Suddenly, late on Sunday afternoon, he had nothing left to
explain. It was all coming back: The line kept opening holes, and
Emmitt Smith kept hitting them hard and gliding through, getting
closer. Thirteen years ago he had vowed that he would get here,
to this moment in football history, and now it was as if the
intervening seasons had barely left a mark. He spun. He juked. He
ground out yard after yard against the Seattle Seahawks, 55 in
the first quarter alone, each step taking him closer to Walter
Payton's NFL rushing record, each step taking the sellout crowd
at Texas Stadium back to his prime. Smith wanted it no other way,
of course--for Payton's family, for the Dallas Cowboys, for
himself most of all. He had struggled all season to find his
game, feeling the city turning on him bit by bit, feeling for the
first time the sting of words like old and finished and selfish.
All season Smith had tried to pretend that this didn't hurt. In
his calmer moments before Sunday he would smile and take the long
view, because Emmitt Smith is a religious man, and it is an
article of his faith that each blessing brings a curse. Or he
would just shrug, as if to say, What can I do?,
for the Scriptures preach forbearance, and Lord knows he tries to
live a righteous life. Still, there's a limit to his patience,
and at times the shrug would turn to rage. Then the magnanimous
Emmitt Smith was a 33-year-old bear swiping at the hounds at his
heels, off and running about "couch potatoes" who "sit on their
a--" and "idiots that've got these so-called sports shows" and
"media chumps." Running behind an injury-riddled line that's
still learning a new blocking scheme, playing on a mediocre team
for a city and franchise happy only with supremacy, Smith has
this season entered that paradoxical zone inhabited by so many
great athletes nearing endgame: Even as he was being celebrated
for his march into history, teammates and coaches said he was not
the force he used to be, fans insisted that his backup was
better, commentators wondered if he was hurting the team. Nice
career, Legend. Now isn't it time you stepped aside?
"You can just look at my age and say, 'Yeah, he's 33, he should
go,'" Smith says. "But how about looking at my five guys up
front? They've already been beat to heck, and it's not going to
get easier. We've got young quarterbacks, trying to learn on the
fly. Yeah, I am 33. But have I lost my step? Have I lost my
vision? Have I lost my power? Have I lost my ability to make a
person miss? If I answer yes to those questions, then you might
be right. But don't tell me I should quit just because of my age.
That's what makes this frustrating. You have to know who you are.
I know who I am."
Indeed, long before Sunday, Smith could always look up from his
desk at home and see a wood-carved reminder: EMMITT SMITH #22,
WORLD'S ALL-TIME GREATEST RUSHER. Finally, against a notoriously
porous Seattle defense, he set the notion in stone. Averaging
only 63.9 yards entering the game--and needing 93 to break
Payton's mark of 16,726 yards--Smith heard Seahawks defensive
lineman Chad Eaton say during the coin toss, "You're not going to
get it today on us," then flail helplessly as Smith uncorked his
best effort of the year. By the fourth quarter, with Dallas down
14-7 and flashbulbs popping, he stood just 13 yards short of the
record. Not for a moment did he seem surprised. The Cowboys' next
two games are on the road. Smith wanted to grab history at home.
Yes, Smith knows who he is, and he knows where he is too. More
than speed or power or balance, awareness has been his greatest
asset. He's always been able to read the men shifting in front of
him, anticipate where and when a hole would open, when to make
that famous cutback. So it was: On first-and-10 at Dallas's
27-yard line Smith churned for three yards. On second down he
took the ball from rookie quarterback Chad Hutchinson, cut left,
found a seam, stumbled over a defender's arm, placed his right
hand on the turf, kept his balance and kept on chugging until he
had caught Payton and passed him by. Then Smith bounced to his
feet, face alight, knowing without being told that the record was
his. The game stopped, he saw his mother's face and wept, kissed
his wife, Pat, and their three kids, hugged former teammate Daryl
Johnston and wept again. After a five-minute break, he returned
to the game, capping the Cowboys' drive with a one-yard burst
that extended his NFL record for rushing TDs to 150. He finished
the day with a season-high 109 yards on 24 carries, including six
of at least 10 yards.
He didn't look like a man about to go away; he won't do that
until he's good and ready. Should anyone be surprised? Smith is,
after all, pro football's ultimate survivor. Passed over by 16
teams on draft day in 1990, considered too small and too slow, he
has outlasted all competition. Over the past five years at least
a half-dozen backs have been more highly regarded than him: The
list of those who began their careers after Smith, rose to
stardom and then vanished is long and distinguished. Terrell
Davis, Robert Smith and Jamal Anderson are gone. Barry Sanders,
whom even Emmitt regards as more talented than himself, retired
mysteriously in 1999 at age 31, just 1,458 yards short of
Payton's record. Those are the vagaries in the life of an NFL
running back--for everyone but Smith. He has endured concussions,
bone chips, a broken hand. He is still here.
"By all the laws of nature and careers, he shouldn't be sitting
in this locker room," says Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "Every time
I look over there, something inside me smiles."
Admittedly, Jones has little else to smile about. His offense is
a mess, his quarterbacks still raw, and after losing 17-14 on
Rian Lindell's last-minute field goal, his team was 3-5. Smith
has certainly had moments when he's looked vulnerable and slow,
especially early in the season, but he has been the Cowboys' lone
highlight. All they have is his season-high performance on
Sunday, his 82-yard effort the week before against the Arizona
Cardinals, and the hope that he is only getting warmed up.
"I can still play the game," Smith says. "There's no doubt in my
mind I can still play."
This is vital, because Smith knows that doubt is all around him.
Last season his backup, Troy Hambrick, had a higher rushing
average (5.1 yards) than Smith (3.9). He's hypersensitive to
charges that his run to the record, the cornerstone of the
Cowboys' marketing campaign this year, has retarded the team's
rebuilding process. A few weeks ago Smith read a column in a
Dallas newspaper, "and it really got to me," he says. Never mind
that part of the offending sentence--"No one is suggesting that
the Cowboys have Edgerrin James and Ricky Williams wasting away
on the bench while Smith selfishly pursues a personal goal"--could
be read as defending Smith. Those last six words left him so
depressed that, the next day Pat called his cellphone and recited
Scripture about Saint Peter's failing to walk on water because he
"I've been playing football in a Dallas uniform for 13 years now,
and I don't ever recall anybody telling me I was selfish," Smith
says. "When it comes to the game, I don't know how any man can
fix his lips to say I'm selfish."
Part of the hurt arises from the fact that Smith's reputation is
beyond reproach. But more than that, Smith regarded his pursuit
of Payton as anything but a one-man grind toward a cold number.
No, it was a mission to make good, something personal and pure.
He first met Payton in 1995, during the Doak Walker Awards in
Dallas, when Payton made a point of sitting with him, talking
about the game, workouts, life. Payton told Smith that only he
and Sanders would have a shot at his record. "Yo, I'm with the
man who done did it," Smith says. "And he's just pouring into me,
and I'm soaking it up like a sponge soaking up water."
The following fall Smith began what would turn out to be his most
injury-stricken season, against the Bears in Chicago, by hurtling
over a fourth-quarter pile and landing on his neck. He lost
feeling in his left side and was carried off the field on a
stretcher, wondering if his career was over. And then, out of
nowhere, there was Payton looming above him, telling him
everything would be fine. The men kept in touch, and after Payton
learned he needed a liver transplant in February 1999, the calls
became more frequent. Smith couldn't believe how strong Payton
was in facing death, how he refused to be bitter. "He showed me
how to be a man," Smith says.
During that last year, Payton asked Smith to keep tabs on his
son, Jarrett, a running back about to start his college career at
Miami. Smith called Jarrett a few times, but that was the extent
of their communication. Then, not long before Walter died in
1999, he spoke with Smith for the last time.
"I'm going to be O.K. It's in God's hands," Payton said.
"O.K.," Smith said. "If you need me, I'm here for you."
"Just keep praying for me and my family," Payton said. "Check on
my boy every now and then."
Payton died on Nov. 1, at 45. A memorial service was held that
Friday, and three nights later in Minneapolis, Dallas played the
Vikings. There was a moment of silence before the game, and "I
felt his presence so strong," Smith says. He wept before the
kickoff and then had the greatest half of his career, rushing for
140 yards and two touchdowns, scoring them just 18 seconds apart.
He had never experienced anything like that night, not even in
his three Super Bowl wins, and then he broke his hand after 24
minutes. What did it all mean?
Smith and Jarrett kept in touch, but it wasn't until two years
ago, at Dan Marino's golf tournament in Miami, that the two
finally saw each other in person. After they'd met, Jarrett
stepped back and watched Smith greet his peers and fans, then
turned to a friend and marveled at the similarities between Smith
and his dad.
"He reminds me a lot of my father," says Jarrett, now a junior.
"They have the same personality; they're both really nice people.
Both are big in the community, helping out kids. So if anybody's
going to break the record, I'm glad it'll be him. I've learned a
lot from Emmitt--the kind of person he is, the kind of husband he
is, the kind of father he is. When I get to be that age, I want
to be the same way."
Smith met Payton's widow, Connie, on Sept. 10, 2001, when she
flew to Dallas to help kick off Emmitt's foundation for kids. The
next morning, after the planes had hit the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, Connie couldn't get back to Chicago. She sat
watching the TV in her hotel room when the phone rang. Pat and
Emmitt insisted she come to the house. She stayed all that day,
scared but secure, eating dinner and staring at the news. "I
couldn't think of anybody else I would want to break the record
but Emmitt," Connie says.
This past summer the Paytons invited Smith to the family
restaurant in Aurora, Ill., to present him with the first Spirit
of Sweetness award. Film clips of Payton and Smith were shown,
and Jarrett spoke before Smith took the podium. All at once, as
tears rolled down Smith's cheeks, everything he knew in the
abstract became concrete: Payton was dead, he was going to break
the record, and he had been given something precious. He felt
Jarrett staring at him. "Right then I realized what I was about
to embark upon," Smith says. "And what it meant to me."
On Sunday, with Payton's mother, Alyne, and brother, Eddie, in
the Texas Stadium stands, Smith wept again. In a videotaped
message, Connie told him and 63,854 fans how proud she was and
how "truly blessed" she felt to have him as a friend. This is why
there was no shame in Smith's protracted pursuit of the record.
Too often, in the past few years, the news concerning the
league's greatest backs has been sad or strange or appalling.
Smith knows that a man's life can be measured by how much he
learns from those who came before, and how much he gives to those
who come after, and without some purity of purpose, all those
yards add up to nothing more than a cold number on the page. The
record? Lord, yes, he wanted it, blessing, curse and all.
"But what really means more to me," he says, "is not letting that
For more on Emmitt Smith, including a gallery of SI covers and a
selection of flashbacks, go to cnnsi.com/football.