Bruce Smith stepped off the puddle-jumper at National Airport's commuter terminal clutching a bottle of vitamin C and an overstuffed travel bag. Nobody dared say so, but he looked tired and hangdog, and with only two days to go before signing with the Buffalo Bills and becoming a millionaire. "Take me to where there's ice," Smith told Brig Owens, his agent and good friend. "I want to sit down."
They walked over to the little restaurant at the back of the building, and sat across from a man who was choking on a corn dog. The man, an old-timer awaiting a later hitch, appeared to be in the middle of some ugly death bout. He squealed and screeched, and Smith, the all-America defensive tackle and Outland Trophy winner from Virginia Tech who will be the first player chosen in the NFL draft April 30, couldn't help but wonder aloud: when will the weirdness let up?
He had arrived in Washington anticipating a quiet, three-hour layover before a connecting flight shuttled him north to Buffalo, where he will sign with the Bills Thursday morning. Instead, he found this choking fellow -- now spilling a bowl of mushroom soup on the floor -- and a frantic cluster of cabbies gazing through the window, asking his name, what did he do.
"I'll be glad when I'm back in Blacksburg, back in school," he said, watching the man leave the restaurant, whole. "The last few months have been impossible."
Just two weeks ago, Smith received the Outland, awarded annually to college football's best interior lineman, only to find "it really wasn't the Outland Trophy at all," Smith said. "It was a little plaque about as big as a piece of paper. They said somebody had lost the real trophy some 10 years ago. So I called Brig at about midnight that same day and said I couldn't believe it. How could they lose my Outland Trophy? Why did they do that?"
On top of that, his father, who had two heart attacks when Smith was a college freshman, was in the hospital again, "having a pacemaker put in. All I'm thinking about is signing the contract and getting back to Norfolk to sit with him. All the excitement's been too much for him to take. I'll be glad when things settle down," Smith said.
Owens, a former starting safety for the Washington Redskins, and Bobby Romm, a Norfolk attorney, finalized contract negotiations with the Bills last week, after three weeks "of rolling up the sleeves and loosening the neckties and really going at it," Owens said. "Just because a player is the first choice doesn't mean the negotiations will go easily. Buffalo showed a sincere desire to have Bruce as one of their players . . . But there was a time there when we both thought he might end up with the (U.S. Football League's Baltimore) Stars."
Asked if the contract was worth about $3 million over four years, Owens said, "Let's just say it was an excellent contract, one that both parties can be satisfied with." But Smith rolled his eyes incredulously and chuckled happily. "That's pretty durn good," he said. "Nice guess."
Owens, who was dealing with the Stars during the entirety of his negotiations with the Bills, said the toughest point "of the bargaining came shortly before the final agreement. Baltimore made a very, very strong run for Bruce."
Smith said, "What it boiled down to, the USFL would have done a lot of things to keep me, but the NFL is so established and so secure that I couldn't turn away from that. They have tremendous fans, too. Your money, you know it will be there. There won't be any nightmares to worry about in the future."
Smith ended his college career on a nightmare, one that still "gets to me a little," he said. "Now that I'm done with the NCAA, I can say all they like to do is throw their weight around, looking for things."
Before the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., which the Hokies lost, 23-7, to Air Force, the NCAA announced that Smith was ineligible to play because of recruiting violations that included accepting a load of firewood from a fan and visiting the university too many times while still in high school. The NCAA sought to keep Smith from participating in the game, but its attempts were blocked by a Louisiana judge.
"It was a question of right and wrong," Smith said. "I did nothing wrong. I wasn't the one to be punished. That wood that my father was supposed to have gotten, I had to chop that wood. Somebody brought it to the house and dumped it in the yard. It was 90 degrees outside and my father couldn't go after it. He can't walk across the room and bend over for something without coughing. He's real sick. Somebody just wanted him to have a nice, warm winter. He would have done it himself and it would have killed him. It's tough to keep him put, so I did it. And then here comes the NCAA . . . "
Smith has been traveling since the end of the season, and fighting a case of flu that won't let up. After the season, he faced a storm of professional agents at the Blue-Gray Game in Montgomery, Ala., "where they hit me at every turn. I wanted to hide. Then right before the game, I talked to Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys. I had it in mind that I was the player who should be drafted first, and he told me I would be. That was when I really knew for sure that it would be me."
Owens said the Bills informed him of their intentions to draft Smith about a month ago. Smith said the possibility of Doug Flutie being drafted first by the Bills had "no effect whatsoever on me. It would have been him or me, and I think if they really wanted him they would have gone really hard after him." CAPTION: Picture 1, Bruse Smith says $3 million for four NFL years is a "pretty durn good" guess. Picture 2, Just passing through Washington, Bruce Smith is shepherded by Brig Owens. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post