No sacking the tears

Everyone knew that Bruce Smith would be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, including Smith himself.

The NFL's career sacks leader, he was that good, that dominant. And among a group of 17 finalists, Smith was the one sure thing, first year of eligibility notwithstanding.

But advance notice couldn't prepare him for the moment on the eve of tonight's Super Bowl, a game in which Smith appeared four times.

Waiting to be called onto the podium, the fifth Hampton Roads native voted to the Hall by the media-selection committee wiped away tears with the back of his right hand. He hugged his former Buffalo Bills coach, Hall of Famer Marv Levy, and other well-wishers.

Finally, Smith went the tissue route, dabbing at both eyes before ascending the stage.

"Bear with me," he told a standing-room-only convention-hall and cable-television audience.

Smith explained that during a weight-lifting workout Saturday morning he began thinking of his late father, George, and the sacrifices he made for his family. George Smith drove a truck, and his wife, Annie Lee, toiled in a plastics factory.

Those memories prompted Smith's emotions.

"I cry not because I'm less than a man but because I am a man," Smith said.

Smith also thanked his teammates, coaches, wife and son.

"As I look into his eyes," Smith said of his son, "I see generations of the past and generations of the future, and I hope one day greatness falls on his shoulders as well."

Smith's football greatness is well documented. A graduate of Norfolk's Booker T. Washington High, he was an All-American at Virginia Tech and the first pick of the 1985 NFL draft by the Bills.

A 6-foot-4, 280-pound defensive end, he played 19 NFL seasons, 15 with Buffalo and four with the Washington Redskins, before retiring in 2003. He earned 11 Pro Bowl invitations and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards while recording a record 200 sacks.

"He is so strong," Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon once said, "that he can bulldoze over you."

"He smiled at practice and he smiled at games," Levy said, "and he had reason to given the way he played."

As Levy greeted Smith, he joked, "You have reason to celebrate. There will be no curfew tonight."

Levy wasn't the only coach Smith acknowledged during his acceptance. He had warm words for his high school football and basketball coaches, Cal Davidson and Zeke Avery.

"They saw more in me than I saw in myself," Smith said. "I'm just so blessed."

Smith also relayed a message to Norfolk's young people.

"There's a special talent inside each and every one of you," he said.

Smith, 45 and a Norfolk-based real estate developer, is part of a six-man class that also includes Ralph Wilson, the Bills' 90-year-old founder and owner. They will be inducted Aug. 8 in Canton, Ohio.

The following day, Buffalo and Tennessee will play in the Hall of Fame exhibition game.

"Since this fella left us, we haven't done so good," Wilson said, patting Smith on the shoulder. "He won so many games for us."

During Smith's prime, from 1990-93, Buffalo became the only team to reach four consecutive Super Bowls. The Bills lost them all, but the core of those teams could use its own wing in Canton.

Smith and Wilson join Levy, quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and receiver James Lofton in Canton.

That contingent exceeds Hampton Roads' by one. Previous local inductees were Portsmouth's Ace Parker, Newport News' Henry Jordan, Hampton's Dwight Stephenson and Williamsburg's Lawrence Taylor.

Among the finalists not elected was Cardinals offensive line coach and former Redskins guard Russ Grimm. He started on each of Washington's three Super Bowl champions.