Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we prepare to hit the road next week for some NFL training camps and the stickiest, sweatiest portion of every football season...
• Listening earlier this week to
In a little more than 2½ weeks, Smith and six other football luminaries get to pull on those gaudy yellow blazers and closely inspect their newly unveiled busts as they're enshrined in Canton. But when it comes to
The first time I heard Emmitt Smith's name was 26 years ago this fall, when he and his Escambia High Gators soundly beat the undefeated St. Petersburg High Green Devils in the Class 3A state championship game. That was late 1984, and the title game was a big stinking deal in my hometown of St. Petersburg, where I was just out of college and starting my reporting career covering high school sports for the
It was no doubt the biggest game to date of Smith's nascent football career, but as you know, he would go on to star in quite a few more, including the next year when Escambia repeated as state champs thanks to their unstoppable junior running back. And here he is today -- after 15 NFL seasons, three Super Bowl rings and the league's all-time rushing record -- getting ready to be bestowed with football's highest honor, a spot in the hallowed Hall, not to mention being presented in Canton by
I've told this story before (even reminding a slightly hazy Emmitt a couple of times), but I went up and spent three days in Pensacola in May 1986 to do a blowout feature story on the 17-year-old Smith as he prepared for a senior season that would see him climb to No. 3 among the country's all-time high school rushing leaders, with 8,804 yards. Though he was already a superstar on the national high school football scene and being wildly recruited by colleges far and wide, he informed me on that trip, remarkably enough, that I was the first out-of-town reporter he had ever spoken to. I even spent most of an evening in his family's living room, talking to his parents and collecting Emmitt stories from everyone and anyone who was willing to tell them. (Funny, but no one told me that young Emmitt had a gift for ballroom dancing).
You could tell even then that Smith was the real deal, but how could anyone have foreseen where he would go and what he would accomplish with a football tucked in his arms? As hard as it is for me to wrap my late-40s mind around it, since those days in mid-May '86, the polite, well-mannered kid who gave me mostly yes-sir, no-sir answers has put in one last, monstrous fall of high school football, three record-breaking seasons at the University of Florida (1987-89), 13 years in Dallas (1990-2002) as the preeminent Cowboy, two more hanging on in Arizona (2003-2004), and five full seasons of retirement from the NFL.
That's pretty much the blueprint for a Hall of Fame football career. Though it has mostly been from afar, having witnessed Smith go from football phenom to one of the game's legendary figures gives me a sense of the magic carpet ride that is experienced by the handful of players who spend nearly every moment of their football careers at or near the top. I'm talking about the first-ballot types, the league's record-holders and former MVP-level stars. It's rarified air up there with the best of the best, a very select club in which Smith certainly belongs.
And now, it's Canton calling, coming full circle in a football career where Smith always seemed to be running downhill and picking up steam. Consider this: While it seems like we've all known about Emmitt forever, he's still only 41. If he's fortunate, he might be able to live half his life as the member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not a bad gig if you can get it.
But a word of warning to the good folks who run the Hall: Like he did with a tackler or two in almost every game, Emmitt Smith might just wear out a few yellow blazers along the way. Better make sure his is one size you've got in stock.
• On that same conference call, Smith was asked if he could see anyone ever breaking his career NFL rushing record of 18,355 yards, a mark that some have speculated may never be approached in a league that grows more in love with the forward pass every year. Smith, who broke
"I thought LaDainian Tomlinson would have been one guy that would challenge it,'' Smith said. "The last couple of years his career has kind of been going a little sideways. Now, he's in New York and how long he's there can determine how close he's going to get.''
A little sideways about sums it up. Come to think of it, LT is more of an east-west runner these days, rather than good ol' north and south.
That was one of the great surprises of this offseason, that the Jets, of all teams, traded for Cromartie after his infamous whiff on an attempted tackle (sort of) of
More than anything, that embarrassingly half-hearted attempt by Cromartie sent a Chargers team that had won 11 in a row home for the winter and punched his ticket out of San Diego. As much
• More than any other personnel move they made this offseason, the Ravens' decision to sign ex-Rams starting quarterback
Bulger's presence in Baltimore speaks of the great expectations in Ravens-land that I wrote about earlier this week. And who can forget the key roles that a couple of former starters-turned-backups have played in Baltimore during the past decade or so? For some teams, there are years in which making the playoffs depends largely on who they've got at backup quarterback. There's some positive history in the Ravens organization for just this kind of acquisition.
First off, there was Baltimore signing ex-Bucs starter
The next year, after Baltimore had unwisely let Dilfer walk in favor of signing free-agent
• You probably haven't heard much about
The Chargers franchised Sproles in 2009 and protected him via a one-year, $7.28-million restricted free-agent tender this spring (first and third-round compensation level), a move they had to make after giving Tomlinson his freedom. But while Mathews, the draft's 12th overall pick out of Fresno State, is expected to get No. 1 back duties this season, San Diego is eager to see if McNeal can prove to be a more affordable third-down specialist in the role Sproles has owned in recent years.
Like Sproles, McNeal is small (5-9, 190) but quick, he runs with power and has good hands. After transferring from the University of Miami, he played for throw-happy head coach
• Something that struck me as I looked over this year's list of Hall of Fame inductees again is the clear-cut divide that exists between players who starred before the free-agent era started in 1993, and those who starred during it.
One thing we've lost during free agency is the Hall of Fame enshrinement of players who spent their entire careers wearing the same uniform and thus became synonymous with their teams. I'm sure some would say that player movement is not a bad thing, and it certainly has been more lucrative to play in the free agency period, but it looks nowhere as nice and neat on a Hall of Fame plaque.
Consider this year's class: LeBeau played all 14 of his NFL seasons as a Lion (1959-72), Grimm all 11 as a Redskin (1981-91), and Little all nine as a Bronco (1967-75). Then contrast them with the other four men who will be inducted next month: Rice was a 49er for 16 seasons (1985-2000), but also wound up wearing the uniforms of the Raiders, Seahawks and even the Broncos (remember?) before retiring just before the 2005 regular season. Smith was a Cowboy for 13 of his 15 years in the NFL (1990-2002), but we do recall those last two desultory seasons as an Arizona Cardinal (2003-04).
Not exactly reason to grow wistful and conjure up a "Where have you gone,