This cover story, by Paul Attner, first appeared in the Nov. 4, 2002, issue of The Sporting News, under the headline “Heart and smarts”. In it, TSN asserted that it was Dallas icon Emmitt Smith’s relentless pursuit of football immortality and his knowing how to achieve it that led him to break Walter Payton’s career rushing record that week.
Rarely has any athlete relished his pursuit of history as much as Emmitt Smith. Unlike other contemporaries — Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds are exhibits 1 and 1A — Smith embraces the attention, courts the acclaim, understands the obligations generated by fame. It comes easily for him because he always has felt this is where he belongs, running with the greats.
From the time he was a rookie and told Cowboys teammate James Washington he wanted to become the league’s career leading rusher, he has prepared himself for this moment, when he would leap past Walter Payton and carve out NFL eminence. He had convinced himself he was destined for pro football immortality, and so nothing he achieves really surprises him. It is just affirmation in his mind of what he has believed all along.
Now, he’s in his element. His methodical stalking of Payton’s grand record, one of the most revered and difficult in sports, ended last Sunday against the Seahawks on a typical Smith run, a sudden 11-yard burst up the middle in the fourth quarter. It came in the eighth contest of a season in which he has been neither dominant nor young. But in one emotional moment, he stood alone, glowing with greatness.
When others saw him as too small or physically limited, Smith saw only results. Before the NFL, he always was the best runner at every level he played, and it seemed logical to him that it would be no different in the pros. Such vision has endowed him with a certain grace and awareness; he is an intriguing combination of cockiness and humbleness and wants to leave behind remarkable footprints.
Smith is a strikingly intelligent, aware, media-sophisticated athlete, the perfect man to hold such a storied record. In this era of sound bites and late-night video highlights, he is a comfortable fit. His smile is captivating, his guts venerable, his grace under adversity admirable. Amid the constant turmoil of the Cowboys, he somehow has remained above the conflicts despite an occasional contract squabble and a sly willingness to tweak ownership and coaches. He is a class act who cares about his community as much as his place among the gods.
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Now his place in NFL history is secure. His wondrous rushing numbers — 16,743 yards and 150 touchdowns, the latter also a career record — are a tribute to his natural talent, longevity, endurance and, to some extent, the pure luck that has shielded him from debilitating injuries all these years.
But think of Smith against Jim Brown or Payton or O.J. Simpson or Barry Sanders or even Eric Dickerson, and ask yourself which guy, in his prime, would I really want on my team? Probably not Smith.
His uniqueness has been carved not from constant dominance but from relentlessness. Carry after carry, game after game, season after season, methodically picking himself up and coming right back again — same speed, same determination, same pursuit, same guts. But he lacks Brown’s scary power, Simpson’s dangerous outside speed, Payton’s flair, Dickerson’s burst, Sanders’ wow. He is a singles hitter among home run sluggers.
It’s not demeaning to him to temper his standing among his brethren. Whether he’s third or fifth or eighth on the all-time list, it’s a magnificent achievement. And considering the odds against him romping into such rare territory, his is one of the most telling accomplishments of this or any era. To break a record of this import is a testimony to his tenacity, consistency and unfailing determination.
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He is not particularly fast, nor especially big, and although he is deceivingly strong, he is not in Brown’s class of power. He doesn’t possess breathtaking moves, nor is he the classic breakaway threat. Yet he is so very, very smart — with a heart of unquestioned courage. And those intrinsic values, more than anything else, have elevated Smith’s game and molded his success.
No one relishes the grind of 25 carries a game. But Smith understands his style of running between the tackles, in the middle of monsters requires a willingness to grind and push and never back off. Unlike Sanders, he never could rely on one dazzling hip fake to produce 40 yards. His work environment necessitates a mental toughness that will embrace pain and fatigue, two very unattractive companions.
Safety Darren Woodson, his friend and teammate, likens Smith’s style to a car set at 100 mph. It stays at that speed, undeterred. That is Smith, capsulized. He has convinced himself to play at a high level with a consistent expenditure of energy, snap after snap. If the defense matches that level, it stops him. But a letdown leads to positive yards on his part.
It is a simple yet wildly effective approach. It doesn’t win a beauty contest, but he never has been about pretty pictures. His canvas has been more black and white, macho vs. macho, the matchup of the toughest against the most determined. Other backs with a similar physical approach can’t match his durability. Jerome Bettis appears worn out after 2,700-plus carries; Terrell Davis couldn’t avoid draining injuries. Smith has the brilliant ability to be tough without wrecking his body.
“I can remember him taking only two flush hits in his career,” says Daryl Johnston, the redoubtable Moose, Smith’s hole-opening fullback for the Cowboys’ glory days. “You’d think all the tackles would have taken a toll on his knees and his shoulders, but he can see so well and has such great feel that he can avoid the bad hits. It is amazing.”
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In Smith’s tough-guy world, brains have triumphed over brawn. As his career expanded, he has studied more and more tape, spent more and more time figuring out defenses and devising counters to their defensive tactics. And then, amazingly, he has been able to translate this knowledge into split-second decisions amid an area of chaos not given to clear thinking.
Yet he is an incredibly clear thinker. The game progresses at a slow speed for him; he is able to see, dissect and decide in an instant, capitalizing on the most minute of advantages to carve out the systematic 5 and 6 vards that are his legacy.
Jimmy Johnson, his first pro coach, says the only way to fully appreciate Smith is to watch him in super slo-mo, just as coaches do when grading tape. At that meandering speed, you can see the feints, the quick flick of a hip, the slight shifting of weight — the tools of his craft, so deftly displayed, so keenly developed, so quick to be used; a tease at work, tempting defenses, then disappearing up the field.
The physical centerpiece is his legs, particularly his thighs. They are massively strong, impressive kegs on top of thinner calves. They allow him unusual balance, enabling him to overcome gravity and stay upright when he should be prone. And rarely can he be tackled solo; defenders need helpers to bring him down.
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“But it takes more than natural talent to be the best in those moments,” says Norv Turner, who, as the Cowboys offensive coordinator in the early ’90s, fashioned the rushing scheme that allowed Smith to flourish. “You have to want to do it. And Emmitt wants to do more than anyone I have ever been around. You just don’t develop that kind of heart. You show up with it.”
It is that heart that will be Smith’s most enduring attribute. It translates not only to those short gains but also, more notably, to his knack of dominating the most important games. He certainly is one of the greatest big-game players of his era, a trait reflected in the postseason record book. There, his name is etched next to records for most rushing touchdowns. most yards, most 100-yard games. He had lots of playoff opportunities, and he jumped on them with unique vigor. He wanted the ball. Every time.
“He loves the challenge, the bigger the better,” says Cowboys coach Dave Campo. “That is what is so impressive about him, you need your best players to be at their best in these games, and there is never a doubt about Emmitt — ever.”
The game that defines him and that heart came in the 1993 season. In the finale against the Giants, the winner would be NFC East champion and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. He separated a shoulder in the second quarter, yet played on into overtime. He finished with 168 yards on 32 carries, including nine touches during the Cowboys game-winning field-goal drive. A national television audience witnessed this ultimate demonstration of hard-core football manhood.
“I see myself as a blue-collar worker, a guy who came to work every day and worked hard,” says Smith. “I have played so long because I love the game. I could never walk away saying I have shortchanged myself, that I have cheated this sport, that I have disappointed my teammates. I want to look them in the eye and know that they know I gave everything I had. That is how I want it to be.”
There never has been a doubt.