Jesse Penn, a linebacker that the Dallas Cowboys drafted in the second round out of Virginia Tech, liked to tell the story of how quickly his college teammate, Bruce Smith, established himself when they both arrived in Blacksburg, Va. All incoming freshmen on the Hokies' football team stayed in an area of the dorm known as "the ghetto." And soon after Smith, Penn and the rest of the freshmen class reported to school, the upperclassmen of the football team came to "the ghetto" for the annual tradition of shaving the heads of the new class. It's there that they first encountered Smith -- a man among boys as a 6-foot-4, 260-pound freshman.
Smith informed his new teammates that there would be no head-shaving for himself or his fellow freshmen. And that was that.
Nearly thirty years later, Smith is being enshrined as one of the newest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Virginia Tech wasn't the only school interested in Smith. He was a highly-recruited player out of Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Va., also commonly known as the Tidewater area. It was a place with much success at producing outstanding athletes, and Smith was one of the best ever from the area. He chose Virginia Tech because Blacksburg was 300 miles from Tidewater, so it wasn't difficult for his family to attend home games.
My first contact with Smith was in May of 1984, when I had the pleasure of spending three days with him at a preseason all-American function in Dallas. Three things stand out from that encounter:
1) Smith still was a man among boys -- he was about 280 pounds at this point, and very mature.
2) We took a trip to a ranch for an outing, where everyone played games and rode horses and mules. I remember I was thrown off a mule twice. Smith got on that same mule, and the animal quickly went to its knees.
3) Lastly, I recall our dinner at Palm Restaurant. Whoever ate the most food would have his caricature placed on the restaurant's coveted wall of fame. Twenty-five years later, Smith still occupies a prominent place on the wall.
The following season, Smith's senior campaign, I was in Morgantown for the Virginia Tech-West Virginia game. Hokies coach Bill Dooley invited me to the team hotel Friday night to catch up with Smith. And I explained to him that the main reason I was in town was to see him play against Mountaineer offensive tackle Brian Jozwiak, a very good junior who would go on to be the seventh overall player taken in the 1986 draft. How would Smith fare against an outstanding individual opponent? About as good as you could possibly imagine. He was dominant. On one play in particular, I recall West Virginia quarterback Kevin White dropping back to pass, Smith getting off the block from Jozwiak and making one of the best and hardest tackles you'll ever see. He just lowered the boom.
There were some excellent players available in the 1985 draft -- Bill Fralic, Ray Childress, Chris Doleman among them -- but Smith was the top-ranked player on our draft board in the Cowboys' war room. He was very fast (4.68 speed in the 40), strong, with great quickness and burst to get to the quarterback. He might have taken a play or two off during a game, but he still ended his career with an all-time high 200 career NFL sacks. He had 13 seasons with 10 or more sacks.
Off the field, Smith is still the same person he was back then -- big smile, great personality. He is truly deserving of being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.