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SUPER BOWL XXII : The Agony: Smith Hopes Ecstasy of Winning Is Next

January 26, 1988|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

As left ring fingers go, this one has all the charm of something you'd see in the latest slice-and-dice movie. It hurts just looking at it, what with the swelling and blood and all sorts of other ghastly things oozing from it. In fact, where are Jamie Lee Curtis and her scream when you need them?

So battered is Dennis Smith's finger that Denver Broncos physicians already have recommended an artificial joint be inserted to replace what's left of the original merchandise. As it is, Smith, a two-time Pro Bowl selection from USC, won't be playing the piano anytime soon, though somehow he'll be available at strong safety this Sunday.

"My finger? No way my finger is going to keep me from playing in the game," Smith said. "My finger is about as bad as it can get."

So unsightly is Smith's digit, that even Bronco Coach Dan Reeves, who played when men supposedly were men, told reporters once that the injury "is as bad as anything I've ever seen. It's as big as two of his other fingers."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 27, 1988 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 6 Column 1 Sports Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of a computer malfunction, a few paragraphs in Gene Wojciechowski's story on Dennis Smith appeared out of sequence in some editions of Tuesday's Times.

Knees, you can understand. There are cartilage and ligaments and things that go tear in the night. Knees were never meant to play football. Knees need crutches and braces and hushed tones, like when a team trainer stops briefly to inform a coach about the injury. "It's a knee," he says, as if nothing more need be said.

But fingers? Fingers were supposed to be OK. Fingers get sprained. They get lacerated, dislocated, occasionally broken. Fingers don't need crutches. They usually can get by with a splint or two and a city block's worth of tape.

Yes, well, tell that to Smith who, as he conducts a recent interview, is gently pressing the sides of his finger. With each squeeze, a little bubble of blood pops against the bandage. He is able to do this because one of two surgical pins, implanted to hold his deteriorating joint together, is long gone. "It's so beat up," Smith said wearily. "It's depressing. I try not to let it upset me too much. I just kind of leave it alone."

Must be tough ignoring a finger the size of a basketball pump, or conveniently forgetting about those four operations this year. There was one to put the screws in, one to reset the break, one to take the screws out, one to insert two pins and also remove some scar tissue.

And that's just the finger. In a game against the Detroit Lions Nov. 1, Smith tore knee cartilage and missed a game. In a game against the Raiders Nov. 22, Smith lasted two plays before he broke his right forearm, which required an operation to insert a plate and five screws. In all, Smith played in only four full regular-season games. It also marked the first time in his seven-year career that Smith was placed on the injured reserve list.

"I always have borderline injuries where I'm out maybe a couple of weeks," he said. "This year, I've been out for a couple of months."

If it weren't for the playoffs, Smith wouldn't be here. He'd probably be in a hospital, explaining to befuddled doctors why he does what he does.

Not that he complains; he doesn't. Against the Cleveland Browns in the American Football Conference championship at Denver's Mile High Stadium, Smith was in the starting lineup.

All was fine in the first quarter. If anything, the frigid Denver weather worked in Smith's favor. "(The finger) really didn't bother me much," he said.

How come?

"Because it was frozen at the time."

But shortly before halftime, Smith glanced down at the exposed part of his finger and saw that it was a bright purple. Inside the Bronco locker room, Smith began peeling off the layers of tightly wound tape. Once exposed, he saw one of the pins poking at his skin. He moved his finger, and the pin shot through.

"So the doctor just pulled it all the way out, taped it back up and I went out there and played," he said.

Smith says all of this in a dry monotone, reciting the grisly details as if he were Joe Friday on a routine burglary case.

He has had plenty of practice. There was that knee sprain in 1983 that forced him to miss two games. A pinched nerve in his shoulder in 1984 cost him another game. He missed one 1985 game because of a pulled thigh muscle and played much of the remaining schedule with a sprained shoulder. In 1986, two games were lost because of a groin pull. The broken collarbone, he played with all season.

Now this. Now pins and screws and plates and pads. A general rule of thumb: It's never a good sign when a player needs an adjustable wrench to play.

The Broncos need Smith. Then again, the Broncos need anyone who can play strong safety. First, they lose Smith. Then they lose Smith's replacements: Randy Robbins and Mike Harden, who, strangely enough, broke his right forearm, too. "That kind of shows it's just not me, it's the nature of the position," Smith said.

Denver's defensive coaches ask the strong safety to do all sorts of things. Depending on the coverage any other way than how I felt at that time. Now I can see why people retire. Injuries, more than age, wear your body down."

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