Emmitt gives new meaning to Sweetness
"[Walter] is looking down smiling from ear to ear. He once said that if anybody breaks his record, he hopes it is Emmitt because he would do it with the class and the dignity that the record represents," says Eddie Payton, Walter's brother, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
With an uncommon determination and durability, Smith produced a ringing validation of his selection by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the 1990 draft. He won four rushing titles, three Super Bowl rings and the abject apology of all those who thought he lacked the speed and the size to play with the big boys.
Each season, Smith wrote his goals, and his numbers added up. He is the only player to win the NFL rushing title and the Super Bowl in the same season - achieving it three times (1992, 1993 and 1995). When he retired in February 2005, after 15 years in the NFL, he held records for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with 11, rushing touchdowns with 164 (he scored 175 overall, second to Jerry Rice) and rushing attempts with 4,409.
"Frantic hopscotching, barefoot, on a blistering sidewalk," Dallas Morning News columnist Blackie Sherrod once wrote to describe Smith's running style.
100 -- Sept. 30, 1990, at New York Giants (fourth game)
1,000 -- Sept. 1, 1991, at Cleveland (17th game)
2,500 -- Dec. 22, 1991, vs. Atlanta (32nd game)-a
5,000 -- Nov. 25, 1993, vs. Miami (57th game)-b
7,500 -- Sept. 17, 1995, at Minnesota (80th game)
10,000 -- Nov. 28, 1996, vs. Washington (106th game)-c
11,353 -- Sept. 6, 1998, vs. Arizona (125th game)-d
12,037 -- Nov. 8, 1998, vs. New York Giants (133rd game)-e
13,260 -- Nov. 11, 1999, at Minnesota (148th game)-f
15,000 -- Dec. 10, 2000, vs. Washington (168th game)-g
15,270 -- Sept. 23, 2001, vs. San Diego (172nd game)-h
16,743 -- Oct. 27, 2002, vs. Seattle (193rd game)-i
Even before Smith was a year old, he had a love of football. When his mother, Mary, propped him in his swing in front of the television during football games, if something exciting happened, he reached up and grabbed the post, stopping the swing.
Emmitt Smith III was born on May 15, 1969, in Pensacola, Fla., the second of Mary and Emmitt's five children. Growing up in housing projects with an older sister and three younger brothers, he remembers drinking powdered milk and government cheese. For a time, the family was on welfare. Discipline and family values were staples at home.
When Smith entered Escambia High School in 1983, the football team had no tradition of winning. The Gators only had one winning season in 18 years and were 3-27 in the previous three seasons. Smith led Escambia to state championships during his sophomore and junior seasons.
He set a national record by running for 100 yards 45 times. With 8,804 rushing yards, he became No. 2 on the all-time scholastic list. He fumbled only six times and scored 106 touchdowns in 49 games. As a senior, he was named prep Player of the Year by Parade Magazine and USA Today.
Smith stayed in the Sunshine State for college, enrolling at Florida in 1987. His first start came in his third game -- against Alabama. He responded by rushing for a school-record 224 yards on 39 carries and two touchdowns in a 23-14 upset. In his seventh game, he passed the 1,000-yard mark faster than any other runner in college football history. Although a freshman, he led the Southeastern Conference in rushing with 1,341 yards.
In the spring of 1988, Smith learned the price of fame could be costly. While attending a fraternity party with some teammates, he got into a fight and was suspended from the team for two weeks of spring practice. When headlines referred to "Smith and 11 others" being involved in the fight, he realized that he was no longer going to be treated as an average person, and had to be aware of his image.
Injured as a sophomore, his rushing output dropped to 988 yards. Healthy the next year, he ran for 1,599 yards and 14 touchdowns. As questions were raised if Smith would enter the NFL draft, Florida hired Steve Spurrier. After conversations with his new coach, Smith felt unwanted and decided to turn pro. He left with a school-record 3,928 rushing yards in his wake.
In 1990, the Cowboys were coming off a 1-15 season, and ranked last in the NFL in rushing. Coach Jimmy Johnson traded up four spots from Dallas' 21st position to select Smith. In response to the doubts of Smith's speed, Johnson said, "There were all these people saying, 'He's too slow,' or 'He's too small.' All I know is that every time I saw a film of him, he was running 50, 60, 70, 80 yards for a touchdown. That looked pretty good to me."
After holding out for all of training camp, Smith signed a three-year contract estimated at $3 million. He became a starter in the second game, and by the end of the season, he rushed for 937 yards and 11 touchdowns, capturing the Associated Press' NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award as Dallas improved to 7-9.
In 1991, the Cowboys were 11-5 as Smith ran for 1,563 yards to become the first Dallas player to lead the league in rushing. The next season, Smith gained 1,713 yards and scored 19 touchdowns as Dallas went 13-3. The Cowboys then charged through the playoffs, with Smith running for more than 100 yards in each game. They blew out the Buffalo Bills, 52-17, in Super Bowl XXVII as Smith rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown.
The Cowboys won 11 of their next 13 games and needed a victory over the New York Giants in the regular-season finale to gain home-field advantage and a bye in the playoffs. Smith separated his right shoulder in the second quarter, but returned in the second half. He finished with 229 total yards (168 rushing and 61 receiving). In overtime, he led Dallas down the field to a 16-13 victory.
Despite playing only 14 games, Smith won his third consecutive rushing title, with 1,486 yards, as he averaged 5.3 per carry, the only time he averaged more than five yards in his career. The Associated Press voted him MVP.
The season ended with another Super Bowl title as Smith keyed Dallas' 30-13 victory over Buffalo. Running for 132 yards on 30 carries and two second-half touchdowns, he earned the game's MVP award.
In 1994, with Barry Switzer having replaced Johnson as coach, Smith ran for 1,484 yards and scored an NFL-high 22 touchdowns. The Cowboys' hopes for a third straight Super Bowl ended when the San Francisco 49ers beat them, 38-28, in the NFC Championship game.
The following year, Smith broke John Riggins' NFL record for touchdowns with 25 (all running) and regained the rushing title with a franchise-record 1,773 yards. Smith also earned his third Super Bowl ring as the Cowboys defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-17. Despite being held to 49 yards on 18 carries, Smith scored two second- half touchdowns.
But that was it for a Dallas dynasty as free agency and salary cap restrictions led to a decline. In 1997, Smith rushed for only four touchdowns and some questioned whether age was getting the best of him. But he pushed on, consistently gaining 1,000 yards each year until 2002, when he managed only 975, snapping his streak of 11 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
On Feb. 27, 2003, the Cowboys - because of their salary-cap situation and trying to get younger - released the player who had rushed for 17,162 yards and scored 164 touchdowns (153 rushing and 11 receiving). A month later, Smith signed a two-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals. But he wasn't much of help to his new team in 2003. Limited to 10 games because of a shoulder injury, Smith rushed for only two touchdowns and 256 yards. He did better in 2004, his final season, by running for 937 yards and nine touchdowns.
Smith wed actress Pat Lawrence, a former Miss Virginia, on April 22, 2000. Each already had a daughter from a previous relationship: she with her husband, actor Martin Lawrence, and Smith with a longtime girlfriend. In May 2002, Pat gave birth to a son, Emmitt Smith IV, and in October 2003 to a daughter, Skylar.
On October 27, 2002, Smith broke Payton's record of 16,726 yards. As a child, Smith idolized the Chicago Bears great and often watched films of him. In the 1990s, the two became friends. After Payton's death in 1999, Smith has stayed close with the family. When he received the Spirit of Sweetness Award from the Walter Payton Cancer Fund in July 2002, Smith broke down in tears.