Hits keep coming for Smith

After taking yet another pounding with his new team, it's time for Emmitt Smith to call it a career..

Updated: October 7, 2003, 4:08 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

30-second column
Last Wednesday, in a deserted weight room inside the Falcons training facility, Mike Vick walked to a leg curl machine and put the pin in at 80 pounds. With the metal bar laying across his tender and taped right ankle, Vick ripped off three quick sets until his legs shook with fatigue. Later that day he threw to teammates during practice for the first time since breaking his right fibula on August 16. Dan Reeves says he's made a lot of progress in just the last week. Yes, Vick is on his way back, most likely for the Saints game on Oct. 19th, and even the Falcons sorry state and the country music blaring from the weight room speakers couldn't ruin his mood. "I'm looking forward to coming back and making an impact any way I can," he told me. "I've missed football so much I'm gonna be playing with so much love and passion for the game, you'll see. I'm gonna be even more dangerous now. But first I have to get confidence back in my leg. I won't come back until I can cut full speed and not worry about it. Until I can do that, uh uh, I'm not coming back. I'm sorry. I'm young. I have a lot of time to reach my goals and win that Super Bowl."
Flem File Five
Top Five Things Learned About Tiger Woods while attending last week's 'Tiger in the Park' event in Atlanta's Piedmont Park:
5. He started out as a lefty because he was mirroring his dad's swing.
4. Used to play three balls and pretend he was going against Nicklaus and Palmer.
3. His clubs arrived first (at 3:26 p.m. for a 3 p.m. event) and to a nice smattering of applause.
2. His 8-iron goes 151 yards. Not 152 or 150 or 151 . 151.
1. Judging by his entrance -- where he emerged from a pack of 25 Tiger clones -- he's a fan of Eminem. Or at least Slim Shady.
Flemister File
ZFlem had already worked out Monday morning and was just chilling in the Redskins locker room with some buddies when the news came in that the team had signed Vikings TE Byron Chamberlain. (The former Pro Bowl TE, who had 57 catches for the Vikes in 2001, was released by Minnie after ballooning up to 269 pounds while serving a four-game suspension for ephedra.) Who do you think is gonna get cut? Someone asked. Just then an assistant in the Redskins personnel depo tapped Z on the shoulder. "Well," said ZFlem, "I guess it's me!"

If a person's true character comes out during tough times then you'd be awful proud of our FlemFile mascot. Yeah ZFlem may have lost his job but hasn't lost his perspective, his class or his sense of humor. One of the first things he wanted to talk about was why last week's column didn't include a Flemister File. "I got a lot of phone calls from people wondering where it went, man!" he joked. "More people called in an uproar last week than this week! Wait. OK. That's not true."

Struggling with an injured Achilles heel that had developed bone spurs and a slight fracture, Z had just one catch this year -- in an offense that treats the tight end like a glorified tackle -- and was in for just 10 plays in the Redskins loss to Philly last week. So Monday's move didn't come as a shock to Z. He's been aware of rumors about the 'Skins going after Chamberlain (they had tried to sign Wesley Walls this summer). "It's a little kids game we play, but it's a business too," he said. "I have no ill will toward the Redskins at all. I'm grateful for the chance they gave me and the last three years. In the end, I wasn't a very good fit for their system. The best part is I'll get a chance to get totally healthy now and start fresh somewhere else."

After getting the news, ZFlem spoke to his position coach and went back to the locker room for some quick good byes to his buddies, including full back Bryan Johnson, tackle Chris Samuels and linebacker Kevin Mitchell. (That's right, if you're wondering, coach Steve Spurrier didn't bother to say a word to him.) "The hardest part is saying goodbye to the fellas, you know?" says ZFlem who will get by on his $350,000 signing bonus from December. "From a football standpoint I'm not sad or depressed at all. I know I'm good enough. I know I've established myself enough in this league that someone will pick me up."

Now comes the tough part. He'll continue to rehab his heel and wait for the phone to ring with news from his agent. In the meantime he's already begun watching ESPNews to check out teams who might need a tight end and he's even begun thinking about the logistics of a move. "This is the NFL everybody switches teams," he says. "Even Emmitt Smith."

The WHYLO (Who Helped You Log On) of the Week
Turns out, folks love reading about Fat Guys With the Football just as much as they love watching 'em. Henry says, "Your column brightens my day. I feel like a mischievous genius kid when I read it." Sam says "I showed my mom your column and she had to leave holding her sides." From laughter, I presume, not diarrhea. Julian says, "There's nothing better than fat guys running. I'm still laughing." Eric says, "People all around my office thought I was nuts until I forwarded your article." And finally, Jennifer writes in to nominate another FGWTF: Kentucky's 260-pound QB Jared Lorenzen. Or, as he's known in Lexington, J-Load.

The best part of this electronic lovefest, however, is it frees me up to give the WHYLO of the WEEK to a guy who truly deserves it: Redskins owner Danny Snyder who, after cutting our mascot, is about to experience a little something we like to call The FlemFile Curse.

Flem Gems
I'm not taking anything away from Dante Hall, but the best special teams performance of the year was turned in Sunday by the Panthers Rod "He Chase Me" Smart. After returning a kick 100 yards for a TD, Smart came back out onto the field and made the tackle on the ensuing kick off. ... When Microsoft asks me to send in an error report I usually don't because it feels like I'm tattling on my own computer. ... If you don't like Oukast's 'Hey Ya', please turn in your CD player. ... Admit it, you went to sleep last night with the Bucs ahead 21-7, didn't you? What you failed to account for is the very, very slow-acting FlemFile Curse placed on the Bucs for of the classless way they treated Tony Dungy. ... If Bucs back Michael Pittman could block for himself he'd have 2,000 yards. ... Say it: Bill Murray, Oscar winner. ... Live's lead singer Ed Kowalczyk has become one of rock's great lyricists. ... I've never written about the Dallas Mavs. Yet last week, for whatever reason, the team's cheerleader calendar was delivered via express mail to my front door. ... Tommy Maddox is doing his best to make 2002 seem like an anomaly. ... After crushing Akron last week my beloved RedHawks are 4-1 and have scored more than 40 points in each of their last four games. ... Has anyone else noticed how much 2-Man teams are running against the Falcons offense? With no threat to run (Doug Johnson has 21 yards rushing and just a few more passing) defenses are leaving the middle of the field open and doubling up the Birds outside receivers, particularly on third downs. "I never see two-man," Mike Vick told me last week.


A dazed Emmitt Smith lays flattened on the Texas Stadium turf, four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Massive defensive tackle La'Roi Glover stands over him, hands on hips, shaking his head tsk-tsk-tsk glowering at the feeble back. On his next play, Smith is turned into Beetle Bailey by Dat Nguyen. After that he's folded in half like a cheap wallet by Willie Blade. Then he trips over his own feet on a screen pass. Battered and broken, he leaves the game after his next rush with six carries for a minus-1 yard.

Against his former team on Sunday, Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, actually went backwards -- and in more ways than one.

Let's start by saying that no one will ever be able to question Smith's warrior heart, his place in Canton among the game's all-time greats or the classy way he lived his life in the spotlight. Ask around the league about Emmitt Smith and the same words always come up. Heart. Courage. Character. Durability.

That's exactly what I wrote a year ago, almost to the day, in a column titled Run Emmitt Run: "I'm gonna give Emmitt the most rare and royal treatment you can bestow upon a pro athlete in an era of unparalleled cynicism in sports -- the benefit of the doubt. So crawl Emmitt. Gimp. Take all the time you need to get to the record. Then bask in it and take one final victory lap. Because you've earned it. Emmitt carried the Cowboys -- and the sport -- to a new level ... so we can all carry him for a while."

Just not anymore.

It's time. Time to call it a career. After 14 years, after 11 1,000-yard seasons, nine Pro Bowls, four rushing titles, a host of Lombardis and league MVPs, it's time. And the fact that he's now out indefinitely with a fractured scapula should only make the decision easier and that much more crystal clear.

Stop Emmitt Stop.

Leading up to Walter Payton's record last year, Smith, 34, was adamant about letting his performance dictate his future plans. He even suggested that if he rushed for 1,300 or 1,400 yards the Cowboys would have no choice but to keep him. Instead he gained 975. The Cowboys cut him loose. And when no one else besides the worst franchise in football showed much interest (a sign that should have punctured his pride and brought him to his senses) Smith inked a two-year deal for $7.5 mil with the Cards who were interested in little more than a boost in ticket sales.

And a nation of football fans begged him, Stop Emmitt Stop.

Everyone except Emmitt saw this coming. The 1-4 Cards drew 23,594 for their home opener and Smith has managed to pad his record with a whopping 192 yards and one TD. His best moves of the season came in camp, when he tried to wiggle out of his comments that last year in Dallas he felt like a diamond surrounded by trash. On Sunday he got that jewel -- and more -- fed back to him through his earhole after each humiliating hit.

"It does not make me want to quit," Smith said after the game. "It makes me want to continue to fight and go on. Quitting is not in my vocabulary."

That's why a player with such legendary field vision cannot see what the rest of us are witnessing. As they age, athletes, but more so the great ones, become cursed by the same qualities that once took them to the pinnacle of their sport. It's truly one of sport's cruelest ironies. The never-say-die attitude, unshakeable confidence and tunnel vision focus turns out to be the same stuff that keeps guys like Smith hanging around far too long; until their legend is tarnished, their star diminished.

And while this lost season in Arizona will never be more than a footnote on his brilliant career, it's still a part of Smith, now and forever. Every recap of his career, every highlight tape on every kiosk will include film of him broken down and trampled in Dallas. Just like those sad reels you always see of Franco Harris in Seattle or Johnny Unitas in San Diego. There's no shame in being dragged from your profession kicking and screaming. Hell, we're all gonna do it. (When stud linebacker Levon Kirkland was cut from the Steelers he sat alone in his room, clicking a light on and off like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, saying "I can still play&I can still play ...") Only rarely does someone like Jim Brown, John Elway or Wayne Gretzky show a preternatural mastery over their sport from start to finish.

"How will I remember this experience?" Smith asked Sunday. "To me, it will go down in my mind as one of the unique experiences I've ever experienced."

It may also be the last chance Smith has at going out on his own terms. In a way, it's perfect. You end it where it all began, in Dallas. You got a nice hug from Jerry Jones and a friendly welcome from the fans who hung banners for you that read: Once A Cowboy, Always a Cowboy. If there was ever a moment when Emmitt really needed to showcase his incredible timing, this is it.

After the game Smith began to choke up when talking about a note he had received from his daughter. "She said, 'Daddy, no matter what happens, if you win you did your best and if you lose you did your best too,'" Smith recalled. "And that's what it's all about."

Smith's eyes began to water with tears that were about far more than just his child's sweet sentiment.

Broken. Humiliated. Tarnished. The NFL's all-time leading rusher began to cry.

And a nation of football fans cried out as well.

Stop Emmitt Stop.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.