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This story is part of Only A Game's 2019 Thanksgiving Leftovers Show. Find the full episode here.
Last winter, I was entering the second hour of what I had promised would only be a one-hour interview with TV host and former NFL player Marcellus Wiley, when I decide to ask just one more question.
"I've already run over my time, but I cannot resist," I say. "I have to have you tell me the story about Bruce Smith and his shoes."
"It's amazing — that story resonates with so many people," Wiley says. "I love it. I'm thankful for you even asking.
"I grow up. I'm a huge fan of John Elway and Eric Dickerson — John Elway, quarterback, Eric Dickerson, running back, 'cause I played that position. Loved them. But Bruce Smith was the man."
'Bad Things, Man'
Bruce Smith was the hard-hitting defensive end for the Buffalo Bills. He retired from the league in 2003 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, his first year of eligibility. He still holds the record for the most sacks in an NFL career with 200.
But, in 1994, when Wiley was playing football at Columbia — by this time, he was also a defensive end — Bruce Smith was at the top of his game, playing for a Bills team that made four Super Bowl appearances in a row.
"And I remember he had some shoes come out," Wiley says. "And they were the 'Air Bruce Smiths.' And he had a commercial with Dennis Hopper. And I remember just watching that commercial, like, 'Whoa, those shoes are fresh!' "
OK, so in this commercial — you might remember it — Dennis Hopper plays a deranged fan dressed up as a referee. And he sneaks into the Bills' locker room during a game to touch Bruce Smith’s shoes.
And as he's clutching the shoe, Hopper's character says, "You know what Bruce would do if he found me messing with his shoe, man? Ha, ha! Mmm. Bad things, man."
"I remember asking my mom, 'Can I get those shoes?' " Wiley says. "She's like, 'How much are those shoes?' I said, '$79.' She’s like, 'Boy!’ And other words — other choice words she had for me. No way I was getting those $79 shoes."
Fast forward to April 1997. Marcellus Wiley was selected in the second round of the NFL draft by none other than the Buffalo Bills.
"I was like, 'Buffalo! Bruce Smith?' " Wiley recalls. " 'Whoa, I got drafted to Buffalo with Bruce Smith? He’s the best D-end ever.' And I’m like, 'Man!' "
'A Wall Of Air Bruce Smith Shoes'
"Fast forward — I'm in the locker room of the Buffalo Bills," Wiley continues. "Fast forward — my locker is two lockers away from the Bruce Smith. And I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?' "
For Wiley, it wasn’t the name on the locker that was most exciting. It was what was inside.
"The wall, the back wall, of his locker was a wall of Air Bruce Smith shoes. Like, dozens of just — pop-pop-pop-pop-pop," Wiley says. "And I was like, 'Oh, my.' I just looked at those shoes like, 'I'm gonna take a pair of his shoes and just put 'em in my locker. That's what I'm gonna do.' "
Now look, Wiley had just signed a contract with the Bills. His first year earnings were $500,000. He could have bought himself a pair of Bruce Smith’s shoes. Heck, he could have bought himself a wall of Bruce Smith’s shoes. But, he says, it wasn’t about that. Stealing Bruce Smith’s shoes was his way of proving that he belonged in that locker room. That he belonged on the team.
"It's weird," Wiley says. "I wanted to be initiated into the Buffalo Bills gang."
So, one day, after practice, when Wiley thought he was alone in the locker room ...
"And I walked by, and I just grabbed a pair of his shoes, and I put them in my locker bin," Wiley says. "Not, like, full stealing. Because, if so, I would've took them home and just hid 'em and all that. I was just like, 'Let me just keep a memento from Bruce Smith, like, 'Bruce Smith just gave me his shoes.' "
"Except that he hadn't," I say with a laugh.
"Yeah, except he didn't, right?" Wiley says.
Details. Wiley was sure he had gotten away clean. But he hadn’t.
"Someone saw me take those shoes," Wiley says. "And it was Thurman Thomas — big mouth. Thurman had the best vantage point in the locker room. His locker was, like, right dead set in the middle, so he could see everything.
"And I remember one day shortly thereafter, Thurman's, like, just joking around, 'Hey, Bruce. Check them shoes out, man.' And Bruce was like, 'What?' He's like, 'You might be missing a pair. It might be a little light in that locker.' And Bruce just looked at his wall of shoes and then just looked at Thurman. And I was sitting there, like, just biting my nails in my mind. I'm like, 'Oh, God.' "
Bruce Smith stared over at Wiley. And Wiley says he just stared back. He didn’t know what else to do.
But Bruce Smith just laughed it off.
"He’s like, 'Ahh, nobody better be messing with my shoes. Whatever,' " Wiley recalls. "And I was like, 'Whoa!' "
The Moment Of Truth
Not long after, the two became friends. Wiley even told Smith the story about stealing his shoes.
"He was like, 'I don't care,' Wiley recalls. "But he was like, 'You could have asked for them.' And I was like, 'Yeah, it just wouldn't have felt the same.' "
"Yeah, what did it mean to you that he didn't call you out in that moment? What did that signify to you?" I ask.
"Yeah, it signified that I was a part of the Buffalo Bills. It signified that I was a part of this crew, that I was one of them," Wiley says. "Bruce is — I call him 'Pops' — he's my football family dad. Like, I could text Bruce right now and before I finished and hit send on a text, he's writing me back — like, that's my guy. Love him to death."
But here’s the thing. Those shoes that were so important to Marcellus Wiley back in 1997, when he was a rookie for the Buffalo Bills. He does’t even know where they are anymore.
"Funny as it is, I probably should have put them in a glass case and protected them," Wiley says. "But I think that was the beauty in it, that it didn't have to be just a trophy anymore. It was attainable. It was real."
Marcellus Wiley’s book is called, “Never Shut Up: The Life, Opinions and Unexpected Adventures of an NFL Outlier.” Our full interview with Marcellus Wiley aired on Jan. 5, 2019.
This segment aired on November 30, 2019.
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