Payton had the Sweetness. Barry had the unbelievable moves. Earl had the bone-crushing power. Tony D had the stunning cutback acceleration. Dickerson had that smooth glide. Jim Brown had more than a little of it all. But I’m here to tell you that no one — but no one — was a greater all-around tailback in NFL history than Emmitt Smith.
Emmitt retired three days ago after piling up 18,355 rushing yards — 17,162 for the Cowboys — both figures shattering the old Chicago record of Payton’s. Emmitt too had “more than a little of it all,” and through superior conditioning, intense determination and a tireless work ethic, lasted longer and ran farther than the rest. Don’t forget his receiving prowess out of the backfield. And you bet that opponents who tried to blitz Troy Aikman will not forget Emmitt’s fine blocking, which gets far too little mention when comparing him to the other greats.
Some fans and writers try to diminish his legacy by using the excellence of the Cowboys around him as a crutch. Rubbish! As good as his linemen were, Emmitt made them into perennial Pro Bowlers. He was the most important component of Dallas’ success, as proven by their consecutive losses to start the 1993 season while Emmitt was embroiled in a contract dispute with Jerry Jones. Jerry backed down, Emmitt was back, and the ‘Boys rolled to another Super Bowl victory.
What defined Emmitt on the field, above all else, was his sheer willpower. He simply refused to be denied, which is why (despite his “small” size) he scored more touchdowns than any other back ever. He once played much of a game against the rival Giants with a separated shoulder, pain searing through a limp arm that he still somehow used to catch passes, running with a force that belied his agony. His iron will in that game both inspired and carried the Dallas Cowboys to a narrow victory, ensuring home field advantage for the playoffs. That led to a Super Bowl, where Emmitt earned the MVP award…three games and only one month after his arm was smashed out of its socket!
My favorite Emmitt memory, however, was from a Monday night game in 1992 in the Georgia Dome. Taking a right-side handoff from Aikman, he plowed directly into a thick, tall, impenetrable looking cluster of Atlanta Falcons, with several other Cowboys embedded for good measure. I cringed, fearing he would be hurt badly within or under all those far-larger human beings. It seemed, for a split second, as if Emmitt had vanished from the face of the earth. Then…whoa…what’s that? Number 22 somehow emerged from the pile almost exactly as he went in, but in reverse! All of a sudden, he was galloping in a wide arc, far across the opposite side of the field, leaving the others way behind, and trotting into the end zone uncontested for a touchdown. I’ve seen the replay dozens of times, and remain flabbergasted as to how he did that. The play has become legendary among Cowboys fans and is still the most astounding Houdini act I’ve seen on a football field at any level of competition.
Emmitt was not the best of all time at any one thing, but better than anyone at putting it all together. More than any of the rest, he was the complete package at tailback. He ran with amazing vision. He ran with power. He ran with determination. He ran with purpose. He ran with unquestioned courage. And he ran and ran and ran, even to another team and past the time when he probably should have stopped running.
Emmitt played parts of two mainly forgettable seasons in Arizona, but he retired in his home state of Florida as a Dallas Cowboy, his hand firmly in place on that silver helmet that signifies excellence. He will go into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (2010) under that blue star he represented so well for so long. And in an age when pro athletics began to seem infested by greedy, pompous, violent, foul-mouthed sexual deviants, Emmitt earned respect from all fans, teammates and opponents as a genuine good guy. Like all of us, Emmitt wasn’t a saint, but he surely was and is a solid, respectable citizen and a tribute to his team and his profession.
Good luck and God’s speed, Emmitt. This fan will never forget.