JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Even in the way he retired, Emmitt Smith showed a knack for reading blocks and picking the right hole.
He said goodbye Thursday at the Super Bowl, surrounded by football’s biggest stars and swarms of media. Better yet, it happened to be in his home state of Florida, where he broke onto the scene as a high school sensation then became a college star.
And, best of all, he went out on his own terms.
Although he didn’t crack 20,000 career yards as he hoped, Smith knew he wouldn’t get the chance, at least not from the only two teams he’d consider. So it didn’t make much sense to stick around.
“I’m happy,” Smith said during a tearful, hourlong news conference. “I’ve given everything I could possibly give to the game.”
Closing the book on Smith’s record-shattering career revives the debate about where he ranks among the NFL’s greatest running backs.
With Smith, though, the point isn’t whether he belongs ahead of, behind or between the likes of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. What matters is that Smith belongs in the conversation.
Told he was too small and too slow to make it at the next level pretty much from the time he began playing football, Smith lacked blazing speed, jaw-dropping moves or a battering running style. His trademark was more tangible — accomplishments, as in four rushing titles, three Super Bowl championships and MVP awards for the regular season and the Super Bowl.
Then there are the records: most carries (4,409), yards (18,355), rushing touchdowns (164) and 100-yard games (78).
Smith also has the most 1,000-yard seasons with 11, and went over 1,400 yards five years in a row — another unprecedented feat.
In some sports, those marks would be knocked as byproducts of longevity. It’s quite the opposite in football, where durability is the ultimate compliment, especially for a running back.
“Look at me, I’m only 5-9, 215 pounds,” Smith said Thursday, for once basking in his stature. “People see guys like Charles Haley and other big guys and ask me, ‘How in the world do you do it?’ Sometimes I look at myself and say, ‘How in the world do I do it?’
“I take a lot of pride in going out and doing it.”
The biggest criticism on Smith’s career is how easy he supposedly had it, that if someone else had his blockers and was supported by a passing game featuring Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, they would’ve done just as good, if not better.
The reality, though, is that no one else had that chance. Smith did, and he made the most of it. On Thursday, he described it as fulfilling his destiny.
“I’m glad I was able to recognize my talent and my opportunities and capitalize on them,” he said.
Smith was a complete player, too — a solid receiver and a heck of a blocker, flipping over more than one blitzing defender. He also was driven. He recalled Thursday the oft-told story of him sitting down as a rookie and writing down his career goals, which included passing Walter Payton to become the leading rusher in league history.
He expects someone else to eventually catch him. But he also knows it won’t be easy.
“It takes grace, it takes desire, it takes determination, a lot of ability and a short-term memory,” Smith said. “You have to forget what you did before and prepare every year like it’s your first year, making that sacrifice and commitment.”
All his best traits came together Jan. 2, 1994. Though not the best game of his career, it’s certainly the most memorable.
Despite separating his right shoulder, Smith ran 32 times and caught 10 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown, leading Dallas to a 16-13 overtime victory the New York Giants in the season finale. The win propelled the Cowboys to a second straight Super Bowl title and cemented his status among the game’s elite players.
Then again, defying the odds was an underlying theme throughout Smith’s career. He loved people saying he couldn’t do something because then he’d go prove he could.
One of the greatest high school players in U.S. history, Smith showed he could keep it up in college by rushing for more than 1,000 yards in just seven games; nobody has ever done it quicker. After his junior year, Steve Spurrier took over at Florida and was so eager to unleash his passing offense that he made it clear he wouldn’t mind if Smith went pro, so he did.
Sixteen players were drafted before Dallas took Smith, including another running back: Blair Thomas. Of those 16, only Junior Seau and possibly Cortez Kennedy will even come close to the Hall of Fame, while Smith already can book a hotel room in Canton, Ohio, in August 2010.
Smith could’ve called it a career two years ago, when Dallas was ready to move on without him, but felt he still had some yards left, maybe enough to crack 20,000.
His quest failed in more ways than the obvious. He damaged his reputation with some of the things he did and said, but Thursday’s thank-you-filled speech was all about making amends.
In a few weeks, he’ll sign a one-day contract with Dallas so his retirement will be officially listed as happening for the Cowboys.
Regardless, his place in football history already is secure.
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Look back at the 15-year NFL season of Emmitt Smith, who retired Thursday
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