Gold Jacket Spotlight: Bruce Smith’s stair climb to ‘football heaven’ – Pro Football Hall of Fame

In an episode of “A Football Life,” BRUCE SMITH said he weighed “about 290” when he arrived in Buffalo in 1985 after being the overall No. 1 selection in that year’s draft.  

“I got up to 310 pounds,” he added.

Rusty Jones, at the time the Bills’ strength and conditioning coach, realized Bruce’s opportunity for success in the NFL could be hindered by excess weight. He observed in the same documentary, “He realized you couldn’t get to the passer in 2 to 3 seconds by lugging a weighted vest on you.”

Jones added that Bruce “had so much self-pride that I don’t think he wanted to embarrass himself being a No. 1 pick in this league and being a bust.” 

So the coach introduced Bruce to the stair climber — a machine described as a piece of equipment that “translates to running. It would be like running without running.”

According to Jones, Bruce “liked it, got on it and went crazy on it. He would rust the chains. He would sweat so much the chains would become rusty.”

Described as “a warrior” on the machine, Bruce’s path to Canton is recounted this week in the Gold Jacket Spotlight. 

“Wherever he goes, Smith finds one of those machines and rides it like a cowboy on a steer,” Rick Telander wrote. “He punches in the numbers given him by Bills strength coach Rusty Jones, overriding the normal computerized program, and for 20 or 30 minutes he is possessed.”

Bruce, who played much of his career at about 265 pounds, called the stair climber “a life saver for me.”

A short-term impact of the effort was Bruce’s recognition as AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1985. Long term, Bruce’s commitment to the workout regime was instrumental in the defensive lineman performing for 19 NFL seasons.

During that nearly two-decade career, Bruce recorded 10 or more sacks in 13 seasons, was considered a first- or second-team All-Pro 11 times and was selected to 11 Pro Bowls.

In 1990 and 1996, he was recognized as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1980s and again for the 1990s.

“To me, he’s the best defensive lineman in football today,” future Hall of Fame quarterback JOHN ELWAY proclaimed during his playing career. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody with the power and the speed and the ability to play both run and pass as well as he does.”

Since retiring following the 2003 season, Bruce remains the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 76 different quarterbacks, including Elway, are among that record number.

Sportswriter Douglas S. Looney once wrote that Bruce “still lights up when he gets to talking sacks.”

“I get the quarterback in my eyes and in my scope and I can’t wait to pull the trigger. Then I think, ‘Man I can’t wait to do it again.’ What I like is being a gladiator, to dominate and prevail,” Bruce told Looney in the written piece titled, “Shuffled down in Buffalo.”

Former Bills All-Pro center Kent Hull said of Bruce: “His speed around the corner is unreal. And if you move out, he’ll take one step upfield, spin inside and he’s gone. I think he’s double-jointed. He’ll line up over me, and I’ll try to hit him, and there’s nothing there. He’s going back and coming forward at the same time. I can’t even explain it. There’s no way a human being should do what he does.”

When asked about achieving the career sacks record, Bruce told NFL Films, “To overcome all the training camps, the blood, the sweat, tears, the disappointments, it felt pretty damn good. It really did.”

In 2009, Bruce completed his ascent to football heaven, when he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.


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