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Greatness incarnate: My time with Emmitt, Darrell Green, Bruce Smith

What is it like to be around true greatness? A lot of fans over the years have asked me that question, or a variation of it, and fortunately for me and them, I know exactly what it's like. That's because for the third straight year a former teammate of mine will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This year it is former Cowboy teammate Emmitt Smith.

It's kind of a bizarre feeling, really. For years upon years growing up, I would look at the newest members of the Hall with awe and watch their peers talk about them in videos sure to be cataloged at NFL Films and aired for years to come. My first thought when I watch the festivities in Canton and see a guy I shared a locker room with being inducted is, "Man, I am really getting old." Once I get over that, I think about how lucky I was to have spent some time around a true legend of the game.

First, it was Darrell Green, whom I played with in Washington in 2001 and part of 2002. Three things stood out to me about Darrell. The first was the game jersey he wore with those baggy sleeves, an old-school reminder of how gameday apparel used to fit. The second was how involved and beloved he was in the community. The last observation I had was how it always seemed like he knew exactly what the offense was trying to do to him and how to combat it.

That last quality is the single most commonly identifiable trait about all three former teammates. They were all wily veterans by the time I played with them, still producing at a fairly high level, more as a result of their football acumen than their raw physical skills at that point in their career. Their intimate knowledge of the game and their positions enabled them to contribute at a time when their bodies really couldn't do a lot of the things that were commonplace earlier in their careers.

That's also one of the things that best defines my second teammate that made the Hall, Bruce Smith, whom I played with at the exact same time as Green with the 'Skins. Bruce was great with his hands and really understood when to turn it on and when to turn it off. He knew by down and distance -- as well as formation and the stance of the offensive tackle -- exactly when he had a good chance to get to the passer and seized it.

The ironic thing about being a teammate of Bruce's is that I was also an opponent. Midway through that 2002 season, I was released by the Redskins and picked up on waivers the next day by the Cowboys. Four weeks later, I was starting against Bruce, Darrell, and the 'Skins on Thanksgiving Day. I completely whiffed on him one play and am somewhat awkwardly proud of the fact that I gave up one of his NFL record 200 sacks.

Alas, my last interaction with Smith was not a good one. In the season finale that year, I had been very aggressive during the game, hustling around the field in order to get an extra shove in or to cut a defender down. Once or twice, it was Bruce. He didn't take too kindly to that and refused to shake my hand after the game. Oh well.

Part of the reason I was flying around was because I was so frustrated that we were going to fail as a team in our secondary goal that day, behind winning the game of course. We really wanted to help Emmitt get over 1,000 yards rushing for a record 12th consecutive season. We couldn't get it done and I wasn't pleased to be a part of the group that stopped that streak for the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

I was happy, however, to be on the sidelines and in uniform the day he broke Walter Payton's hallowed record. I had never experienced anything like that before, with all of the cameras, attention and anticipation. It was like a playoff game, even though it was far from it. The thing that stood out to me about Emmitt was how crafty he was. He always seemed to get the most out of every carry and had some of the best three- or four-yard runs I have ever seen, displaying amazing patience and toughness to keep the chains moving when there was nothing there.

The last story I would tell about these three legends of the game is that I only acquired three autographs during my entire time in the NFL. Three. Guess whose they are?

At the end of my rookie season in Washington, I was given an autograph-friendly ball and I looked around the locker room and decided I only wanted two signatures on it. One side of the ball says Darrell Green. The other says Bruce Smith. I haven't asked anyone for an autograph in the 10 years since then. The Emmitt Smith autograph was a gift from Emmitt to the offensive linemen, an autographed jersey that I later got framed. Looks like the three autographs I got during my career turned out to be pretty good ones ...

Some good mail this week:

I was just wondering about the latest Brett Favre retirement drama. I saw a reference somewhere that the Vikings officials may have been teammates, so I am wondering if it would be beyond the NFL locker room culture that the whole thing is just a prank. Some teammates who are convinced Favre will be back using the media frenzy they know would ensue to needle Brett a little before he arrives. Like a friendly punishment for him skipping camp.-- Ken Perrault, Streetsville, Ontario

Not a bad thought, but that seems pretty unlikely, considering that it appears to have been both players and team officials and it was more than one person that claimed to have received the text messages and more than one reporter who reported it. I have thought about the fact that maybe Favre does things like this in order to stir things up and laugh about how much of a firestorm he can cause.

I always enjoy your articles. Care to clarify the comment about respecting Drew Bledsoe more than J.P. Losman? I am a former offensive lineman through high school and college. Unfortunately for me, I always had quarterbacks that would rather sell us out or blame us for every single problem he had, justified or not. Because of this, I never respected the quarterbacks I played with, even though I tried my damndest for them. This is not to say I never got into a fight to protect them, but it was usually more about hating the opposing player than helping someone that mattered.-- Matt Dohmeyer, Orfordville, Wis.

I believe it is part of the job description for an offensive lineman to protect his quarterback at all times, no matter who that person is. My point was simply that I would be apt to perform that task with a lot more vigor for a guy that I really respected on both a professional and personal level and who took care of his offensive linemen like Bledsoe did.

I really enjoy your article, especially because you don't pull shots when it comes to criticizing the NFL. With that in mind, I wanted to hear your opinion of the suspension and fine levied on Detroit Lions President Tom Lewand. Not to discount his crime, for it is certainly severe, but my contention is that because he works for the lowly Lions, he became a perfect scapegoat for Commissioner Goodell to throw the book at in a "look here, we punish the executives too" kind of way. Thanks for listening, keep up the good work.-- Garth Hammer, New York

Lewand isn't a scapegoat, but he certainly is an example. Goodell has been very clear that team executives and personnel should be held to an even higher standard than the players and Lewand just happened to be the first high-profile incident. The fact that he happens to work for the Lions is meaningless in my opinion.

Every year we read about players signing a contract to retire with a particular team. What is the significance of a former player signing a one-day contract to retire with a team? Example: Ike Hilliard and David Tyree.-- Sheridan, Austin, Texas

There really isn't any. It is just a ceremonial thing and a courtesy that some teams extend to players that they deem worthy of the honor. No money changes hands when the contract is signed, but it does give the player closure and a chance to say goodbye and meet with the local media for one last time.

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