|Appreciation: Billy Ray Smith
Those Were the Times And We Lived Em
If you've got Billy Ray on your side, well, you don't have much to worry about.
-Paul Horning, circa 1963
The Billy Ray the Green Bay Packers All-American was talking of was none other than strapping Billy Ray Smith, the defensive lineman for the Colts of Baltimore back when the city had a football team of which it could be legitimately proud - both on the field and off.
Horning, who came out of Notre Dame, was seated at the other side of a table in the old Falstaff Room of Baltimore's Belvedere Hotel. The hour was late. Matter of fact, it was early on a Sunday morning, well past team curfew, and the beginning of a day when Vince Lombardi's Packers would trounce the Colts at Memorial Stadium in a fog-shrouded game as Horning ran wild.
You'd have thought the Golden Boy had had a good night's rest, but he was probably in the sack at his hotel for no more than several hours. He liked to party as much as he liked to run with the ball or catch a pass or score a touchdown.
Somehow, he always seemed to cruise below strict disciplinarian Lombardi's radar. But then again, seeing that the coach's motto was winning is everything - and Horning was among the best of all time at winning - maybe Vince figured late-night escapades were the player's way of working up to a big game.
A fan from Green Bay had introduced us a few hours earlier. More drinks than I care to admit had been consumed before we shook hands, and many more went down the hatch before they closed the doors of the Falstaff Room, which later became the popular Owl Bar. We talked about life in the big cities, which Green Bay wasn't and still isn't.
I mentioned that I felt secure on the streets of Baltimore doing the rounds of taprooms, day or night, any street, any neighborhood, when in the company of Billy Ray, which I not infrequently was. No one in their right mind would challenge Billy Ray, or anyone with him. He feared nothing and didn't look for trouble. But if it came his way or the way of a friend, he could be as tenacious as a pit bull.
The passing of Billy Ray, old No. 74, last week of cancer at age 66 in Little Rock, Ark., brought back many memories of my friend, who one didn't refer to as Billy Ray. It was either "Rabbit" or "Billyray," one word, thank you. I was "Burton." I don't recall him ever using my first name.
Billy Ray loved fishing, any kind of fishing, so Johnny Unitas, who also fished a good bit, introduced us. We hit it off from the beginning. I knew where the good fishing was and as outdoor editor of the Sun papers had access to some of the best farm ponds anywhere.
It was a two-way deal. When I had Billy Ray in tow, I had someone husky enough to carry in one hand all the tackle boxes and gear I'm noted for carting around. If need be, in the other hand he could tote the skiff and the outboard.
No sophisticated fishing for Billy Ray. He was proud to be a country boy, and at heart would always remain one - whether fishing, hunting or doing anything else. He had the proverbial heart of gold, could take a joke as well as play one, and was intensely loyal.
We met last in the early '90s, when he returned to Baltimore to be roasted at the annual Saints & Sinners roast, and I was among the roasters. As we parted, he insisted I go to Arkansas to spend a few days duck hunting with him, and I promised I would. But we all know how things like that work out.
It was something I was going to do someday but never got around to, much as I wanted to share a spell with an old friend reliving the days afield when we were both younger and packed with vim and vigor. And now, it's too late, and the mallards wintering in Bill Clinton's home state need not worry about either of us.
As contemporary linemen on the gridiron go, Billy Ray wasn't big. He weighed only a bit more than 235, but he was tenacious, tough and spirited. Nothing could intimidate him. He accomplished whatever he set out to do, whether in sports (he was also a Golden Glove champ), business or whatever. His self-confidence was awesome.
We'd be on the Chesapeake fishing, and even when the fish were biting, he'd take a break, open his briefcase and start working on papers associated with his then off-season job as a broker for then-Alex Brown in Baltimore. He intended to succeed in business, and he did after his retirement from the Colts in 1971 following a big Super Bowl win.
But he loved to have fun, to party, to enjoy people. There was the time when we toured the old Washington Boat Show in the early '60s and struck up a conversation with a performer who tossed tomahawks and knives at a target on a big rotating wheel to which an attractive and scantily clad lass was strapped. We had a few beers, and then a few more, and before we knew it, the show's promoter wisely canceled the evening's center stage performance.
Jovial Billy Ray convinced him he should join his star, himself and me for more frivolity, and at the crack of dawn we took him yellow perch fishing at Wye Landing. In parting, he only asked that Billy Ray and I not attend the show during the remainder of its run.
There was another time when fishing with Capt. Buddy Harrison that Billy Ray caught an awesome rockfish, but stripers of more than 15 pounds couldn't be kept at the time, so I informed him it would have to go back. "No way, it's the biggest fish I ever caught," responded Billy Ray. I persisted. "Me being on a boat with an illegal fish would be like you caught in a bookie joint," said I. "Put the fish back."
Billy Ray's head was big, and he stuck all of it in my face. "Burton, are you big enough to put that fish back?" I will leave it to your imagination how that scenario ended. Capt. Buddy Harrison was the only other witness, and he still ain't talking.
In the wee hours of the late '60s, Billy Ray, teammate Freddie Miller and I were partying before a sunrise offshore trip to chase bluefish. At the time I had my beard, which not infrequently during the hippie, anti-war demonstration era prompted spontaneous and rather uncomplimentary comments.
We were walking a street between waterfront back-bay bars when out of one stepped a burly, intoxicated and intimidating commercial fisherman who spied my facial growth. Glaring in a most aggressive way, he began to tell me what he thought of anyone who sported a beard - when from behind me came my two companions.
Billy Ray grasped one of his elbows, Freddie, the other, and before he knew it he was hoisted aloft and treading air, and Billy Ray was in his face demanding, "What were you saying about my friend Burton's beard?"
As my antagonist scampered away, I decided never again to shave, not as long as Billy Ray was around, and I haven't. And now Billy Ray is gone, and I miss him.