Legendary defensive end and Hall of Famer Bruce Smith unarguably stands as one of the greatest football players of all time. After a prolific 19 year career that culminated with his impressive procurement of the NFL record for all-time leader in quarterback sacks, Smith has gracefully ascended into the pantheon of football giants.
Bruce was born the youngest child to George and Annie Smith in Norfolk, Virginia on June 18, 1963. His parents had low-wage, working class jobs but were rich in the values that constitute a meaningful life. Together they raised Bruce, his brother George, and his sister Linda with love, honor, and integrity. While growing up, Bruce’s potential for excellence on the gridiron remained unexplored and undiscovered. Though he’d played basketball and little league baseball, he hadn’t played a solitary down of football until friends cajoled him to join the junior varsity team in his sophomore year at Booker T. Washington High School. An extraordinary God given talent immediately emerged, and what began on a lark would ultimately become sports history. After a serendipitous all-state high school career that resulted in multiple collegiate offers, Smith accepted an athletic scholarship to Virginia Tech in 1981.
If Smith’s auspicious beginnings in football were simply born on the merits of raw talent, he developed into a true practitioner of the game at Virginia Tech. There he honed his skill with rigorous study and commitment and was soon heralded as “The Sack Man” of Virginia Tech Football. In his junior year in 1983, Smith nailed a whopping 22 sacks and set the existing record at Virginia Tech for the highest number of sacks in a season. With the explosive power, lightning speed, and balletic agility that would become the indelible hallmarks of his game, Smith set all-time leader records at Virginia Tech with career totals of 46 sacks and 71 tackles for loss. He fittingly earned consensus selections to the All-America teams in both his junior and senior years of play. Smith received the prestigious Outland Trophy in 1984 as the nation’s best college lineman and concluded his reign at Virginia Tech as the most storied and honored player in Hokie history.
Smith’s triumph at Virginia Tech led him to the distinction and honor of becoming the NFL’s number one overall draft pick selected by the Buffalo Bills in 1985. He was named the AFC Defensive Rookie of the year in his NFL debut, but that acknowledgement was a mere nod in the direction to the path of dominance that Smith would pave in Buffalo for 15 glorious seasons. In his sophomore effort, Smith racked up a total of 63 tackles and 15 sacks despite the fact that he had ballooned to over 300 pounds. Determined to evolve as a player in the modern game, Smith radically altered his diet and conditioning regime in the 1986 post season. Finally whittling down to the chiseled 265 pound physique that would help sustain his lengthy career, Smith was crowned the Pro Bowl MVP in 1987 and had claimed the Bills’ all-time sack record by 1989. While die hard fans in Rich Stadium famously chanted “Bruuuuuuuuuce” Sunday after Sunday in cheering homage to his prowess on the field, Smith had become renowned as the league’s preeminent pass rusher. He prodigiously produced 101 tackles and 19 sacks in 1990 and helped lead the Bills to the first of four consecutive Super Bowls as AFC Champions.
Smith’s beautiful mastery of leveling quarterbacks in the NFL was on full display in Super Bowl XXV when he sacked New York Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler in the end zone__becoming only the fifth player in history to record a Super Bowl safety. Indeed many analysts regard 1990 as Smith’s foremost season, and his wife Carmen amusingly attributes his success to the good fortune of marrying her in the summer of that year. Perhaps Smith’s first award as the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 was a testament to the union of supreme athleticism and personal happiness. Smith’s domestic felicity increased exponentially with the birth of his beloved son Alston in 1994. In succeeding years professionally, Smith became a three time PFWA Defensive Player of the Year; a two time NEA Defensive Player of the Year; and a four time UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year. Still at the height of his considerable powers an astonishing 11 years after entering the league, Smith was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year for the second time in 1996.
During Smith’s incomparable tenure as a Bill, he was also elected to 11 Pro Bowls, nine NFL All-Pro Teams, and two NFL All-Decade Teams (1980s and 1990s). At right defensive end in Buffalo’s arduous 3-4 defensive scheme, Smith played weak side against the left tackle, the most talented and formidable pass blocker on the opposing line. With his power and nimble swiftness off the ball, Smith subdued these fearsome left tackles, while he simultaneously eluded and outmaneuvered other blockers assigned to stop his ominous advance upon the quarterback. It is singular and particularly remarkable that Smith rose to be a prolific pass rusher when he was consistently double-and-triple teamed for 15 seasons in the rigor of Buffalo’s brutal 3-4 defense. By structure and design, outside linebackers accrue the stats in a 3-4, while defensive ends are typically effectively eradicated from the sack equation in a 3-4 scheme. And historically speaking, it must be noted that the NFL’s greatest defensive end pass rushers all excelled in the advantage of 4-3 defenses. How Smith would have leveraged such an opportunity is frightening to contemplate, and his phenomenal success despite the impediment of playing as a pure end in a 3-4 distinguishes him from his peers. Difficulty notwithstanding, the 171 sacks that Smith recorded in Buffalo set a precedent unlikely to ever be duplicated by another player in the Bills franchise. Smith’s number 78 is enshrined on the Bills’ Wall of Fame in Rich Stadium, and his current standing as the number one Bill on Pinterest encapsulates his abiding legacy and popularity as a Bill.
Smith was ranked number 58 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players of All Time in 1999 while still a starting player on the Bills’ roster. Though he had already achieved legendary status, the Bills released Smith after the 1999 season when he declined to take a pay cut in an emergency salary cap maneuver. Saddened to leave the team on which he’d made history, yet resigned to the realities of football as a business, Smith signed with the Washington Redskins in 2000 as a free agent. Amid the excitement and enthusiasm from family, friends, and hometown fans in Virginia who now had greater opportunity to see him play, Smith snagged 10 sacks in his first year with the Redskins__marking his 13th season with 10 or more sacks for which he holds the NFL record. After toppling New York Giants quarterback Jessie Palmer in his fourth and final season as a Redskin, Smith claimed the definitive record as the NFL’s all-time leader in career sacks. Smith retired in 2004 with 200 sacks, a staggering number unmatched by any other player in NFL history. The odds of a future contender reaching or surpassing the coveted 200 sack mark are minuscule, and many observers posit that Smith’s record could endure for the ages.
Though Smith’s all-time sack record and laudability as a gifted pass rusher can sometimes eclipse the full view of his versatility as a defensive end, his equal dominance against the run should not be obscured or forgotten. Opposing teams were also forced to game plan around Smith’s imminent threat to the ball carrier, and the 1,225 tackles that Smith accumulated during his career perfectly illustrate his tremendous ability to stop the run.
Smith was inducted into the Pro Football of Fame as a first ballot electee in 2009. He is one of only 13 NFL first overall draft picks to merit election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its 52 year history. In fact, many analysts contend that Smith is the best number one NFL draft pick to ever play the game, and he is now invariably ranked within the top 35 on any of the myriad 100 all-time greatest football player lists generated by various press and media outlets. Of the plethora of trivia that abounds on Smith in the afterglow of his illustrious career, the consensus that he is the single greatest athlete to ever don the number 78 may serve as the perfect epigram to his legacy.
In no way content to rest on his laurels in the post years of his NFL retirement, Smith founded Bruce Smith Enterprises in 2004. Headquartered in Virginia Beach, VA, the eponymous company is a commercial real estate firm that specializes in the development of premier mixed-use properties. Smith’s avid interest in real estate development germinated after he invested in what proved to be a lucrative venture in 1995. With an eye toward the prospect of a fruitful second career, Smith apprenticed in the industry during the NFL off seasons and progressively laid the framework for the establishment of Bruce Smith Enterprises. The company has flourished since its inception__notably developing numerous projects throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Smith is especially proud of the Hilton Garden Inn and the Smith’s Landing apartment complex that the firm built in Blacksburg, VA to service the needs of students, alumni, and their families at his Virginia Tech alma mater. Smith balances the rewards of his successful working life by remaining rooted in his Christian faith and continuing his agency in numerous charitable endeavors.