The numbers are staggering. The Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith has rushed for 14,359 yards in high school, college and the NFL combined. So what's the big deal, you say? Walter Payton got more than that with the Chicago Bears alone. Tony Dorsett got almost 13,000 as a Cowboy. Well, you're talking about guys who played 12, 13 years in the pros. Emmitt Smith is still a baby, 22 years old. He's still learning the ropes. When he really gets the hang of it, who knows what kind of mileage he'll leave behind him?
In four years at Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., Smith ran for 8,804 yards, a 7.8-yard average per carry and 106 touchdowns. He went for more than 100 yards in 45 of the 49 games he played for Escambia, including the last 28, and he was never held to less than 71 yards, even as a freshman. The 8,804 puts Smith second on the alltime rushing list in the National High School Sports Record Book, behind Ken Hall of Sugar Land, Texas (11,232 yards from 1950 to '53), who did not go on to distinguish himself on a higher level. The most recognizable names appear further down the list...Billy Sims of Hooks, Texas, No. 5; David Over-street of Big Sandy, Texas, No. 7; Herschel Walker of Johnson County High in Wrightsville, Ga., No. 29. Pretty fast company there.
Think about it a minute. Here's young Emmitt, a 5'8", 175-pound high school freshman, about to strap on his helmet and step into murderous competition in the Florida Panhandle—one of the SEC's most fertile recruiting grounds—and his coach, Dwight Thomas, hands him the ball and says, "Kid, I want you to gain five miles for me."
In his first game, in 1983, Smith rushed for 115 yards against Pensacola Catholic High. Gulf Breeze High and Niceville High saw him fly by on his way to 205 and 210 yards, respectively. By his sophomore year he was already District 1's most feared back. Defensive units were taping his number 24 on their helmets. By his junior season, he had turned it up a notch—seven 200-yard games and, in a furious outburst, 28 carries for 301 yards against Milton High, which was led by future Auburn quarterback Reggie Slack. A gimme night, you say—garbage yards in a five-touchdown victory?
No, sir. That wasn't Thomas's way. When the game was decided, the varsity sat down. Against Milton, Escambia needed every inch out of Emmitt to squeak out a 24-21 overtime victory. Poor Milton High. In four years Smith hit Milton for 855 yards.
In his first start as a University of Florida freshman, Smith, by then fleshed out to 190 pounds, carried 39 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns on national TV against Alabama. Four games later, in his seventh game of the season, he breezed past 1,000 yards, reaching that milestone earlier in his career than any other runner in college football history. Late in his junior season, playing for a team that was laboring under the heavy shadow of impending NCAA sanctions, the sudden resignation of coach Galen Hall and the shock of quarterback Kyle Morris's having been kicked off the team, he ran for a career-high 316 yards, plus three TDs, in a 27-21 defeat of New Mexico. The Florida career rushing record, held by Neal Anderson (3,234), fell that day, and by the end of the season Smith's total had climbed to 4,232.
Smith was ready for the pros, and his timing was perfect. The 1990 NFL draft was the first in which juniors were allowed to pass up their final year of college eligibility and enter the draft pool. Smith and 37 other juniors came out early. He was an incredible yardage machine, having rushed for more than 100 yards in 25 of his 34 games at Florida, and in 70 out of 83 high school and college games combined. But pro scouts are funny people. Size, vertical leap, speed—those are the things that get the exclamation points in their notebooks.
In terms of speed—the burst, the breakaway ability—there was a question mark next to Smith's name. His time in the 40 while at Florida was 4.55, on synthetic turf. A New York Giants scout reportedly got him in 4.7. Too slow.
"They talked about his speed," says Emmitt's mother, Mary. "Well, they never saw what he was capable of. They never saw all those 90-yard runs of his in the peewee leagues. I never did see anyone catch him from behind once he had a ball under his arm."
The Cowboys weren't worried about Smith's speed. They were coming off a 1-15 season and a last-place NFC ranking in team rushing. They already had spent what turned out to be the No. 1 pick in the draft on Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, whom they had selected in the supplemental draft the year before. But they still had the 21st pick in the first round, the Minnesota Vikings' choice, which they had acquired in the trade that sent Walker to the Vikings. Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson went into the draft intent on beefing up his defense, but, jeez, if Emmitt Smith is still there.... Forget it. He'll be gone by the 21st pick.
When he was coaching at the University of Miami, Johnson had tried to recruit Smith, but he knew it was hopeless. "He wanted to go to an I-formation team that ran the ball, and we used a multiple offense, with split backs," says Joe Brodsky, Johnson's backfield coach at Miami and now with the Cowboys. "We took our shot early, but he blew on by.
"Now, drafting him was a different story. I'd gone down to Gainesville to work him out, and we'd seen him on films. We knew all about him. You had to be an idiot not to recognize the talent there. What I did find out, though, was what kind of a person he was: played in pain, never missed a workout, not a nick-and-bump guy who'd miss a lot of practice time, an extra-good worker and not a complainer."
In the Cowboys' first draft meeting, Johnson asked Brodsky if Smith was the kind of player who could take Dallas to the next level. "He's magnificent," Brodsky said. Then, Johnson asked about Smith's speed—and got a far more positive response than some of Smith's 40-yard clockings would have seemed to warrant. "He'll take your breath away, and you won't get it back until he scores," Brodsky said.
Halfway through the first round of the draft, only one running back had been chosen—Blair Thomas of Penn State, by the New York Jets. Smith's availability energized the Cowboys, who then traded up to get the Pittsburgh Steelers' pick at No. 17 so they could take Smith.
"Just as we were turning the pick in, [vice-president of player personnel] Ken Herock from the Falcons called," says Johnson. "He had phoned Pittsburgh right after us. He asked me, 'What can we give you for your pick?' I told him it had already been made. He asked me whom we'd taken, and I told him. Then he said, 'Well, what can we give you for Emmitt Smith?' and I just laughed.
"Emmitt had been our fourth-rated player in the entire draft. Our owner, Jerry Jones, went on the radio that night and mentioned it, and when it was time to talk contract, Emmitt's agent reminded him of that. Which I'm sure is one reason why he held out for the whole training camp."
Still, Smith was the Cowboys' starting running back by Game 2 of his rookie season. One big day, 121 yards against the Tampa Bay Bucs, was about it for his first 11 games, and then he did a strange thing. He complained. Dallas was coming off two losses—to the Jets and the San Francisco 49ers—in which it didn't score a touchdown. Smith had carried a total of 21 times in those games. He spoke to Brodsky and then went public on a radio show: The ball, please, I'd like the ball.
"I'd listened to the coaching staff saying in the meetings, 'We need to gain 100 yards on the ground,' " says Smith, "but how were we going to do it if I was only getting the ball in my hands 12, 14 times a game? I felt that we had to run to take the pressure off Troy Aikman."
In the next four games, Smith had 88 carries for 374 yards and seven TDs—and the Cowboys had four wins. He ran for more than 100 yards in two of the games. O.K., so he wasn't quite the yardage machine he'd been in high school and college, but he was getting there.
In fact, he has arrived there this season. After seven games, he leads the NFC in rushing with 699 yards and he has rushed for more than 100 yards four times, his best effort having been 182 yards against the Phoenix Cardinals. That means he has run for more than 100 yards in 77 of 106 games, lifetime—with about 10 more years to go. The most interesting statistic, though, is the way he has dominated Dallas's ground action this season. He has 90.4% of the Cowboys' yards on the ground and has made 81.8% of the team's rushes.
Johnson mentions finding another back to give Smith, who now weighs 203 pounds, some relief. He talks about the bulldozing, 235-pound Ricky Blake, a free agent from the World League of American Football, who rushed for 38 yards in his Dallas debut on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. When someone mentions the fact that although the Cowboys are 5-2, they had less time of possession than their opponents in five of those games, Johnson points to Smith's 75-yard touchdown run against the Washington Redskins and his 60-yarder against the Cardinals. "Long runs make for short series," he says.
Well, what exactly is Smith doing out there, a guy with a supposed lack of speed who gains all those yards? What's his style? Writers covering the NFL have been searching for descriptives for two years:
"Frantic hopscotching, barefoot, on a blistering sidewalk," wrote Blackie Sherrod, columnist for the Dallas Morning News.
"He darts, feints, shifts back and forth like a typewriter carriage," wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jere Longman. "He stops in the hole—comes to a complete stop—looks unhurriedly for a seam and skates across the field like a hot dog wrapper."
Dallas tackle Nate Newton, who blocked for Dorsett, says Smith has the same vision and awareness Dorsett had. Brodsky calls Smith "a guy who thrills you with his strengths, not his speed. He'll go into a pile and come out the other end. I've seen him leave the ground and have to do a hitch step, like a long jumper, and then he'll burst through. He also has the ability to keep his legs clean-he very seldom gets hit with his feet on the ground. That's where you see people hurt."
And Smith, how would he describe himself? "Slow motion, waiting to see what develops," he says. "Constantly moving, low to the ground, trying to stay north and south."
The yards don't awe him, but he keeps track of them, as he has "ever since high school, when I became aware of what 1,000 yards seemed to mean to people. I began to set goals for myself, like 1,500 yards a season. I made it every year in high school; once, my junior year, in college. People always mention Ken Hall and his alltime high school record, and I was very curious about him: how he did it, what his competition was like."
Hall's records are looked upon as remarkable achievements because he played little or not at all in the second half of many games. Smith was handled similarly by Thomas, who still coaches at Escambia. "My theory was to play a lot of kids, and as soon as a game was in hand, we pulled the first string," Thomas says. "There were games where we were ahead 30-0, 40-0 in the first quarter. There were some games where Emmitt carried [less than 10 times]. Then he came out and sat on the bench and pulled for the defense. He's been that kind of kid—unselfish, special, never complained about anything."
Emmitt's parents deserve some of the credit here. Mary, a document clerk for a Pensacola bank, gave Emmitt Smith III his religious training and his respect for discipline. His father, Emmitt Jr., made a name for himself playing high school football and basketball and junior college basketball, and then left school to help support his invalid mother. He drives a bus for the city of Pensacola. He supplied the athletic genes.
They never pushed Emmitt into playing football—"His father didn't even want him to play at first," Mary says—but they have been there for almost all of his games, including the one in college when Emmitt did an end zone dance after scoring. His father had some very serious words for him afterward. "We'll have no more of that," he said, and the dances ended.
"But one time when I scored a touchdown for the Cowboys and I just put the ball on the ground, my daddy said, 'Why leave a perfectly good ball just lying there?' " Emmitt says. "So now I collect the ball. The equipment man and I have a deal worked out. I slip him the ball, and he hides it, and I get it later."
In the off-season, Smith still lives at home in Pensacola with his parents and three brothers and one of his two sisters. When you ask him the standard questions about how he avoided getting involved with drugs and street gangs and the usual teenage trouble, he gives you a strange look and says, "It never occurred to me."
When Emmitt was an infant, Mary says, he would quiet down by watching an entire football game on TV, "just sort of rocking in his little swing, but watching everything." When he was five, he was playing two-on-two tackle games with his older cousins. At seven he was in an organized program, playing in the mini-mite division of the Salvation Army Optimists League. In his first two years of high school he had the odd experience of playing on Friday night and then going back to the same field one night later to watch his 40-year-old father play free safety for the Pensacola Wings of the semipro Dixie League. "Didn't feel funny at all," Emmitt says. "I kind of liked the speed he showed."
Thomas liked what Emmitt showed him on Friday nights. "For four years we did three things, and won two state championships doing them," Thomas says. "Hand the ball to Emmitt, pitch the ball to Emmitt, throw the ball to Emmitt. It was no secret. Everyone knew we were going to get the ball to him. It was just a question of how."
The Cowboys are learning.
"He'll take your breath away, and you won't get it back until be scores."