obviously social justice. Those are the things that really kind of keep me sharp. I engage in conversation. Knowledge is power. When you’re able to speak intelligently about a wide range of subjects, I think it makes you more of a well-rounded person. Obviously, this didn’t happen overnight. This was a process in trying to have an impact on my community whether it be local, regional, statewide or even a voice, to a certain degree, around the country.
There has to be an actual science to that. I’ve heard that with guys where if you can just stay stimulated, stay busy and use your brain day in and day out, that can help big time and push potential symptoms way, way down the road. And you love this stuff. It seems like you’ve always wanted to change the world as a humanitarian for years and years back to your trip to Africa to help with cleft palates.
Smith: In 1999, I went to Africa with Operation Smile, a humanitarian mission called “The World Journey of Hope” where we operated on children and adults with cleft palates and other facial deformities. Spent 2 ½ weeks over there. I’ll tell you, it was probably the most fulfilling trip I’ve ever experienced in my life. Just being able to be a part of this organization and the impact that it has on those that — I’ll tell you — some of these families would walk for a day just to get screened, just to see if they were able and if they would be on the list to be able to have this surgery. Also, a USO trip to Iraq after the Iraqi War. Also, a military trip to South Korea to visit the troops. So two of the trips were visiting the troops during the holidays over in Iraq and it was around the same period of time — about four or five years ago — I went over to South Korea. And also the trip with Robert Kraft and 18 other Hall-of-Famers over to Israel. So these experiences really helped reinforce my thoughts and beliefs about my purpose in life and be able to give back and make a difference.
That’s incredible. We live in such a myopic society where we’re all thinking about ourselves—my generation. Where does this come from, for you, to want to give back in every you can. What are the roots of this?
Smith: It hasn’t always been that way. I think when I was younger, I was so focused… I always cared and wanted to help and do things but I did those monetarily. And monetarily is one of the easiest ways you can give back. But when you commit your time and you realize that you can always make money. More times than not. But your time is something that you are not able to get back. So to be able to set aside 2 ½ weeks to go over to another country and take part in humanitarian efforts or to go and visit the troops who — I’ve gotta tell you — I probably got more out of it than the troops did. Just to see the joy that was in their eyes and the words that they spoke about how appreciate that they were that we would come over and spend that time with them.
So for me, with my father being in the military and my brother having served in the military, it really felt special to me that I was afforded the opportunity to be able to spend time with them. And just some of the conversations I had with our troops. Some of the ones that paid the ultimate sacrifice. Obviously you can’t speak to the ones that lost their lives. But the ones that have lost limbs. You can see the scars. You can see the 80 to 90 percent of burns that occurred in a fire fight. It just… I tell you, it really humbles you—the sacrifice our troops make on our behalf and the behalf of the freedoms that we live. And we’re able to move around freely basically without a care in the world, knowing there are people — brave, brave Americans — who are putting their lives on the line. And their families who are making the ultimate sacrifice being here while their sons, their daughters, their husbands, their wives, their uncles are laying everything on the line for the protection of our liberties and freedoms. I am so thankful and grateful. All of this was very humbling.
It has to shape your worldview. That’s a perspective that sticks with you for a lifetime. And when you’re up close—visiting with the troops—are there any soldiers, any stories, anything specific that you still think of to this day that was pretty jarring?
Smith: Oh man. Hell, I can remember when we were in Iraq and when we landed at the airport, the airport looked like a war zone. It had 8- to 10-foot concrete walls built all around the city. And as we were being transported from one location to another, we were in bulletproof SUVs doing 80 miles an hour so obviously the insurgents couldn’t lock in on you and take out one of the vehicles. There’s the flag football game that we played with the troops in Iraq and you want to talk about a competitive group of men and women? They laid into us in that flag football game and actually whupped us pretty good. And we were not anticipating that. It was a lot of fun and very competitive.
And there was also a situation where we were having a pep rally the night before the game and the insurgents started shooting rockets over into the base. So we were on stage. There must’ve been 500, 600, 700 troops in this auditorium that was built. And the commander of the base was introducing us all and giving a little background and so forth and obviously all the troops were fans of all the teams in the league and college-wise as well. So we heard a faint “Boom!” go off and everybody looked at one another like, “What is that?” Shortly thereafter there was another “Boom!” and the commander said “Everyone get on the ground!” And we thought to ourselves, “Oh, man, they’re pulling a fast one on us. They want to get some laughs.” And the commander said, “No. Everyone get on the ground.” So we got on the ground! And we’re looking around… looking around… and the troops are on the ground. The commander’s on the ground. Everybody’s on the ground.
So after a few minutes we gathered ourselves and proceeded with the program. And then it came to a point in time when they wanted us to mingle with the troops. So we got off the stage and then there was another “Boom!” But it was closer. We had to hit the ground again so, when we hit the ground, a few of the troops jumped on top of us because they were taught not to let anything happen to the guests. So I’m staring in one of the troop’s faces that was on top of me and he’s looking at me and he says, “Welcome to Iraq.” And I said, “I want to go home. I didn’t sign up for this shit!” It was like when you get on one of those roller-coaster rides and you start calling for your Mom. I was like, “Oh no!” My heart was beating.
So just the courage, the fortitude and the inner-strength of these young men and women that are in our military was incredibly inspiring. I take my workout clothes with me wherever I go and I worked out with them during the week. We ate in the mess halls with them. We sat in meetings with them. It was just an incredible experience and I thank God that I had the opportunity to spend a little time with them because I can never walk in their shoes. To conversate, rub elbows, sleep in the bunk-beds, it was just an incredible experience.
And that is day-to-day life for them? Those booms?
Smith: That is day-to-day life. Obviously we were treated a little special although we got a chance to see a little, just a taste, of that experience. This is what they do. They protect. They come to the defense. This is what they do for a living. Quite frankly, they don’t get nearly the amount of credit that they deserve.
Why is that? That perspective you got on that trip, that is something we all should have. It’s not talked about, it’s not thought about nearly enough. It’s so far in the back of our minds, how do we change that?
Smith: The narrative should be, and is, these are our true heroes. We would not be the country that we are without our military. So we talk about sports figures, we talk about folks who’ve impacted our lives from an entertainment standpoint. We are legends of a game. But these folks in our military are heroes. And they put it all on the line for us.
What year was that when you went out there, to Iraq?
Smith: I think that was in ’08.
And just watching your Football Life — which is phenomenal — to follow your personal growth over the years, when you think back at a young Bruce Smith, God, Jim and Tasker and those guys didn’t hold back. They called you arrogant and selfish and cocky at a young age. How far have you come from a young Bruce to having this perspective you have on the world today?
Smith: That’s the good thing about our family and our era of playing in Buffalo. We were all basically blue-collar kids that were drafted and played in a blue-collar town. I, myself, from my parents’ background of being blue collar workers, I understood hard work and the sacrifices that needed to be made and the maturation process that needed to unfold. I just didn’t know how to do it. I needed direction like most young adults. We need direction. We need guidance. And the smart ones are receptive to it. And the smart ones apply it to their day-to-day life and day-to-day routine. This maturation process started with my parents, again, who went to work at sun-up and came home at sun-down. Theirs were not jobs that one would enjoy doing. That process continued with my high school football and basketball coach. And then my college coach. And then obviously with Marv Levy and Rusty Jones. So I took bits and pieces of information from each and every one that came into my life and tried to get something out of it, learn something and apply it.
From Rusty Jones, eating habits and conditioning and working out and body fat. From Ted Cottrell, how to study film. From Marv Levy, how to be a professional. My parents, hard work and how to treat people. Being a man of your word and so forth. That’s how this whole process unfolded and, quite frankly, it’s still unfolding as we speak. After I left the game, trying to get a better gauge of how I can help my community. And one of the ways of doing that is equal opportunity. The disparities exist. And when you start talking about disparities, we’re not talking about handouts. We’re not talking about gifts or set-asides. We’re talking about opportunity. Opportunity to be successful. But that doesn’t happen when you’re 17, 18, 25, 30 years old. It starts when you start looking at these neighborhoods that don’t have the funding in their school district because of a zip code or an area code. You’re talking housing disparities, healthcare disparities, inequities and inequalities that exist. There’s so many things. All human beings, all of us, if we want this country to continue to be thought of as the leader in the free world, we all have to do our part.
So, how do you apply it? How do you bring change in your community?
Smith: You have to be engaged. You have to be on the ground. And then you have to find politicians that create policies and laws that can make these communities better. We all talk about the presidency and how everyone needs to vote but the body that impacts your life on a day-to-day basis and has a greater impact on your community is local politics. Your city council. Then you move from your city council to your state elected officials. You really have to focus your attention on your local politics and hold them accountable to making your neighborhoods, your community, your school systems that much better. What are they doing with your tax dollars? What are the policies that they’re creating? So that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on.
How much hope do you have for the future of those communities?
Smith: Brighter days are ahead of us. But we, as a people, we have to embrace one another. First of all, we have to understand the disparities that exist within our communities across this country. We have to understand there is systemic racism. We have to understand, yes, we are going to have difference. But we have to agree to disagree sometimes. More importantly, we can find a lot of common ground if we just find a way to understand these policies and laws that are created affect peoples’ lives and impact peoples’ lives more so than anything else that is being done in our communities and our states and our countries.
I’ve had some personal experiences myself. That was the reason I wrote that opinion piece and in the first paragraph, those were descriptions of experiences I actually had without being specific because I was too embarrassed to talk about them. It doesn’t make a difference how much money you have in your pocket, how much education you’ve gotten. These experiences happen.
When you look back at your football career, is there a way you want to be remembered? Is there something you want to come to peoples’ minds when they think of Bruce Smith?
Smith: His body of work speaks for itself. The transformation of this young, wet-behind-the-ears kid, the first player picked in the draft, and the transformation that took place over a relatively short period of time was one that I think was reared by the upbringing of his parents. But the body of work. When we say that body of work, it wasn’t over four, five years or eight or nine years. We’re talking about a 19-year body of work. Nineteen years in a 3-4 defensive scheme, where when you put your hand in the dirt, that’s a man’s world. No disrespect to the wide receivers, to the defensive backs, running backs but when you play on the defensive line, that is a man’s world.
How do I want to be remembered? This is not gloating or boasting or bragging. It’s just stating it: The all-time sack leader. More tackles in NFL history than any other defensive linemen who ever played in the game. So that body of work speaks for itself and I can leave it at that.
God knows how many sacks you would’ve had if you were screaming off the edge every play like guys today.
Smith: Oh yeah. Or, if I had another pass rusher.
Right. All the attention was on you.
Smith: You have to throw Reggie (White) out there. Reggie had Clyde Simmons and Sean Jones. They both had over 110 sacks. I think Clyde had 113 and Sean Jones had 121. The closest I had was Phil Hansen who had 60.
And they’re in 4-3’s. You’re in 3-4’s defending the run.
Smith: In a 3-4 defensive line, you’re known for making tackles. In a 4-3, you’re known for making sacks. But to have that combination of being able to do both speaks for itself.
What do you think made you different as a pass rusher? Your style? I love how Boomer Esiason put it: “Fast, agile and angry.” To you, what was your difference from any other player who ever played the game?
Smith: My style was totally and completely different than any other in that era. Leverage. Speed. Athleticism. Power. Agility. And I got a lot of those athletic qualities from playing basketball and having balance. And even though I was a bigger man, when I lost all of that weight, it provided me with endurance. Once I did that, that’s when I became a player who could play for a whole game and then when I put it together — the football IQ of being able to break down the strengths and weaknesses of an offensive lineman and then when I learned the tendencies of certain offenses when they lined up in certain formations from Chuck Lester and Ted Cottrell — that’s when that light switch went off and, as they say, the rest is history.
And there’s that turning point in 1988. When you were suspended, your career really could go one of two directions. And you just turned it on. That’s a lesson for anyone who plays the game, right? That’s a point in your life when your could’ve gone the wrong direction.
Smith: Right, right. I had some good people in my life. And I thank God for everyone He has put in my life for good and bad. You can learn from every situation. And that’s what I chose to do. I made the best of it. I’m blessed, I’m grateful and I’m thankful for everyone God puts in my life.
And you’re finding your purpose today. That’s the key for everyone who’s played—find that reason to get up in the morning, find something that excites you. And you’re trying to change the world.
Smith: It’s a blessing to be able to do your part.