TAMPA -- It had been a wonderful week, all things considered, for Bruce Smith. His Buffalo Bills were here in the Super Bowl, and all the experts, even the great LT himself, paid homage to the recently crowned most dominant defensive player. Smith put on a different pair of shades every day and welcomed the glare of the spotlight.
But Bruce Smith, 27, has often said that every time he feels life couldn't get much better, something drags him down. Wednesday night, during a telephone conversation with his mother, Annie, in Norfolk, he sensed there was something she was hiding from him. He pulled it out of her; his father, George, had suffered an emphysema attack. He was hospitalized, in intensive care.
His 67-year-old father, Smith said, has had four heart attacks and wears a pacemaker. "Yesterday, he had a breathing attack just putting on a T-shirt."
Smith wore shades again Thursday to a morning gathering with reporters, but this time they hid pain. "I'm going to go and call to see about him as soon as I leave this room," he said. "I'm going to just have to fight through this."
He let out a deep sigh. "Yeah, there's always something to balance my life," he said, voice trailing.
Before Wednesday, the scales had been tipped heavily in favor of good fortune. Cornelius Bennett, his teammate and close friend, remembers Smith saying one day more than a year ago, "If I want to be remembered for anything in this game, I've got to bust my butt every single day, don't I?"
Now that was a novel sentiment for the once-undisciplined Smith to express. As a high school senior, he was fat. "I took a lot of pride in seeing how much I could eat," he said. "Having a mother who loves to see me eat three a day, it was easy."
His excesses weren't limited to the kitchen table. In the fall of 1988, he was suspended from the Bills for four games after testing positive for drugs. "My suspension was the worst thing I've ever been through," he said Thursday morning. "It's something that will never happen again."
This might be oversimplifying a bit, but Smith woke up one morning and decided that he was willing to do whatever necessary to live up to being the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft. Steaks, ribs, desserts and drugs weren't part of the plan.
Smith, now a strict seafood-and-chicken man, also has a new Eastern European training regimen at the urging of Rusty Jones, the Bills strength coordinator. It's no coincidence he recorded a career-high 19 sacks this season and disrupted virtually every offense Buffalo played.
Smith never felt better or looked better. "You should see Bruce strut around the locker room; he swears he has the best body in the league," Bennett said.
Smith, who went to Virginia Tech, thinks about the University of Virginia recruiter who said he'd never be quick enough to play there, and says: "I wonder where that scout is today? All my career it seems I haven't gotten a lot of credit. I love the attention."
That scout, wherever he is, probably agrees with most everyone else, that Smith is just what he said before a regular season game against LT and the Giants: the defensive player of the year. Bennett says the people who probably objected most to Smith saying he had taken the baton from LT were the Bills offensive linemen, who had to try to block Taylor later that week.
It was actually the week before that, when Smith recorded a fourth sack in the first half at Indianapolis, that Bennett looked at Smith incredulously and said, "Brother, you've got my vote."
But Bennett later told Smith he didn't particularly care for anybody -- not even one of his best friends -- tooting his own horn that way. "It's not good for players to be their own P.R. man," Bennett said Thursday. "But I stood up and told the offensive players, 'I believe in Bruce and if you don't, too bad.' "
What most people don't know is that Smith, menacing as he may appear at times, is a big softie. He has cried so many times while watching the movie "Born Free," players walk up to him and starting humming the theme song when they want to get on his nerves.
He cries at movies, at certain songs, teammates say. There was a time when he didn't talk much with reporters, yet is an engaging, thoughtful man, not at all self-absorbed and remarkably sensitive.
"He's a big spoiled baby, a crybaby," Bennett said.
Bennett and linebacker Darryl Talley are hardest on Smith, largely because they don't like Smith asking for star treatment. After a recent practice, Smith turned to Talley and said, "Darryl, can you go and start my car for me, please?"
Bennett nodded at the telling of the story. "He'll stand next to a garbage can, finish a soda and ask you to come walk over and put the thing in the garbage can even though he can almost reach out and touch it," Bennett said.
Part of the charm of Bruce Smith is that few can resist him. Easily, he is the Buffalo Bill everyone wants to get next to. He is the handsome, honest, shooting star who knows the only certification of greatness is a Super Bowl ring. "LT is a walking legend," Smith said. "When it's my 11th or 12th year in the league, hopefully I will have accomplished some of the things he has."
This was to be a week when Smith enjoyed football. But life got him down. He's bothered by the war. "I hope God touches the people who have put us at war," he said. "Innocent people dying. It's bothering the hell out of me."
Then the hurt came even closer, his dad lying in intensive care with severe respiratory problems. "This was going to be the week for me to be on top of the world," he said. "But not while my father is in the condition he's in. That's where my heart is."