Published August 02, 2010
IRVING, Texas – The story is true. As a rookie, Emmitt Smith really did tell Michael Irvin that he was going to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher.
But let the record also show that Smith was setting a goal, not making a prediction.
"The conversation started with Michael asking me, 'What did I want to do in this league?'" Smith recalled.
Smith always liked a good challenge.
Told he was too small and too slow all the way back in high school, all he did was set national records. Then he went to the University of Florida — as a backup. His first start came on the road against a ranked Alabama team and all he did was set the school's single-game rushing record.
His lack of size and speed was supposed to catch up to him in the NFL, or at least keep him from dominating. That's why 16 players were chosen before him in the 1990 draft. When the Dallas Cowboys took him, they weren't sure he was the perfect complement to Troy Aikman and Irvin; they just hoped so because the defensive guy they really wanted already was taken.
The 5-foot-9½ Smith indeed was the perfect fit. And his desire, drive and durability turned him into the most productive running back in NFL history.
On Saturday night, Smith will do the only things left in his career: slip on the gold blazer and unveil the bust signifying his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His speech is already written and it's big on thank yous to the people who've meant the most in his life and his career. As much as others helped shape him, Smith takes great pride in having made the most of his abilities and his circumstances.
"I was motivated by one thing and one thing only: winning games," Smith said. "I wanted to win. And I wanted to win very bad."
Calling Smith the most productive running back is not the same as calling him the greatest. He certainly belongs in that conversation, too.
But think about the difference between those distinctions. Would you rather have a dazzler or a producer?
Although he didn't bulldoze like Earl Campbell, blaze like Eric Dickerson or leave defenders grasping air like Barry Sanders, Smith churned out the most career yards rushing (18,355) and most touchdowns rushing (164).
Yes, he also had the most carries (4,409), but longevity is a badge of honor in the NFL, especially for a guy defenses spent all week plotting to crunch the 20 to 25 times per game he had the ball. Smith made it through 15 seasons (13 in Dallas, two in Arizona), plus another 17 postseason games. He missed only a few games because of injury during his prime years.
"I don't remember a practice that he ever missed because of flu or sickness," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who will present Smith for induction.
Smith won four rushing titles, matching Sanders, Dickerson and O.J. Simpson for the most during the Super Bowl era. And that's not even the impressive part. Smith was the first rushing champion to win a Super Bowl the same season, and he did it three times.
He was the first NFL MVP from the Cowboys and is still the only one. He also won the Super Bowl MVP that season. That sweep has been done before and since, but he's the only non-quarterback to do it.
At the risk of getting too stat-oriented, there are a few more that help put his career in perspective.
Smith gained at least 100 yards in 78 games. That's nearly five full season's worth. (He had seven more in the postseason.)
He had 11 seasons of at least 1,000 yards, one more than Walter Payton, Sanders or Curtis Martin, and they were all in a row. Smith also came within 63 yards the seasons before and after the streak. He was within 63 yards again in his last season, which brings up one last astounding feat: rushing for 5,789 yards after turning 30.
"He understood our blocking schemes and he knew what he could do and couldn't do," said Nate Newton, his longtime left guard.
When it comes to individual achievement plus team success, only Jerry Rice compares. Fittingly, he's also being enshrined this weekend.
Just as Rice was fortunate to catch passes from Joe Montana and Steve Young in an offense designed by Bill Walsh, Smith was fortunate to play in an offense featuring a powerful line, a ramming fullback in Daryl Johnston and the Aikman-Irvin tandem that kept defenses from loading up against the run or made them pay when they did.
Smith, Aikman and Irvin were dubbed "The Triplets" by coach Barry Switzer. The name stuck, mainly because of how they embraced it. Each was a star in his own right, yet together they were even better, lifting the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowls titles in four seasons (1992-95), while reaching "only" the NFC championship in their down year.
Smith's induction reunites them as Hall of Famers, too; Aikman and Irvin will be in Canton, Ohio, for the ceremony.
Aikman didn't throw as much as he might have wanted because he realized the team was better off running so much. Johnston literally sacrificed his neck for Smith, needing two surgeries to repair the damage done by all those helmet-first blocks to pry open holes.
Both were glad to have done it. When they retired, each tearfully said his biggest regret was not getting to be on the field when Smith broke the rushing record.
Johnston actually was there, as a broadcaster. He ended up too overcome by emotion to speak. Smith raised his arms in triumph and looked through the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium. It was later voted the greatest moment in the building's history.
But the defining performance of Smith's career was the 1993 season finale.
The defending champion Cowboys had started 0-2 while Smith fought for a new contract. After an irate Charles Haley plugged his helmet through a locker-room wall, Jones made Smith the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Dallas won nine of the next 11 games, with one of the losses the snowy Thanksgiving game against Miami when Leon Lett slid into a would-have-been dead ball, giving the Dolphins a second chance at a winning field goal.
Playing the Giants at the Meadowlands, the stakes were huge. The winner took the division and a first-round bye. Smith also had a shot at a second straight rushing title, despite having spotted his competition a two-game head start.
Smith separated his right shoulder but refused to come out and refused to be used as a decoy. He ran 32 times and caught 10 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown, leading Dallas to a 16-13 overtime victory.
He had days with more yards and won games that meant more. But that game went a long way toward cementing him as a Hall of Famer.