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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Emmitt Smith: Portrait Of A Grid Iron Hero

This is a great photo. I remember exactly when this was taken. During the 2004 NFL season, though both of these great players were in their final seasons with teams that they didn't become stars with, they both played great games against each other.

After the game they embraced for this photo. It was a throwback to their glory years when they both were in their prime. And what a prime it was.

This past weekend, these two, possibly the best at their respective positions, went into the Football Hall of Fame together.

It was a bitter-sweet moment for me. While I really enjoyed watching Emmitt be inducted, while I laughed and cried during his induction speech, I also had some pangs in my heart. Never again would I see him run out of the tunnel at Texas Stadium, in uniform, ready to go to battle against a division foe. Never again would I see him take the ball, pick a hole, explode through that hole and pick up precious yards for the Dallas Cowboys. I would never again get the chance to see him play.

I flashed back to 1990. Back in those days you didn't get to see much in the way of college football outside of your local and regional teams. I didn't know much about Emmitt. I knew only what I had heard. He is small. He isn't that fast. While he was great in college he will have trouble in the NFL.

One thing I hadn't heard about was his heart. I remember going to get Tony Dorsett's autograph at a card show in the area. After getting Dorsett's autograph I began to peruse the cards at the show. I came across Emmitt's rookie card. On a whim I bought it.

Later I turned it over and read his stats. 5'9". 206 lbs. Birthday: 5/15/1969. Two days older than I am. I immediately began to relate to Emmitt. Too small. Too slow. Not good enough. He was my age and I had heard all of those things myself. Granted, I never played organized football, but I did play a lot of pick up sports. Whenever I went some where new I was looked over. Once the game started people realized that they had underestimated me. Didn't matter the sport, I had something people couldn't see in my slight frame.

I had heart.

Emmitt had heart. Though the back of that card didn't say it, as I began to watch him play, as I began to follow his career and read up on his past accomplishments, I realized he had enough heart for an entire team. People overlooked him, but once he laced up his cleats, strapped on his helmet, and went to work people couldn't overlook him any longer.

Through the years I watched Emmitt thrill not only myself, but Cowboy and football fans everywhere. If you needed a big play, he provided it. If you needed steady play, he provided that. He gave the team whatever it needed. And he always did it with class and dignity.

After the Cowboys won their first Superbowl since 1978, in 1993, Jerry Jones tried to overlook Emmitt. Emmitt's contract had expired. Both sides had come to a stalemate on negotiations. Jerry was low balling the kid that was too small and too slow. Jerry thought the team could afford to lose Emmitt. Emmitt missed the first 2 games of the 1993 regular season. The Cowboys lost both.

Jerry ponied up and paid Emmitt. The Cowboys went on, with Emmitt, to win 12 of the last 14 games, and win their second consecutive Superbowl. Oh yeah, and Emmitt? Well he wouldn't be overlooked ever again after that season. Because this was his list of accomplishments:
  • Won Rushing Title (in only 14 games mind you)
  • Won Superbowl
  • Named Superbowl MVP
  • Named NFL MVP
All that after missing the 1st two games of the season.

Further, Emmitt went on to have an even better year statistically in 1995, rushing for 1,773 yards and scoring 25 touchdowns. Oh, and the Cowboys won their 3rd Superbowl in 4 years that season.

Off the field Emmitt was an even better person than he was a football player. He went back to school and got his degree (he came out after his junior year) to keep a promise to his mother. He would lavish his offensive line with extravagant presents to show his gratitude to them (one year he got them all a Rolex). He was ever humble, ever professional, and always kept his goals in mind.

In 2002, he achieved the chief of those goals when he surpassed Walter Payton's career rushing mark to become the all time NFL leading rusher. It showed just what kind of person Emmitt is that the game was attended by Payton's family (Walter having passed by that time), and they were among his biggest cheerleaders though he was breaking their husband and father's record.

When Emmitt retired after the 2004 season, it was as if a part of me died. I love the game of football. I love watching it. I love to still play on the rare occasion that I get a chance. But the game will never be the same. I cannot imagine another player coming close to making me feel the way Tony Dorsett and then Emmitt Smith did for so many years. It was as if I was on the field with them, or as part of them.

No post about Emmitt will ever be complete without mentioning his HOF induction speech. In fact, here is a link to it:

Wow, that still gives me goosebumps. The raw emotion. The fact that this isn't being read from notes or a teleprompter, but straight from the heart.  How humble he is in giving so much of the credit to other people. And his heartfelt, emotional thank you to Darryl Johnston. All of that just seemed so genuine, so sincere. I could feel what Emmitt was feeling. I could empathize with him. I had watched so many great moments of his career happen live that it was as if all Emmitt Smith fans were being inducted with him.

I have seen some of my favorite players in sport come and go. Tony Dorsett. Lou Whitaker. Petr Klima. Joe Dumars. Andre Agassi. And now Emmitt Smith. I thank them all for the years they thrilled me. Not all of them will go into the HOF in their respective sport, but they are all HOFers to me. Now that I am in my 40s I doubt I will ever again look to modern sport stars for inspiration, but I will always look back on these stars as inspirations.

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