The holdout was deep into the ugly stages. There is a ballroom-dance formality in the beginning of any of these financial negotiations—player asks for moon, while management says moon is out of the question—that is accompanied by the required winks and grimaces and a reasonable understanding that everyone will eventually wind up on the same page of a new contract, signatures scrawled at the appropriate places as cameras click to record the historic moment. That feeling had long since passed. Running back Emmitt J. Smith III was home. The Dallas Cowboys were into their regular season. The formality had been replaced by a standoff, a siege, intractable ugliness everywhere.
"I'd walk across Texas for five dollars," Cowboy owner Jerry Jones said.
"Emmitt Smith is a luxury, not a necessity for the Cowboys," Jones said.
February 14, 1994
The numbers on the two sides were not close. The Cowboys were offering $9 million for four years, and Smith was asking for $15 million, and the $6 million hole in the middle was certainly about as wide as the Lone Star State. No one was going to budge. The Cowboys had lost their opener in Washington—had been manhandled 35-16 by the Redskins—and were heading into a rematch of Super Bowl XXVII at home against the Buffalo Bills. Smith was working in his store in Pensacola, Fla., selling football cards and T-shirts and other collectibles. An imaginary clock was clicking off real seconds. Time was running out.
"Emmitt was a restricted free agent, which meant that the Cowboys could match any offer," Smith's agent, Richard Howell, says. "There was a feeling around the league that Jerry would make Emmitt the Cowboys' designated franchise player and match the offer, so there were no offers. Not one team showed any interest. My own thought was that if we didn't sign by the third game of the season, there wouldn't be a deal. I didn't think it was going to happen. I thought that Emmitt was going to sit out the entire season, and then next year things would open up, and some other teams would come around. That's what I truly thought would happen. Emmitt was prepared for that."
What would he do if he didn't play? He would probably continue to do what he had been doing for a while. In the mornings he would go over to Escambia High School and work out on the track or in the weight room, which had been renovated with his donation to the school last year. In the afternoons he would be at the store. At night he would mostly be at home. He was sleeping in the same bedroom he had had as a kid, doing many of the same things he had done as a kid. Where's Emmitt? In the living room. Playing video games.
Despite a $2.175 million contract for his first three years in the NFL, despite having led the league in rushing for the previous two years and despite having edged into the commercial endorsement field with companies like Starter and Coca-Cola and Reebok, he was still very much a home-based guy. His father still drove a Pensacola bus. His three younger brothers still lived at home. His older sister, Marsha, 29, had moved out only in the last year, after getting married. She lived all of six miles away.
"I think my children are always going to be around the house," Mary Smith, the mother of this family, says. "And that's the way I like it. Emmitt will get his dream house someday, but not right away. We have a deal—when he left college at the end of his junior year to join the Cowboys, we agreed that he wasn't going to buy a house until he went back and completed college—and we're going to keep to it. It's like I always tell him, 'How can you go around telling kids to stay in school if you didn't stay yourself?' You have to live what you preach."
Going back to college was a definite option. If a pro football season did not materialize for him, Smith would head back to the University of Florida to finish off those 13 remaining credits. He would live his idle year according to those true-value rules that had been as normal and important in his family's household as a good breakfast ever) morning. Right was right. Fair was fair. Maybe Jerry Jones was a business marvel and a public relations whiz-bang when he talked to the cameras in Dallas, but with Smith he was dealing not just with a rock but with a rock sunk in some solid Pensacola ground.
"Emmitt is as determined as any man you're ever going to meet," Howell says. "And beyond that, deep down, he knows how good he is."
This was a 24-year-old guy who could handle a siege. No one who knew him had any doubts.
"We had a procedure we did with the kids," Dwight Thomas says. "I'd give them these cards. I have a thing I say: 'It's a dream until you write it down. Then it's a goal.' We gave the kids the cards to write things down. I remember sitting down with Emmitt just once, and looking at the Florida high school rushing records. I think it was in his sophomore year. We never did it again, but he knew—and I knew—what the records were. Emmitt had goals."
Thomas was the coach at Escambia High. He had been fired from a bigger Florida high school, Choctawhatchee in Fort Walton Beach, after four years and a 30-12 record. The injustice he saw in his situation—who gets dumped with a 30-12 record?—was a fire inside him. He wanted to prove himself in a hurry. The only job open was at Escambia, 50 miles away. The school had had only one winning football season in the previous 18 years. He grabbed at the chance, making the 100-mile round-trip commute daily, coming in strong with a doctrine of hard work and discipline, making all the rounds to the middle schools, recruiting players for the future.
One stop he wanted to make was at the Brownsville Middle School. He had heard about this kid who was an eighth-grade sensation, running around and through everybody on the peewee level. This was a kid he wanted to meet. The moment is captured in his memory.
"All these kids were running around playing run-and-grab-butt, fooling around, normal eighth-grade kids," he says. "Wiggle-worms, I call them. In the middle of it all there was this quiet kid. He was dressed real nice. Nice polo shirt. Nice pressed slacks. Nice dress shoes. He came over to me and put out his hand. 'Hello, Coach,' he said. 'I'm Emmitt.' "
The rest was easy. In Escambia's opening game the next season, the quiet kid scored two touchdowns and gained 115 yards. Thomas had never started a ninth-grader in his coaching career. Indeed, he had started only two 10th-graders. At Escambia he rushed everything. He started Emmitt, another freshman and 11 sophomores. This was a fast-salvage program. Thirty-eight seniors were on the team at the beginning of fall practice, and only seven remained at the break-up banquet. Escambia High was in the divisional playoffs for the first time in history. By the end of the following season it was the 3-A champion, and by the end of the next it was the 4-A champ, the biggest title in the state.
The quiet kid was far from the strongest player on the team, because another kid, Lamar Williams, was the strongest kid in the state and set a weightlifting record to prove it. The quiet kid was also not the fastest. He ran track in the spring and never won an individual sprint because Marzette Porterfield was a burner, a state champ. What the quiet kid was...the quiet kid was simply the best football player Thomas had ever seen. He was polite, and he was on time, with a football under his arm, and he was an open-field delight, dipping and moving, making people miss, and heading for the end zone.
"I told the team," Thomas says, "that I only had three rules: Be where you're supposed to be; be there when you're supposed to be there; and be doing what you're supposed to be doing. That was Emmitt. In his four years he never missed a practice, never was late for a meeting, and I never heard him say a swear word. Every day before practice I would talk to the team for five minutes, discuss some problem that we might have—stealing or something. I'd read from Scripture. To start the meeting I'd flick the light switch to tell everyone to calm down and listen because this was important. Every time I flicked the light switch, Emmitt was there, sitting in the front row. He never even got senioritis, which is something, because just about everybody gets senioritis. And do you know what he did in the winters? On the basketball team, he mostly passed out the towels and kept the scorebook. That's how secure he was as a kid."
The four years were a nonstop wonder. Emmitt broke virtually all the Florida rushing records, and his 8,804 yards still stands among the top-three career totals in the nation, ever. He ran for more than 100 yards in 45 of the 49 games he played, including the last 28. He fumbled, total, six times. The doormat school became a powerhouse, ranked first in the nation for six weeks in the USA Today poll during Emmitt's senior year. Emmitt won just about every individual award possible.
The college coaches who came to recruit him were as impressed as Thomas had been when he met Emmitt. Here was a kid who had grades, plus a stable family life, plus all of this natural ability. Was this a dream? Mary Smith's first rule of being a parent was to be around her children. She told young mothers that their children were only going to be around for a short time, so a mother had better be with them now, because there wouldn't be a chance later. Mary, who was working at a bank at the time, would stop and watch Escambia practice on the way home, sitting at the edge of the field with the other mothers.
Football was part of family life. Emmitt played, and middle brother Emory (now at Clemson and the Tigers' offensive MVP of this year's Peach Bowl) played, and Emmitt Jr., their father, still played semipro during the first two years of Emmitt's high school career. Friday night was for Escambia High's games. Saturday morning was for Emory's youth-league games. Saturday night was for Emmitt Jr.'s games as a 40-year-old wide receiver and free safety for the Pensacola Wings of the Dixie League.
"Here's what you have to understand about Emmitt," Thomas says. "He didn't have to go through all that searching about who he was. It was Maslow's theory of hierarchy of needs. Emmitt knew who he was because he had a mother and father and a family at home. He was very secure about that. All he had to worry about was who he could be. He could maximize his talents."
Emmitt's most memorable game was not his biggest statistical game, not the 301 yards against Milton High or any of the seven 200-yard games he had as a junior. In his sophomore year he was going to miss the game against Rickards High with a swollen ankle. The ankle looked like a balloon, and he couldn't even run during pregame warmups. He tested the ankle on one play in the first half but left the game immediately and watched from the sidelines as Rickards took a lead. At halftime he iced the ankle and asked the trainer to tape it tight. He returned to the game late in the fourth quarter and gained 89 yards on a touchdown drive. Escambia won in a triple-overtime shootout, a win that put the school on the way to its first state championship.
"He was always a determined child," Mary says. "All my children have been determined. I like to think it's something that starts at home."
"Emmitt," Thomas says, "is a role model. Not just for kids. I mean for all of us."
The University of Florida was a continuation of Escambia High. There never was a thought about redshirting this local-hero running back, but certainly there was the notion that maybe he should be moved slowly into the rigors of college football. This lasted exactly two games. The third game of the season Florida (1-1) was at Alabama. Smith started. He ran for 224 yards on 39 carries and scored twice in a 23-14 upset, breaking a school single-game yardage record that had been set in 1930. By the seventh game of his freshman season he had cruised past the 1,000-yard mark, reaching that milestone faster than any other runner in college history.
"We expected he was going to be good, but we never expected those kinds of numbers that fast," says Galen Hall. Smith's coach those first two years. "He was just very confident. He believed in himself. You'd watch him run, and you'd see he had great balance, great lower body, great vision."
Vision was the word now associated with him most. There had been detractors at the end of his high school career. One scouting service called him "a lugger, not a runner" and said, "The sportswriters blew him all out of proportion." His timed speed of 4.55 seconds for the 40-yard dash seemed to indicate that he wasn't a whippet who could run away from people. His size—5'9", 200 pounds—seemed to indicate he wasn't a locomotive who could blast people out of the way. So what was he? He was X-ray eyes. Vision.
The kaleidoscopic puzzles that opened on the defensive side of the ball on every play simply were not as puzzling to him as they were to everyone else. He had a pace about him, rather than an overpowering speed or overpowering strength. He could see what was going to happen, use his blockers, react, use his talents to elude the trouble.
"When I line up, I don't see the wide receivers or the cornerbacks, but I see everybody else on both teams," he explained to sportswriters. "It's not a blur, but a clear picture. I probably see things other people don't see. I can see changes in coverage. I can usually look at a defense and see where the hole will be, regardless of where the play was called. That part is more difficult now. In high school I'd sometimes tell the fullback where the hole was going to be before the snap, and the majority of the time I was right. Sometimes I'd mess around and run toward the hole with my eyes closed."
Again his determination was mentioned. By the end of Smith's sophomore season at Florida, when he had already broken 17 school single-season and five single-game records and had run for more than 100 yards in 15 of his 19 college starts, sportswriter Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union was headed to the library to find out why this guy was so good. Frenette found a quote from sports psychologist Jim Loehr.
"It's always interesting to me that the great athletes don't feel their greatness is due to great genes," Loehr had said. "One [factor] that constantly emerges in psychological tests of greatness is level of drive. That's the single greatest predictor of all. How passionate is the person going after a particular goal? So many people who rise to greatness in sports don't feel they're genetically gifted, like Larry Bird or Wayne Gretzky. Mental toughness, most athletes will tell you, was the deciding factor. They were able to get the emotional part together better than most of their counterparts. You look at Bird, and you don't believe he can be that great when he stands next to all these super Ferraris. Obviously he has something beyond genetic superiority."
Amazingly, most of the pro football scouts seemed to pay no attention to any of this. When Smith became one of the 38 college juniors to declare their eligibility for the 1990 NFL draft—the first class allowed to do so—he was not the generally accepted top-of-the-heap pick. True, his junior season had been played amid chaos as Hall resigned and the threat of probation swirled around Florida's football program, but he hadn't been a part of that. He had simply kept running, relentless as ever. He had broken his own school single-game rushing record with 316 yards against New Mexico, had increased his total of 100-yard games to 25, had finished with a school-record 3,928 yards (a mark that Errict Rhett broke last season). He had been a yardage machine.
Sixteen teams nevertheless passed on him in the first round of the draft. The first running back chosen was Blair Thomas of Penn State. Blair Thomas? It was as if the scouts couldn't believe their eyes, only their stopwatches. Only the Cowboys, who oddly enough had started all of this computer-based scouting—throughout their first run at glory, during the 1970s, they took obscure prospects instead of guys with proven results—went for face value. They traded up to pick Smith 17th.
"There were all these people saying, 'He's too slow,' or 'He's too small,' " coach Jimmy Johnson says. "All I know is that every time I saw a film of him, he was running 50, 60, 70, 80 yards for a touchdown. That looked pretty good to me."
"It was a no-brainer," Dallas backfield coach Joe Brodsky says. "We'd tried to recruit him when we were at the University of Miami, but we didn't have a chance. I guess a lot of teams were worried about how he'd do in a pro offense, as opposed to the toss-me-the-ball-and-let-me-run that they play in college. Well, we just toss him the ball and let him run in the pros. I've said this before. He touches the ball and he takes your breath away, and you don't get it back until he's finished."
Jones, delighted by the pick, said on the radio that Smith was "rated fourth overall on our list," a steal. This giddiness was soon tempered at the bargaining table. With Howell as his agent and armed with that Jones quote and all of those statistics from Florida, Smith asked to be paid as if he were the fourth pick in the draft. This brought an early impasse—and a glimpse of the future. Smith sat out the entire training camp before signing the three-year deal for $2.175 million. The Cowboys wanted a five-year deal, but Smith and Howell wanted something shorter so they could negotiate again.
"And that's the way it went," Howell says. "Emmitt signed, and he didn't ask to renegotiate, as so many players do. He honored the terms of that contract. Then, when it was finished, he wanted to get what he deserved."
Three years. Two rushing titles. One Super Bowl championship. How much was that worth? Playing for the Cowboys was no different from playing at Florida, which was no different from playing at Escambia, which was no different from playing in the peewee leagues. He still was the dominant player on the field. How much was that worth?
"I see him make cuts now that I saw him make when he was in the peewees," Mary Smith says. "They say he doesn't run fast, but I've never seen him have to run any faster than he does, have you?"
The dominant player on the field simply wanted to be paid like the dominant player on the field. And if he wasn't, he would not be on the field.
The Buffalo game was the turning point. There are two games that will be talked about forever in the tale of the Cowboys' up-and-down ride to their second consecutive Super Bowl win, and the Buffalo game is one of them. The Cowboys lost 13-10, second game of the season, and legend will show rookie running back Derrick Lassic fumbling twice and defensive end Charles Haley slamming his helmet into a wall and coach Jimmy Johnson being almost unable to speak, stunned and angry at what had happened, and Jerry Jones blinking at last, heading toward the nearest bank machine with his card in hand. This was the game when the luxury became a necessity. "The leverage pendulum swung because of the loss," Jones said in simple business-speak.
The Cowboys' offer jumped in a hurry to $13.6 million for four years. The loss to Buffalo was a financial catapult. Smith still wasn't happy, but the sight of his teammates and friends in disarray took hold. Over dinner at an Atlanta steak house, he agreed to the offer that made him the highest-paid running back in history. He was in uniform by Dallas's next game, in Phoenix, running for 45 yards on eight tune-up carries in a 17-10 win. He was back full-time the next week against the Green Bay Packers, and the Cowboys were rolling again.
"The loss in Buffalo meant everything," Howell says. "If the Cowboys hadn't lost that game and if Jerry hadn't moved, I don't think it would've been done. You had to figure Dallas was going to beat Phoenix anyway. If the Cowboys had beaten Buffalo and then Phoenix to go 2-1, it just wouldn't have happened."
No team had ever lost the first two games of" its season, then won a Super Bowl. Was Emmitt Smith worth the money? He was an every-week constant. He gained more than 100 yards in total offense in 10 of his 13 starts. He touched the ball 355 times and fumbled it away only twice. He ran For 1,486 yards, inexorably rolling to his third consecutive rushing title, becoming only the fourth player in history to accomplish that feat. He was Player of the Week, Player of the Month, MVP, Player of the Year.
The Cowboys' staff sometimes worried that it was using him too much, but who could resist? Every time the plan was made to rest Smith, a situation arose in which he was needed. What should we do now? Get the ball to Emmitt. Let him roll, There was a bump in the team's progress when Smith suffered a bruised right quadriceps in Atlanta in week 12 of the season—another loss followed on Thanksgiving—but then he was fine again, and Dallas was fine. His health was the Cowboys' health, simple as that. His presence was the team's presence.
This was illustrated in the other game that will be discussed forever in the Super Bowl run, the regular-season finale against the New York Giants. Who can forget the pictures? Smith's right shoulder was hurt in the first half—"hit the same way Nancy Kerrigan was hit on the leg," he says—and his right arm seemed almost useless. Still he played. The outcome of the game meant the NFC East championship, a week off and home field advantage in the playoffs. How much harder would it have been to reach the Super Bowl on the road? The game went into overtime, and Smith played all the way, grimacing, fighting his body's resistance. It was Escambia vs. Rickards, the ankle taped tight, again. Determination on a national stage. In the Cowboys' 16-13 overtime win, he carried 32 times for 168 yards, caught 10 passes for 61 yards and scored Dallas's only touchdown.
"I never felt pain like that before," Smith says now. "I can't describe it to you. You have to be in my shoes or see the expression on my face to know what it's like. Every time I got knocked down, it hurt. Every time, I had to get back up."
He is standing on a stage in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta, a broad-shouldered man in a black turtleneck and a Cowboy-blue vest. In a moment he will be presented with a black Buick Park Avenue Ultra as the MVP in the Cowboys' 30-13 win over the Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII. In the game he scored two TDs and ran for 132 yards. He won the regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards in the same year. Jones has said of his loss in the long-ago contract standoff: "Maybe we got a bargain." Maybe he did indeed.
"What next?" a reporter asks Smith.
"There's so much more I need to accomplish," Smith says. "I have so much room to grow, both as a player and as a person. If you're satisfied, you're finished. You can never be satisfied."
Uh-oh, Jerry. Don't lose that bank card.