ADVERTISEMENT


IT WAS one of those moments when time is placed on hold, that annoying delay between "hello" and the point when you discover whether the news is good or bad.

There were just 25 seconds remaining to play in this mean, nasty 6-6 game. The Jets had dispatched veteran kicker Pat Leahy to break the tie.

The New Yorkers wanted this victory badly. Or, to be accurate, they wanted to avoid being the straight man at the Bills' celebration as the champions of the AFC East. The job went to the most reliable kicker in Jets' history. Approaching this 40-yard field goal, Leahy had succeeded on 47 of his last 49 tries from this distance or closer.

The Bills called time out with the idea of intensifying the pressure on Leahy, but that was a mere formality. The 37-year-old Leahy has been drawing paychecks for more than 14 years because of his dependability in situations like this.

THOSE OF little faith might have written off this game, mentally assigning the Bills' clinching of the title to another time.

Fred Smerlas was not among them.

"For some strange reason," said Smerlas, "I had a feeling that I would have a shot at the kick. I don't know why.

"But on Leahy's previous field goal, I came fairly close. I thought if I had only turned my body, I might have blocked that one.

"This time I decided to turn my body. To tell you the truth, even before he kicked, I didn't think the Jets were going to make it. I just had this feeling."

Leahy's instep hit the ball cleanly and solidly. But that sound was engulfed by another one. Smerlas had worked his huge body through the Jets' protective wall, raised his large left paw and jumped. The crowd rocked Rich with its roar.

How high did you leap, Freddie?

"High enough to block the kick."

High enough and determined enough to save the game for the Bills; high enough to preserve the opportunity to clinch the championship at home; high enough to pump up his fatigued teammates for some additional scratching toward victory.

When it was all over, Smerlas watched the wild scene on the field, with the fans laying waste to the goal posts, for a few satisfying minutes, then retreated to the locker room for some quiet moments.

The post-victory Freddie is predictable, flowing with good cheer and wisecracks: "Whenever they have to have one they say, 'Hey Fred, we need one blocked' . . . Marv put a dollar bill on that ball and I grabbed it. House (Howard Ballard) would have blocked it if there had been barbecue sauce on the ball."

But there is more to Smerlas than the good cheer and the jokes. He is more than a Bills' elder statesman on a defense that has allowed only one touchdown in its last four games, a member of the franchise's all-time team. He is the team historian, too.

"REMEMBER HOW it was in this locker room when we were 2-14?" he asked. "You could walk through the room without touching anyone. The only guy taking pictures in here then was my father, Harry."

Harry Smerlas was there late Sunday afternoon, planting a victory kiss on his son's stubbly face. Harry and his family drive from the Boston, Mass., area for almost all of the Bills' home games, many of which they suffered through. They suffered through Fred's college days, too, when he played on an 0-11 Boston College team.

"Today was exciting and I guess we deserve some excitement," said Harry. "I didn't know what happened on that field goal. I just saw Fred jump."

Fred jumped and landed on the title.

"All during this game I kept thinking of last year when we needed to beat the Patriots to win the division championship and we didn't," said Smerlas.

"I think that's what motivated us, the loss to New England last year. We all knew we should have won the game and the champion ship, but we didn't.

"When we came to training camp this summer, we all said, 'Hey! We're even better than we were at the end of last season!' "

But the first half of Sunday's game was a lot like the 1987 loss to New England. The Bills seemed one part preoccupied and one part wound too tightly.

"We were arguing instead of playing," said Smerlas. "Instead of telling the refs to watch for stuff, we were talking to them like they would change their minds. Once a bad call is made, it's gone. Forget it.

"In the second half, we didn't argue, we played."

Played. And jumped. And blocked a field goal. And won a championship.

"We're the champions of the East now, but we want to be champions of everything," announced Smerlas.

"We have the little pebble now, but we need the whole boulder."