TAMPA, Fla. -- It isn't because he's too nice a guy or because he wants it too much or because he grew up as a fat kid who was the butt of cruel jokes that Bruce Smith will never be another Lawrence Taylor. It's because there aren't any other Lawrence Taylors.
There has been much made of the fact that Smith is now recognized as the best defensive player in the game, a position Taylor held for most of a decade. Even Taylor concedes the new reality, saying Smith is "the best this year."
Smith, to some fanfare, announced his own pre-eminence earlier this season and, though slightly embarrassed by his effrontery, doesn't back down from the assessment. Why should he?
"I don't think a guy should be his own publicity agent," said Cornelius Bennett, an All-Pro linebacker and Smith's teammate on the Buffalo Bills. "But after the Indianapolis game, when he had four sacks in the first half, I said, 'Brother, you got my vote.' "
He has virtually all the votes, which makes for a nice story because Smith is the kind of person who actually appreciates every good thing that happens to him. He worked very hard for what he's achieved, turning a fat kid -- "From fetus to age 17," he says -- into 275 pounds of muscled devastation. It doesn't end there. His teammates and coaches talk about the time he puts in studying film of the opposition. They talk about his intense need to be the best.
And once he's on the field, Smith can take over a game from his position at defensive end, which makes him an important person, especially as the Bills take on the Giants tomorrow in Super Bowl XXV. It's a game in which he can establish himself before the entire football world.
L If he does, Smith can be the best and he can be famous, too.
But he still can't be Lawrence Taylor, who will be there as the defensive force for the other guys.
"He's a living legend," Smith says of Taylor. "When I'm in the
league for 10 or 12 years, I'd love for people to think of me the way they think of him."
They won't. They may think of Smith, who has been in the league for six years, the way they thought of Richard Dent. Taylor is different. Taylor has star quality, a certain presence given to people such as Muhammad Ali or Joe Namath or Madonna. Hard work doesn't get it. Neither does studying film. In this case, genetics is destiny.
You don't have to see Taylor on a football field to understand. All you have to do is watch him walk into a room. He might as well be Liz Taylor as Lawrence. Heads turn immediately. He's wearing a straw hat on his head, a diamond earring in one ear that would be more impressive if it weren't for the diamond-encrusted bracelet. The diamonds spell out "LT."
The smile is as bright as any of the gems, or all of them. He is late for an interview -- as the last of the Giants to arrive for a required interview session, he'll also be the first to leave. Just the day before, James Lofton, a star of some quality, had said the definition of a celebrity was the person who looked at his watch every five minutes. As soon as Taylor arrived, he was ready to go. But first, he said, "Mornin', boys."
He is a star. Always has been. In high school. In college. From the moment he stepped into the NFL 10 years ago. He looked the role and played the role, and even when he played it right to the edge, as in his bouts with drugs, he never stopped believing he was invincible. Neither did we.
Injuries couldn't stop him. He took his spot at outside linebacker with broken bones and still chased down every quarterback in sight. Nothing stopped him, except for the cocaine. And he maintains he kicked the habit by playing golf. He actually said that.
You can't picture Smith making similar testimony. He, too, had a drug problem, which he says he deeply regrets and will never happen again. He comes to an interview to pour out his heart, and he talked the other day about his father, who lay sick in a hospital with a breathing attack. His dad has emphysema and has had four heart attacks and is, Smith says, "the best man I've ever known."
It was the father who encouraged the overweight son to work through the pain and make something of himself. It was the father who came home from work tired, but not too tired to work out with the son who wanted so much to change his life.
"My heart is with my father," Smith said. "It's hard to think about anything else."
And yet, he hung around to fill all the interview requests, a process he says he loves. He loves the attention. And it's easy enough to figure out why.
"I was 270 in high school," Smith said. "I was so overweight, I was always too big for the youth football leagues. The kids teased me all the time, calling me names I can't repeat. I just took it. I didn't like to fight. I'd take a butt-whipping before I'd fight. The only thing I have to say to them is, 'How do you like me now?' "
Try to imagine Taylor having his butt whipped. From his interview session, we learned two things: one, that when Taylor retires he wants to raise sheep (we'll assume he was kidding, but who knows for sure?); two, that, at age 31, he isn't about to retire yet and that he can still play as well as nearly anyone.
"I don't worry about making a lot of plays," Taylor said. "I want to make the big plays. That's what sets you apart. But nowhere is it scripted that you make the big play on this play, so you have to go all-out on every play."
Smith is similarly relentless. But, in the end, Smith is Joe Frazier to Taylor's Ali. They're both great, but only one is LT.