Smith Finally Gets a Tackle . . . and Some Mental Relief

When you're Billy Ray Smith, and you're supposed to be one of the top linebackers in the National Football League, and it's four games into the season and you haven't made a tackle yet, well, you can go a little nutty.

You thought the Charger offense was frustrated in a 12-0 loss to the Denver Broncos Sunday? Now you know how Smith, who has been on the sideline since the first quarter of the season opener, has been feeling.

On the third play of the game against Denver, Smith stepped on the field at his linebacker Midway through the second quarter, he made his first tackle. Since he didn't have a tackle before re-injuring his calf against the Raiders on opening day, this was a first for 1988.

By game's end, Smith had two tackles and an assist. Hardly headline news, but good news nonetheless for a Charger defense that is playing pretty well.

"Getting in there and playing was something I really needed," Smith said. "I was ready to lose my mind."

For the past three weeks, the only thing Smith has carried on the field has been a clipboard. The Chargers' most valuable player of 1987 had been turned into a defensive chart-taker because of a calf injury that just wouldn't go away.

"It still isn't 100%," Smith said. "I was a step slow out there. The leg's kind of weak. There were some plays I should have made that I didn't."

Smith's first extensive outing of the season was limited to passing situations because the Chargers didn't want to rush him back too quickly.

"If he gets fatigued, he can pull something again," Ron Lynn, defensive coordinator, said. "We had it in mind for him to play when he did and he did what we expected. We'll see how much more he can play next week."

Smith first injured his calf during the exhibition season and missed the Chargers' final two games. He returned to start the season opener in Los Angeles, but obviously, wasn't quite ready yet.

"The thing that's bad is that I just hate to sit out and watch my teammates play," Smith said. "I remember I broke my arm in sixth grade and I missed a bunch of games for my sixth-grade team. I didn't like that, either."

The inactivity, along with the injury, has caused Smith to play at a level below normal.

For instance, his first tackle Sunday came after Denver's Vance Johnson caught a pass for 9 yards on a third-and-8 play from the Charger 28.

"You're supposed to do your job out there and getting beat for a first down isn't part of that job," Smith said.

Neither is carrying a clipboard.

"I'll never do that again, I hope," Smith said. "I can't put this game down as one of my all-time greats, but it was great to get back in there."

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