There's one thing that could send Bruce Smith into retirement at the end of the 1999 season, but it's a good thing for Buffalo fans.
Smith, one of the most dominant defensive players in NFL history, says he'll retire for sure after the season only if the Bills win the Super Bowl, something the team has failed to accomplish four times.
"If we get to the Super Bowl and win, I will retire," Smith, 36, said Tuesday. "You'd better believe it."
An 11-time Pro Bowl selection who still carries the bittersweet memories of four straight Super Bowl losses in the early 1990s, Smith begins his 15th season with the health and optimism of a rookie.
"We have some exciting new players and some who have been here a while and are ready to blossom," Smith said. "And we have some older players who just seem to keep getting better and better."
Count Smith among the latter.
Smith, the Bills' all-time leader in sacks with 163 and second in the NFL behind Reggie White (192.5), entered training camp for the first time with no distractions.
"No contract disputes," Smith said. "And the only pain I'm suffering from is old age. Fifteen years ago, you never could have told me that I would still be in this game today."
Smith and White are the only two players to have recorded 10 or more sacks in 12 seasons; Smith had 10 last year. "The older you get the harder it gets," Smith said.
Don't tell Thurman Thomas, one of three Bills along with Smith and Andre Reed left from Marv Levy's Super Bowl teams. He says his friend still draws a crowd on the field.
"Bruce is Bruce," Thomas said. "They might say he's getting old and has lost a step or whatever, but you haven't lost that much of a step when people are still double- and triple-teaming you. That's out of respect; they know that he can still tear up an entire offense."
Last season, the Bills struggled early, losing their first three games of the season. They rebounded with a strong finish before losing to Miami in the first round of the playoffs.
"Starting off on a positive note and not being 0-3 or 0-4 is important," Smith said. "If we get off on the right foot, we'll be a contender."
Smith serves on the board of directors for Operation Smile, a charity based in his hometown of Norfolk, Va., that helps poor children in developing nations who have facial disfigurements. The young patients have their cleft palates repaired free of charge.
For 17 days in March, Smith watched and even assisted in surgeries in places such as Kenya and Nairobi.
"It was an overwhelming feeling to see that child look normal because a lot of times what happens in the community in the tribes over there, they're thought of as being outcasts. They shoo them away or don't pay any attention to them."
The trip put things in perspective for Smith, who has donatd some of his own money to the charity. "It kind of gets me a little emotional because we take so much for granted in this country. Over there, their average income is $30 a month."
Smith draws inspiration also from father, George, who has been plagued by several ailments including emphysema.
"The doctors wrote him off about six or seven years ago," Smith said. "They said he had six months to live, and my father's still hanging around. He's not in very good shape but he's still passing on knowledge and experiences and wisdom, and that's where I get my will to keep pushing on."
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