The Chargers can’t decide which Billy Ray Smith they like best--the solid, conservative, run-stopping inside linebacker or the flamboyant, free-wheeling, big play outside backer he was in college and dreams of being once again.
There’s room in their new defense for both. It may be that Smith will be employed as a hybrid of Matt Millen and Andre Tippett, linebackers who personify Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.
The Chargers’ indecision is pardonable. Even Smith has trouble pigeon-holing himself.
Is he really the down-to-earth, Jeep-driving son of a defensive tackle whose idea of a good time is watching Andy Griffith reruns or having a few beers with some Dallas buddies and reliving the 1977 Plano-Highland Park game?
Or is he really the more daring and expressive soul who has a Corvette in the garage, a piano in the living room and a synthesizer plugged into a computer in the music room?
The answer, of course, is that he is all of these things, and more. Ever since he set out back in grade school to follow his daddy into pro football, Smith has armored himself with a rippling physique, a congenial, low-key outlook and a self-censoring style that prevents his essence from ever leaking out.
The dichotomy is further illustrated by Smith’s relationship to his music, which is his chief creative outlet.
“Being from Texas, I’ve got a lot of country and western in me,” Smith said recently, one hand wrapped around a cheeseburger, the other around a bottle of something cold. “If I write a song, it’s hard for it not to have something about mama or a truck or a train, heartache or hell-raisin’ .”
Because Smith allows only his very closest friends to hear or read his compositions, we’ll just have to take his word for what goes into the music.
But Smith leads you to wonder if there might not be other, more sophisticated elements.
In his music room are a synthesizer, several guitars and a drum machine, all plugged into a computer, which meshes the various tracks into something arty.
“I have a computer program that helps me,” Smith said. “It’s sequencing software, which allows me to record a bass line, then another track and drums. The computer allows me to play real slow, then sync it up to the right speed.”
Smith tends to be overly modest about his music, saying it’s just something he enjoys to loosen up his fingers after a game.
Clearly, though, it’s more than that. He’s been playing since fourth grade.
The trombone came first. Later, he took up the bass and starred in a high school band called “Captain Alphonso and the Nocturnal Moondogs.”
The Moondogs played the seventh- and eighth-grade dance circuit, with Smith laying down the heavy bass line.
He has since branched out into keyboards and drums, but maybe he’s lost something by giving up his specialty. He doesn’t have the confidence in one instrument to perform in public, as does fellow linebacker Linden King.
“I couldn’t make it playing a Fender bass and singing ‘Vaya Con Dios’ in a lounge at some Holiday Inn,” Smith said.
If Smith can’t decide whether he should be emulating Willie Nelson or John Fogerty, that’s fine. Music is not his chosen profession. The stakes are much greater in football.
The Chargers are the ones who have to make up their minds what kind of linebacker they want him to be. Smith will take it from there.
He’s going to push himself to the limit whether he remains for a fourth season at inside linebacker, or moves to the outside in the risk-taking, make-something-happen scheme of new defensive coordinator Ron Lynn.
“I get tunnel vision during football season,” Smith said. “I’m not nearly as relaxed as I am this time of year. I can’t help it--football is my job. And I think it’s a privilege to be in this occupation. If we’re under the microscope, I accept that.”
There are echoes of Steve Garvey in that statement, and a similar ingrained set of perfectionist standards.
“The way I was raised it’s almost like Pavlov,” Smith said. “If I screw up, I want to cover my backside. My parents were just so disciplined. But that has worked to my advantage, I’m not complaining.”
It worked to his advantage in his rookie season when Smith, who had been the first defensive player selected in the 1983 draft, proved to be more human than, oh, Lawrence Taylor, a player some critics expected him to emulate.
“The first couple of months showed me I really would have to work and bust my fanny, that nothing would be handed to me,” Smith said, in what amounts to an emotional outburst.
Three seasons have passed, and with them, much of Smith’s awkwardness as an inside linebacker. If he’s still less than Pro-Bowl caliber in his pass drops, Smith has come to be regarded as the most reliable of the Charger defensive players.
Lynn has visions of turning Smith loose, letting him roam from sideline to sideline and letting him chase the quarterback to boot. All those things he did so well as a dominating college player at the University of Arkansas were repressed by the Chargers for three years. But this is a new era.
“I’m not getting my hopes up,” Smith said. “For almost any linebacker, it would be like a dream to be able to move around . . . but I have to accept whatever role they give me. That’s what being a team player is all about.
“I don’t think I’ve lost any of the skills I had in college, but I really don’t have a preference, because I have learned a lot about playing the inside position. Still, there’s nothing like making sacks and plays in the backfield. That’s more exciting than standing in the middle and waiting for blockers or runners.”
Lynn is ambivalent, too.
San Diego’s new defensive chief is concerned about getting more productivity from Smith without diminishing his overall value.
“Billy Ray is our strength in the middle,” Lynn said. “We really don’t have the solid foundation we need in the middle, and if we move Billy, who would replace him? We don’t have the answers yet.
“We know a lot about Billy Ray, though. He has leadership characteristics and inherent football intelligence, and we sure want to have him on the field as much as we can. We’re going to work like heck to improve his coverage and rush skills so we can keep him out there in all situations.”
Lynn’s defense will put a premium on big plays. What remains to be decided is whether it will be Smith or a rookie who is asked to make them.
Smith isn’t going to come right out and petition for the assignment, but it’s obvious he won’t shrink it from it, either. He certainly doesn’t fear extra pressure.
“Pressure is just something people invent in their minds,” he said.
It can be external in origin, too. When Coach Don Coryell recently said that Smith was the only Charger linebacker whose play did not disappoint him last year, Smith might have been expected to feel a bit of pressure from teammates.
“I’m good enough friends with the other guys that it won’t affect the way we get along,” Smith said. “Heck, this is the off-season. By the end of training camp, I may be the only linebacker they are disappointed in.
“I’m not going to waste any time worrying about what’s in the newspapers. Bad press belongs in the same place as good press--the garbage can.”
If Smith has learned to shrug off criticism from fans and media, he’ll always have to answer to his father, Billy Ray Smith Sr.
“Dad helps me keep everything in perspective,” Smith said. “He knows the highs and lows of this game. He played 13 years, never made more than $35,000 in a season, and needs to have both his hips replaced. But you’ll never hear him express any regrets about his time in pro football.
“Dad played the game for the joy of competing one-on-one . . . for that gladiator instinct that’s still in some of us. He’s prepared me all the way through my career, and he’s been behind me all the way. I never had a problem being compared to him. I guess I could have been a Ping-Pong player, and he’d have been just as proud of me.”
Perhaps he could even have been a cello player and put on a tuxedo instead of shoulder pads. Then again, he probably would have had trouble owning up to Captain Alphonso and the Nocturnal Moondogs.