In 1985, the Buffalo Bills had one of the best drafts in franchise history.
With the first overall selection of that draft, Buffalo selected Virginia Tech defensive end, Bruce Smith.
Smith had been a force of nature with the Hokies, becoming one of the most feared players in college football.
He brought to the NFL a fierce resistance toward losing, something the Bills were used to.
The organization had seen a few good years including two American Football League titles in the mid-1960s.
However, the good times were few and far between and Smith was determined to turn things around.
The all-time sack leader in NFL History is an easy choice on the #NFL100 All-Time Team 🙌
Congrats to Bruce Smith! 👏👏👏
📺: NFL 100 All-Time Team on NFL Network pic.twitter.com/nCqqlH1J5m
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) November 30, 2019
Soon, Buffalo would go from doormat to four Super Bowl appearances in as many years.
Smith would play 19 years in the NFL and become the league’s all-time leader in sacks.
This is the impressive story of Bruce Smith.
Growing Up in Virginia
Bruce Bernard Smith was born on June 18, 1963, in Norfolk, Virginia.
Happy 56th to the NFL's career sack king, #Bills' PFHOF DE Bruce Smith!
Bruce threw an even 200 QBs for a loss during his brilliant career. pic.twitter.com/x0C2OnXxCl
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) June 18, 2019
Growing up, Smith and his friends played Little League baseball as well as basketball.
Despite the fact that he enjoyed playing sports, Smith almost derailed his future before it even started.
He attended Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk and went out for football.
After his first practice, Smith didn’t want to return.
“It was in the middle of August, roughly 95 degrees outside, and I just couldn’t stomach it,” Smith said in the NFL Films documentary A Football Life about his life and career. “It was too hot, it hurt, I felt pain like I’d never felt before in my life. So, the next day when it was time to go to practice, I didn’t go.”
That’s when Smith’s father, George, stepped in to give him a life lesson he’d never forget.
“Son, do you think I enjoy what I do for a living, getting up at sunrise and getting home at sundown, covered in dirt? You think I enjoy this?” said George Smith. “Get back out there and show them what you’re made of. Whatever you do in life, don’t ever quit.”
Smith returned to practice and became a nearly unstoppable force.
He not only played football but excelled in other sports as well.
“In high school, he used to play both ways and nobody could stop him,” childhood friend Andre Smith said. “In baseball, he could hit the ball. In basketball, it was total domination. You did not dare come in the middle. He was just so big—so demanding. And he wouldn’t give up ground.”
By the time he graduated from high school, Smith was an All-American on the gridiron, helped the Washington High basketball team to a state title, and performed well on the diamond and wrestling mat.
Smith Becomes a Hokie
Sorting through the many college scholarship offers during his senior year, Smith chose to stay in his home state and attend Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
He joined a Tech team that had gone 8-4 in 1980 and lost in the Peach Bowl to the Miami Hurricanes.
During Smith’s freshman year in 1981, the Hokies went 7-4 and had the same record in 1982.
Smith was coming into his own as a defensive tackle and could be found in the opponent’s backfield on numerous occasions.
Blockers trying to stymie Smith found the going difficult.
— Virginia Tech Football (@HokiesFB) June 18, 2015
He was 6’4” and 290 pounds, built like a truck, and had the speed of a Ferrari.
In 1983, the newly christened “Sack Man” racked up an NCAA-best 22 sacks and was named a first-team All-American.
Smith’s junior year turned out to be a foreshadowing of his senior year.
Virginia Tech produced an 8-4 record in 1984 that got the team invited to a bowl.
Part of the reason for the invite was the play of Smith.
— Virginia Tech Alumni (@VT_alumni) September 15, 2016
That season, he was part of a Hokies defense that limited opposing rushers to 71.5 yards per game, good for second in the country.
Smith continued to harass quarterbacks (16 sacks) and crush ball carriers (69 tackles) at an astounding rate.
“He’s got the strength and explosiveness of a running back,” Hokies coach Bill Dooley said. “And he’s determined. Very determined. Oftentimes, they put two or more people to him but he never gives up. He keeps fighting and he enjoys it.”
By the time his college career came to an end after the team’s 23-7 loss to Air Force in the Independence Bowl, Smith was regarded as perhaps the best player in Virginia Tech history.
RANDOM TEAM: 1984 Virginia Tech
COACH: Bill Dooley
BOWL: Lost to Air Force in Independence Bowl, 23-7
Led by Outland Trophy winner Bruce Smith, Virginia Tech capped its fifth straight winning season with its first bowl appearance in four years. pic.twitter.com/7xlXUPXNMk
— Random Classic Sports (@RandomCFB) February 12, 2021
During his time in Blacksburg, Smith had 46 sacks (believed to be an NCAA record at the time) and 71 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
His stats led to Smith being selected as the 1984 Outland Trophy winner for college football’s best interior lineman.
“No ifs, ands, or buts about it,” Dooley said after the announcement. “I’ve said all along that Bruce is the best college lineman I’ve ever coached and the best I’ve ever seen in 18 years as a head coach.”
Smith also received another first-team All-American selection and was added to the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame.
The 1985 NFL Draft
In 1980 and 1981, the Buffalo Bills went to the playoffs both years.
The team advanced to the Divisional round in ’81 before losing to the Cincinnati Bengals by a touchdown.
For the next three years, the best the team could do was win eight games in 1983.
The Bills’ management wanted to turn around the fortunes of the franchise, and they beat the bushes to see what they could find.
Obviously, they did their homework well as the 1985 draft proved to be a turning point for the organization.
Buffalo had the first pick in the draft and used it to select Smith.
34 years ago today, we made Bruce Smith the first selection of the 1985 Draft. pic.twitter.com/pO1yhqxyuB
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) April 30, 2019
In the third round, University of Maryland quarterback Frank Reich was added to the roster.
Reich was viewed by the organization as a possible starter after 1983 first-round selection Jim Kelly decided to play in the USFL.
Then, in the fourth round, the team added Kutztown University receiver, Andre Reed.
Unfortunately, the rookies couldn’t help the Bills right away as the team suffered through two head coaches and a 2-14 record in 1985.
Buffalo didn’t get much better in 1986, only reaching four wins and once again using two head coaches to get through the season.
However, the interim head coach for the final seven games was former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Marv Levy.
Buffalo Gains Momentum
Levy was retained as the head coach beginning in 1987 and began to oversee a blossoming of talent.
By then, Smith was already one of the best defensive linemen in the game, having been moved to defensive end after arriving in Buffalo.
Admittedly, he had poor work habits as a rookie that still led to 6.5 sacks and 48 tackles.
“The best way to get in shape, is to stay in shape!” – Bruce Smith, Buffalo Bills Hall Of Famer pic.twitter.com/v5xUgPieBm
— Ken Mannie (@SpartanEarned1) June 8, 2019
Smith started training with purpose, lost some weight, but gained tremendous strength and speed as he piled up 15 sacks and 63 tackles in 1986.
In 1987, he added a dozen sacks, 78 tackles, and a fumble return for a touchdown.
Smith was selected for his first Pro Bowl (where he was named MVP) and named a first-team All-Pro.
Meanwhile, the Bills kept adding pieces on both sides of the ball.
Kelly signed with the organization in 1986 after the USFL went out of business.
In 1988, Oklahoma State running back Thurman Thomas was selected in the second round of the draft.
The Bills had a crushing defense with Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan, Darryl Talley, Mark Kelso, and Nate Odomes.
The ’88 Bills finally returned to the postseason after a 12-4 season and lost to the Bengals in the AFC title game.
Buffalo was eliminated in the 1989 playoffs by Cleveland after posting a 9-7 record in the regular season.
That same year, Smith had 13 sacks and 88 tackles and went to his third Pro Bowl while being named a second-team All-Pro.
In 1988, Smith was suspended for four games by Buffalo for substance abuse.
It was the second time he had tested positive for a banned substance, leading to the NFL’s mandated suspension.
“I agree with the policy,” Levy said. “This is the way to rid the league of drugs.”
The following spring, Smith was a free agent, and the Bills briefly considered trading him to the Denver Broncos.
He had turned himself into a great player, but the organization was concerned about a possible relapse.
Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, and Buffalo turned down Denver and kept Smith.
They would be glad they did as 1990 proved to be the year the organization’s best-laid plans came together.
Riding an offense that was ranked first in the NFL and a defense ranked sixth overall, the Bills marched through a 13-3 regular season.
Then, they beat Miami in the Divisional round before humiliating the Raiders, 51-3 in the AFC Championship game.
Smith was everywhere that year, posting 101 total tackles, 19 sacks (a career-high), and adding four forced fumbles.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 9, 2013
His efforts led the league to name Smith as the Defensive Player of the Year along with Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections.
Super Bowl XXV
For the first time in franchise history, the Bills were playing in the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXV was a patriotic affair as the country was involved in the Gulf War in the Middle East.
Jets flew overhead, Whitney Houston sang the national anthem, and the nation prepared for a battle in Tampa, Florida.
Buffalo was facing the New York Giants who had a good offense and stifling defense of their own.
To prepare his unit for the high-flying Bills’ offense (that averaged nearly 27 points per game), Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick devised a unique game plan.
For most of the game, his unit rushed only two players and dropped the rest of the defenders into zone coverage.
That significantly slowed Buffalo’s offense.
When New York was on offense, the team primarily ran the ball while mixing in short passes.
That gave the Giants a huge edge in time of possession.
In the second quarter, Smith was able to break loose and drop Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler in the end zone for a safety.
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) October 22, 2019
Buffalo led 12-3 and Smith had become only the fifth player in Super Bowl history to record a safety.
Not to be outdone, the Giants scored before halftime to close the gap to 12-10.
In the second half, both sides scored until New York held a tight 20-19 advantage.
With eight seconds remaining, Buffalo trotted out kicker Scott Norwood to attempt a 47-yard field goal.
The attempt went wide right and New York won the contest against the favored Bills.
Distraught over his missed kick, Norwood later told the media how Smith consoled him after the game.
“I said we win together and we lose together,” Smith recalled of the conversation years later. “I gave him a hug and told him that we never should have been in that position. There were things I could have done better, there are things that 51 other players could have done, to put us in better position. I told Scott to ‘Keep your head up.’”
Before the 1991 season, Smith was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title “Bruce is Loose.”
Today in 1991, Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Super Bowl prediction (Bills v Redskins) was actually correct. #TodayInSports #Bills #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/W5S4J2Ona2
— TodayInSports (@TodayInSportsCo) September 2, 2018
The feature article talked about Smith’s preparation for 1991 and his intention of helping Buffalo win the Super Bowl.
In reference to his bold prediction, teammate Thurman Thomas backed Smith.
“A lot of players feel the same way,” said Thomas in the SI article. “I do. We probably have more talent than anybody in the league.”
Chuck Dickerson, Buffalo’s defensive line coach, explained Smith’s play on the field and how opponents needed to get ready.
“He’s (Smith) got a horn coming out of the middle of his head, and he’ll gore you with it.”
Unfortunately, Smith couldn’t gore much during the ’91 season.
After playing in only five games, he missed the rest of the regular season due to knee issues.
He returned in time for the playoffs and helped the team to victories in the first two rounds.
However, he couldn’t help the Bills win Super Bowl XXVI as the Washington Redskins proved too much and overpowered Buffalo 37-24.
Super Bowl XXVII
The 1992 season was much better for Smith. Now fully healed, he returned to the Pro Bowl after making 89 tackles and 14 sacks.
Buffalo took an 11-5 regular season into the playoffs and faced the Houston Oilers in the Wild Card round.
Early in the third quarter, the Oilers were crushing the home team Bills 35-3.
Left for dead, Buffalo went on a furious comeback to eventually win the game in overtime 41-38.
“The Comeback” remains the largest comeback victory in NFL history.
Buffalo then defeated Pittsburgh and Miami to reach Super Bowl XXVII against the Dallas Cowboys.
Today in 1993, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills, 52 to 17, in Super Bowl XXVII. pic.twitter.com/6xBn68mPgd
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) January 31, 2022
Although the Bills scored first, Dallas was more talented and handed Buffalo its third straight title game loss 52-17.
“The Cowboys were an extremely talented team and we had to be on top of our game to have a chance. And we were not,” said Smith in 2016.
Super Bowl XXVIII
The 1993 Bills weren’t backing down from anyone.
Despite the general feeling across the country that anyone but Buffalo needed to represent the AFC in the next Super Bowl, the Bills and their fans heartily disagreed.
Instead, the team went 12-4 in 1993 on the strength of a seventh-ranked offense and fifth-ranked defense.
Smith once again had 14 sacks and added 108 total tackles.
He was named to the Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro.
In the playoffs, Buffalo got past the Raiders and the Chiefs and faced the Cowboys again in Super Bowl XXVIII.
It looked like the fourth time would be the charm when the Bills took a 13-6 lead into halftime.
After retreating to the locker room during the break in the action, Smith was worried by what he saw.
“I could see something at halftime,” Smith said. “It felt like we were out of gas, that we were waiting for something to go wrong.”
It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dallas manhandled Buffalo in the second half, shutting out the Bills while scoring 24 points to win their second consecutive championship 30-13.
— CowboysFanInCLE (@Cowboy16_) January 30, 2019
Although Buffalo had lost four straight Super Bowls, Smith has said that the team learned more from the losses than if they had won.
He also refuses to let the losses define him as a player or person.
“Yes, I lost four Super Bowls, but they don’t define you,” he explained. “I am defined by my character, my integrity, my faith in God, the good things I have done.”
Defensive Player of the Year, Again
Buffalo was still a talented team, but they wouldn’t return to the Super Bowl after 1993.
Smith brought his “A” game every season, leading the NFL in forced fumbles with five (along with 10 sacks and 81 tackles) in 1994.
He repeated the feat in 1996 and was also named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second time after adding 13.5 sacks and 90 tackles.
— Bills Legends Community (@BillsLegends) December 29, 2021
From 1997–1999, Smith had 31 total sacks and appeared in a few more Pro Bowls.
Meanwhile, even though Buffalo made the postseason in 1998 and 1999 (and lost in the Wild Card round both years), it was evident the good times had ended.
Signed by Washington
When the 1999 season concluded, Smith, Thomas, and Reed were all released by Buffalo for salary cap reasons, ending a magical era of Bills football.
Second-year Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder believed Smith still had plenty left to offer and signed him to a contract worth $25 million.
“I never really thought it (his release by Buffalo) would have ended this way—not in my wildest dreams,” Smith said. “The most important thing, I’m coming to a great situation.”
The then-Redskins had ended the 1999 season with a one-point loss to Tampa Bay in the Divisional round and Snyder believed Smith would help them advance further in the playoffs.
“It’s the missing link—a pure pass rusher who is best of class,” gushed Snyder. “We weren’t anticipating Bruce Smith being released by Buffalo. This was a delight to have the opportunity, and we moved very quickly.”
Snyder also brought in future Hall of Fame corner Deion Sanders to provide a formidable defense.
Remember when Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith played for the redskins? pic.twitter.com/pcrDUhF3jw
— Ali Siddiqui (@asiddiqui15) November 4, 2022
Despite Smith getting 10 sacks and 57 tackles, the ’Skins could do no better than 8-8, disappointing the fan base and proving that money doesn’t always buy championships.
Smith Breaks the Sack Record
Three years later, Washington still hadn’t seen the playoffs and the franchise was on its third head coach since 2000.
However, before the 2003 season, Smith was just a few sacks shy of the NFL record, set by Reggie White.
Most sacks in @NFL history.
Bruce Smith was UNSTOPPABLE. 💪 pic.twitter.com/FaKrYTCI96
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) June 18, 2019
By then, his career was winding down and Smith only started five games.
While the ‘Skins limped through a 5-11 season, Smith slowly but surely accumulated sacks.
Finally, in a Week 14 game against the Giants, Smith sacked New York quarterback Jesse Palmer for the 199th sack of his career, passing White’s 198 career sacks.
“The crowning achievement in my career in terms of statistics occurred when I broke the NFL all-time sack record while playing for the Washington Redskins,” Smith said in 2015.
Smith would end the ’03 season with five sacks and 200 for his career.
After 19 years, Smith retired. As a Bill and Redskin, he had 200 sacks, 43 forced fumbles, a touchdown, and 1,224 total tackles.
Smith was an 11-time Pro Bowler, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, two-time second-team All-Pro, eight-time first-team All-Pro, two-time NFL forced fumbles leader, and appeared in four Super Bowls.
Smith was eventually added to the NFL’s 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams and placed on the Bills’ Wall of Fame.
Since his retirement, Buffalo has also retired Smith’s number 78.
Life After Football
In 2009, Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) May 11, 2016
His official Hall quote sums up Smith’s mindset as a player.
“I’m afraid of not playing well. If I’m not at the top of my game each week, I will get my ass kicked by someone trying to make a name for himself, and I won’t let that happen.”
Although the Redskins never reached the postseason during Smith’s tenure, Snyder still revered his former player.
“We were fortunate to have Bruce as a Redskin for his final four playing years, and as a Redskin when he set the all-time sack record,” Snyder said in 2009. “He’s a consummate professional in life, as he was in the locker room and on the field. He’s a personal friend, and the epitome of a Hall of Famer. Redskins fans will always feel part of his stellar career.”
Currently, Smith lives in Virginia and has worked as a hotel designer, having turned a former Red Roof Inn into a Hilton Garden Inn.
Smith also joined forces with Thurman Thomas to start Legends Energy Group, which promotes energy programs throughout the country.