It wasn't until he was in junior high that Billy Smith, the top-rated defensive player in next week's NFL draft, began signing his name Billy Ray Smith Jr. "I'd started improving athletically," says the son of the former NFL defensive tackle, "and I realized what might be ahead of me. I'd always had a reverence for the name Billy Ray Smith. Billy alone isn't very violent sounding. It sounds like the kind of guy who might spend all his time discussing Thoreau."
Billy Ray Smith Sr., now 48 and the branch manager of the Dallas office of an investment banking firm, doesn't agree with his son. The elder Smith was at training camp with the Baltimore Colts in 1961 when his second son was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His other son, born four years earlier, had been named Kevin Bruce. After that had come the first of his two daughters. Shelly. (The other, Shannon, was born in 1965.) Billy Ray Sr. had declared from the start that nobody in the Smith family, regardless of sex, was going to be named Billy Ray again. The name would end with him.
Then his father-in-law called to say the new baby had arrived. What had his wife, Carroll, named the boy? Billy Ray Smith Jr.
"I wish you hadn't done that," said Billy Ray Sr. later to his wife. "Life's hard enough as it is. A name like that'll teach you to fight."
But it didn't. What it did was make the boy proud—and eager to follow in his father's footsteps. Now he appears to be more than ready to fill his dad's shoes, which, by the way, are size 14. A four-year starter at various defensive line positions at Arkansas and a two-time All-America, Billy Ray Jr. was the winner of the Washington Touchdown Club Defensive Player of the Year Award for '82. In the words of University of Houston Coach Bill Yeoman, he's "just a freak of nature." At 6'3" and a weight that's climbing steadily from last season's 232 pounds, Billy Ray Jr., 21, is still smaller than Dad, who goes 6'4½", 250 pounds in his blue business suit. But he's faster than Dad ever was, and quicker, and stronger, and maybe smarter.
"An unusual boy. Very unusual," says Billy Ray Sr., who also played at Arkansas, before spending 13 years in the NFL with the Rams, Steelers and Colts. "If you ever show him why something happens, you don't have to show him again. I bet he'd score as high on an IQ test as any coach anywhere."
In fact, one NFL team has given Billy Ray Jr. an IQ test, but the club will say nothing about the results except that he scored "above 120." Smarts, at least of the football variety, are an important factor at draft time, and Billy Ray has them in abundance. As a stand-up defensive end, which he played his last two seasons at Arkansas, Smith seemed to be guided to the ball by something other than sight and sound. He would get off the snap so fast and move so unerringly toward the action that teams routinely assigned two linemen to keep him away. Last season Texas A&M used an offensive tackle as a tight end to help block Smith. "He was huge, all padded up, with thick gloves on," recalls Billy Ray Jr. "Of course, it meant they'd taken a receiver out of their pass patterns. But I thought it was a pretty good idea."
Navy added another twist to the double-team. The Midshipmen doubled up on Smith in the usual fashion, but if Smith got past one of the blockers, the other tried to tackle him. Yet despite these obstacles, Billy Ray set career records at Arkansas with 63 tackles behind the line for 343 yards in losses.
After high bench-press totals, low 40-yard times and incomprehensible neck sizes, pro scouts love "intangibles" most. That's why they covet Smith. "I think he'll have the same impact on his team as Lawrence Taylor had on the Giants two years ago," says Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' vice-president for personnel development. Brandt, like others, feels Smith will be the first defensive player taken in the draft, possibly right after everybody's first choice, Stanford Quarterback John Elway. Brandt sees Smith converting to linebacker in the NFL, probably on the outside, a position that would utilize Smith's blitzing abilities while protecting him from the heavies inside. Still, all the scouts note, it's Smith's personality that makes him the exceptional prize.
"He's one of the classiest people I've ever been around," says Brandt. "In the NFL you can take bad characters and use them—if you're winning. But when you're losing three straight, they're the ones who'll complain about the coach, the food, the speed of the airplane. Billy Ray's beyond that. He's a leader."
The Oakland Invaders picked Smith in the first round of the USFL draft this year, for the same reasons the NFL is after him. Invader owner Tad Taube has vivid images of Billy Ray Smith, USFL star. "I see him as a player I could build my whole defense around, like the quarterback on offense," says Taube. So far Smith and his agent, Cleveland attorney George Kalafatis, have said neither yes nor no to Oakland, preferring to wait and see what Smith can fetch in the NFL.
Despite the football dealings going on around him, Billy Ray Jr. isn't at this moment thinking about sports. He's seated on a couch in the Houston home of Cynthia and John Dickinson, holding the hand of 20-year-old Nina (pronounced NINE-a) Dickinson and thinking about marriage. Nina is a stunner, one of those blonde Texas girls who seem to have longer legs and whiter teeth than normal humans. She and Billy Ray met at Arkansas several months ago, fell in love and are now engaged. They have flown to Houston to talk about their wedding plans with Nina's parents.
Billy Ray, who admits to being "kind of old-fashioned," had called the Dickinsons several weeks before to ask for Nina's hand. He did this even before asking Nina if she'd marry him. The couple is planning an Oct. 3 wedding, and the Dickinsons plainly are thrilled that their son-in-law will be a pro football player—a courteous, humble one at that. Cynthia, an elegant, impeccably dressed woman, admits that she and the rest of the family have always been big football fans. Nina chirps in that she watched the 1971 Super Bowl and remembers seeing Billy Ray Smith Sr. play in the game, the last before his retirement.
But pro football has its negative aspects, too. Indeed, it was Billy Ray Sr. who had called earlier in the day to bring up one of them. Billy Ray Jr. and Nina couldn't get married in October, he told Mrs. Dickinson, because no pro team would let Billy Ray Jr. off during the season. "The only possible day is a Monday," he said. "And even then, Billy might have a night game." Billy Ray Sr. then suggested that the couple wait a while before getting hitched. "What about December?" he asked Mrs. Dickinson. "Love should last sixty more days, shouldn't it?"
It was partly because his own marriage of 25 years ended in divorce two years ago that the elder Smith was urging his son to go slow. But Billy Ray Jr., who remains close to both his mother and father, would not bend. "I guess I'll have to have it written in my contract that I get two days off in the fall," he said.
Not long after he played in the Senior Bowl in January Billy Ray dropped out of school, despite having a B— average. With many awards banquets and pro camps to visit, he decided he'd have to re-enroll at Arkansas after his first pro season for his final semester toward a degree in finance and banking. It was a practical decision, but also an emotional one. It was time, Billy Ray felt, for him to earn his own keep, to become his own man, to break away from Dad.
Arkansas Head Coach Lou Holtz, who calls Billy Ray Jr. "the best football player I've ever been around," as well as "a joy to coach," "a complete person" and "an 11 on a scale of 10," admits that Smith came to Fayetteville pretty much fully packaged four years ago. Fundamental skills, agility, intellect, dedication—it was all there. Everything but beef: Smith was almost skinny as a freshman. But most significant, feels Holtz, was that Smith's attitude was already firmly developed. "I didn't say any of this while he was playing because I don't like to do that," says Holtz. "But Billy Ray is a universal donor. We have lots of universal recipients in the world, people who take from everybody. But Billy Ray is a donor, a person who gives to everybody just through his habits."
And who's responsible for this?
"His dad, really," says Holtz. "I don't think you can give him enough credit."
The irony, of course, is that once you take away the obvious similarities between father and son—size, athletic skill, noses, lower lips, names—you get two very different people. It's hard to figure how Billy Ray Sr. could have made Billy Ray Jr. The elder Smith's background alone separates him from most people. Raised in Augusta, Ark., a farm town close by Bald Knob and Pumpkin Bend, Billy Ray Sr. had to scratch for everything he got. "My dad had a third-grade education," Billy Ray Sr. says. "I used to say, 'I can't do it,' and he'd say, 'You mean, you can't hardly do it.' "
Size and brute strength were two vital elements in Billy Ray Sr.'s daily life. He became a boxer (Golden Gloves, NCAA and AAU) and a barroom brawler, and when his father, J.D., would ask, "When do you give up?" he'd answer, "Never!" When carnivals came to town and barkers asked if anybody thought they could whip their fighters, J.D. would yell, "I know somebody who can!" And Billy Ray would climb into the ring.
At Arkansas Billy Ray Sr. was a fierce all-conference defensive end on the field and a hell-raiser off it. Midway through his junior year he was kicked off the team for breaking curfew. As a pro he was a member of the old school of tough guys—those thick-bellied, underpaid, crew-cut fighters in black high-tops who seemed to play out of equal parts of meanness and pride. Smith hated to lose. When the Colts were upset by the New York Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl, he became, in his words, "hard to live with for a while." Billy Ray Jr. was at that game, and he remembers his father staring off oddly afterward, acting "differently than I've ever seen him before or since."
When the Colts returned to the Super Bowl to play the Cowboys in 1971, Billy Ray Sr. was a battered 35-year-old and ready to quit. But he wanted to go out a winner. Just after the half the Cowboys, leading 13-6, fumbled at the Baltimore goal line. Dallas Center Dave Manders later claimed he recovered the ball, with Smith and another Colt, Mike Curtis, falling on top of him. Manders said Smith began screaming in a convincing voice that the Colts had the ball and the referee believed him. Without that turnover Dallas almost certainly would have scored for a 20-6 lead. As it happened, the Cowboys did not score again, and Baltimore went on to win 16-13 on a field goal in the last five seconds.
As a boy Billy Ray Jr. used to visit his father at the Colts' training camp, which was just down the road from the family's home in Westminster, Md. Every year on his birthday, Aug. 10, he even got to spend the night at the camp. Billy Ray Jr. remembers a few things from those visits—that Dad's roommate, Bubba Smith, was frighteningly huge; that he once asked Colt Center Dick Szymanski if he were Johnny Unitas—but mostly the images are blurred. "I really didn't realize how privileged I was," he says. Privilege, indeed, is one of those things that often goes unnoticed in its passage from father to son. It was one of the things Billy Ray Sr. gave his family, and then wondered if he should have.
"Billy hasn't had the chance to fight in barrooms like I did," says Dad with something approaching regret. Billy Ray Sr. tried to get Billy Ray Jr. into boxing once, but the youngster rejected the sport. "I'm not as violent as he is," says Billy Ray Jr. "I don't like fights. Whenever I got in a fight in high school, I'd just hold the guy until the principal came."
The biggest privilege father provided for son was the chance to spend his junior high and high school years in Piano, Texas, a booming, middle-class, sports-minded Dallas suburb. Billy Ray Sr. moved the family there from Maryland in 1971. Billy Ray Jr. blossomed as an athlete in Piano, excelling in sports as disparate as baseball, swimming and soccer. The Piano football system, a sophisticated program that features a 15,000-seat, synthetic-turf stadium, modern weight and training rooms and many coaches, quickly fine-tuned Billy Ray's football skills. By the time he graduated from Piano Senior High, Billy Ray had twice played for the Texas State 4A Championship, with one of those games taking place in Texas Stadium before nearly 50,000 people.
Billy Ray Sr. gave his son a few pointers now and then, but he didn't interfere with the Piano program. "I've just seen too many boys ruined by their fathers," Billy Ray Sr. says. He couldn't help being perplexed, however, as he watched his son turn into a finesse player who got the job done through agility and craft rather than emotion and force.
"Billy never gets mad playing football. He's unusual" the father said recently in his Dallas office. Behind him a green computer screen blinked stock prices. Next to him was his folded sports coat, size 52 long. Around him curled a blue haze of cigar smoke. He used to chew tobacco. Billy Ray Jr. remembers that you could tell the Smith family car by the brown streaks running from the driver's door to the rear bumper.
The big man shook his head and smiled. "Now I used to get mad," he said. "When SMU beat Arkansas up in Fayetteville two years ago, I was so mad that I cried in the locker room. And Billy Ray just looked at me and said, 'Aw Dad.' "
Says Billy Ray Jr., "Dad is, well, the quintessential country boy, a great lesson in what football can do for you. He had it hard, and I had an easy ride. If I'd gone through what he did, I'd probably be a lot like him."
In fact, Billy Ray Jr. may be more like Carroll, a lively, musically talented woman who works as a purchasing secretary for the Piano schools. She is usually given credit for her son's musical gifts—he can play the piano, bass guitar and trombone—but she wonders how much anybody had to do with his character. "All of our children are different," she says. "Our older son is more like his dad in a lot of ways. But Billy has always been so good-natured and poised, so filled with confidence. He just showed up smiling. And nobody can take credit for that."
As draft day has gotten closer, Smith has for the most part stayed at his apartment in Fayetteville and worked out daily with teammate Steve Korte, an All-America guard. The two have been lifting weights feverishly and running to improve their speed. Smith was a linebacker in the Senior Bowl and impressed all the scouts with his savvy at a position he'd never played. But there was minor concern among the scouts that he might not be heavy enough or fast enough to dominate in the big league. Last season he played at as low as 228 pounds; his 40 time was supposedly about 4.9, a little slow for an outside linebacker.
Under Korte's guidance Smith is now bench-pressing 405 pounds and has bulked up noticeably with what scouts call "good weight." More important, the extra muscle has made him quicker. As word of Smith's character spread through the scouting ranks, his stock rose. Now it may surge higher, if that is possible, when word gets out about his latest progress.
A week ago a Dallas scout visited Fayetteville and weighed Smith in at 243. He timed Smith at 4.65. "Isn't that something?" marvels Brandt. "If it'd been anybody else, I'd say they cheated. But not Billy Ray Smith."
Billy Ray Sr. (74) was a horse for the Colts for nine seasons.
At Arkansas Billy Ray Jr. was a defensive end, but he'll play linebacker in the pros.
Love's in bloom for Smith, who thinks his future bride is perfect on a scale of Nina.
Smith got all of his musical talent from Mom, not Dad.
With some help from Korte, Smith has beefed up.