Rick Weinberg
Special to ESPN.com

He had all the gifts. The vision. The instincts. The ability to avert direct hits, break tackles and run low to the ground. He had great balance. A burst of power when he hit holes. An unparalleled threshold of pain.

All the gifts.

Yet he was smallish, they said. Only 5-foot-9, only 209 pounds. Wasn't fast enough, either. Didn't think he'd be durable enough, even though durability was the essence of his being in college and high school.

That's why 16 players were selected in the 1990 NFL Draft before the Dallas Cowboys took Emmitt Smith. Sixteen teams passed. Half the league. Amazing.

Fourteen years later, the list of Smith's accomplishments are staggering. Three Super Bowl rings. A record 11 straight 1,000-yard seasons. He ran for 1,000 yards year after year on guts, heart, desire and pride. He was fortunate enough to never have sustained a serious injury, having missed just four starts.

All those 1,000-yard seasons eventually began to add up and before we knew it, Smith had gradually passed everyone on the all-time rushing list, except for Walter Payton, the NFL's No. 1 leading rusher. But the day was rapidly approaching when Smith, the little guy who supposedly couldn't, would overtake the runner many consider to be the NFL's greatest back.

THE MOMENT
On Sunday, October 27, 2002, as the Cowboys face the Seahawks at Texas Stadium, Smith is only 93 yards behind Payton's all-time record of 16,726 yards. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, anticipating the record being broken, plans a huge celebration and tribute to Smith.

Even though Smith hasn't run for 100 yards in a game all season, Jones has a banner prepared to be unveiled the moment Smith becomes the NFL's No. 1 all-time leading rusher. He has it placed next to the three Super Bowl championship banners captured during The Emmitt Years.

With 10 minutes to go in the game, and Smith only a couple of bursts away from the record, the Cowboys take over at their own 27-yard line. The crowd rises and begins a cheer that grows louder and louder. This is it, they hope. This is the moment. The record-breaking moment.

"I was totally aware of how much I needed," Smith would say later. "When I saw I was 13 yards away, I knew this was the drive that I was going to do it. I was sure. There was no doubt. With the crowd going crazy as it was, I said, 'This is the time.' I had to do it for them, for everyone."

On first down, quarterback Chad Hutchinson hands the ball off to Smith, who bulls his way forward for three yards.

Back in the huddle, Hutchinson, looking directly at Smith, says, "OK. 15 Lead. On two." The huddle breaks and Smith lines up in his customary position. The clock shows 9:10 left when Hutchinson takes the snap and hands the ball off to Smith.

The crowd, the TV cameras, zero in on number 22 as he displays his signature burst off left tackle, hits a small hole, squeezes his way through, cuts left and finds a seam. There's daylight. "Walter," Smith says quietly to himself. "See ya."

His thought, he later reveals, is out of respect and admiration for Payton, not cockiness or disrespect. Smith bounces off one attempted tackle. He chugs along, running low, running square. He receives a crushing block from fullback Robert Thomas. He stumbles, ever so slightly, over the arm of an opponent, yet he quickly places his right hand on the turf, enabling him to keep his balance and keep chugging along until passes Payton.

When Smith is finally brought down, 11 yards later, with the crowd in a frenzy, Smith bounces to his feet. The record is his. Thousands of photo flashes go off in the stands. The game is halted. The celebration begins. Fireworks explode in each end zone.

Smith slowly takes off his helmet and kneels down on the 32-yard line. He then points to the sky for a moment. "For you Walter," he says later, revealing his inner thoughts. He rises and walks over to his mother, Mary, on the sideline. They shed tears of joy, relief and thankfulness. "When I saw my mom's face, that was it," Smith would say. Next, he kisses his wife, Pat, and their three kids, hugs former teammate Daryl Johnston and weeps a little more.

Five minutes pass. The game resumes. Smith returns to yet another standing ovation, and promptly caps the Cowboys' drive with a one-yard burst with 5:35 left, tying the game at 14-14 and extending his NFL record for rushing TDs to 150. He winds up with 109 yards on 24 carries, both season highs. It is his first 100-yard game of the season, and likely the second-to-last of his NFL career.

Nearly the entire crowd of 63,854 remains in their seats for close to one hour after the game. They wait to see Smith re-emerge amid smoke and blue lights from the locker-room tunnel, to catch another glimpse of the new NFL rushing leader on his day, his special moment in time.






The ESPN Take: 71-80

Best of 2002