In the end the crushing weight of common sense forced Emmitt Smith to retire, even though the last thing he wanted to do was stop. He turns 36 in May; a 36-year-old running back is like a 42-year-old starting pitcher: rare. He'd averaged 48 yards a game in his final two forgettable seasons in Arizona. He hasn't averaged four yards per carry since 2000. The woebegone Cardinals weren't going to re-sign him, and with the pool of running back talent available this off-season thanks to free agency (Shaun Alexander, Rudi Johnson, Edgerrin James), trades (Reuben Droughns, Travis Henry) and the draft (Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams), what G.M. would want the stat-hungry Smith at the expense of a runner on the rise?
"My mind is made up. I think it is only fitting for me to leave the game of football and move on with my life," Smith said in a tearful announcement at the Super Bowl. You got the feeling that the tears came from being forced from the game he loved as much as anything else.
Smith retires with a 1,629-yard lead on Walter Payton on the alltime rushing list, a 4,989-yard advantage over Curtis Martin--who now becomes the leading active NFL rusher--and a legacy of hard work, playing in pain, and class. "I think of greatness, grace and passion when I think of Emmitt Smith," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last week. History, at least my version of it, will place Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson ahead of Smith, but Smith can take pride in being probably the essential piece of Dallas's three-time Super Bowl--winning team in the '90s. Without him, Jimmy Johnson's boat in the Florida Keys wouldn't be called Three Rings.
After the regular season Smith called Tagliabue to talk about ownership opportunities. That, according to one ex-Cowboy teammate, is what Smith would like to do now. But Smith hasn't had discussions with either of the two groups trying to buy the Vikings from Red McCombs for $600 million. There has never been a black primary owner in the NFL, though several teams have black owners with minority shares. If, for example, Timberwolves owner Glenn Taylor can persuade McCombs to sell the Vikings to him, he would be wise to enlist Smith (say, with a 10% stake in the approximately $550 million sale price) as an active front man for the team. Just maybe Smith would be able to talk some sense into Randy Moss. --Peter King