Angel in the Backfield

Emmitt Smith enters his twelfth season with the Cowboys looking as fresh as a rookie. That's a good thing, because the star running back is carrying the weight of his team—and history—on his shoulder pads.

In an obscure corner of a practice field at the Cowboys training camp, well away from the bleachers and the organized cheering section of girls in lime-green costumes, I watch Emmitt Smith at work, doing the same dogged job with the same focused intensity that he has demonstrated for eleven seasons. His million-dollar legs look inexplicably sprightly for a 32-year-old. As a rule, once a running back approaches 30, the transmission drops out. But Smith appears as fresh and sassy as a rookie. In the off-season most mornings, he was at the Valley Ranch training facility by five-thirty, lifting weights, jogging, stretching. He expects another thousand-yard season, his eleventh straight, and any hopes the Cowboys have for respectability depend on it.

Smith is the last of Dallas’ famous Triplets—the future hall of fame trio of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Smith—the playmakers who created one of the great sports dynasties. But of the Cowboys who played on those three championship rosters of 1992, 1993, and 1995, only Smith and safety Darren Woodson remain. With the wheels falling off the Cowboys, he is one of the team’s rare bright spots. Watching him in camp, I have no doubt that Smith is the best player ever to wear Cowboys colors. Better in his way than Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Chuck Howley, Bob Hayes, all of them. I’ve watched all the great Dallas runners, from Duane Thomas to Tony Dorsett. Dorsett was lightning in a bottle, the best game-breaker I’d seen at Dallas—until Smith came along.

Smith doesn’t explode by going 99 yards in one run, as Dorsett once did against the Minnesota Vikings, but by wearing out the defense with 25 or more blasts into the gut. As the other team gets weaker, he gets stronger. On a bitterly cold day in New York at the end of the 1993 season, Smith almost single-handedly beat the Giants with his heart as well as his legs, capturing the NFC East title and propelling Dallas to another Super Bowl. He did it while playing the second half, plus overtime, with a separated shoulder. John Madden, the former Oakland Raiders coach who is now a TV commentator, violated a personal policy by visiting the Dallas dressing room after the game to check on Smith’s health and congratulate him on a remarkably courageous game. He called Smith “a warrior,” and there is no higher tribute.

Now it’s August, the temperature is 105 degrees, and Smith is lining up with a dozen nobodies for a brutal one-on-one pass-block drill. What keeps him going, I wonder? Part of his motivation, no doubt, is the pursuit of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record. At the start of the 2001 season, Smith needs 1,561 yards to become the most productive runner in NFL history, not bad for a guy who was supposed to be too small and too slow. There is a crash like a bag of rocks dropping out of the sky, and I watch Smith catch rookie linebacker Markus Steele under the pads and drive him to the grass. A textbook pass block, performed without an audience. A whistle blows, signaling an end to this particular drill. As the backs and linebackers pass by, head coach Dave Campo winks at Smith and says, “Always working, eh?” Smith tells him, “I don’t take days off like most people.”

On the sidelines of the main practice field, I watch a controlled scrimmage and talk with Calvin Hill, a onetime number one draft pick for the Cowboys, and Paul Warfield, an all-pro receiver in his days with the Cleveland Browns and a teammate of the great Jim Brown.

“I thought nobody would ever break Payton’s record,” says Warfield, who is now a special consultant for the Cowboys. “But Emmitt just keeps chugging along. No wasted motion, like A-Rod at bat. Emmitt is subtle, not flashy, but at the end of the day, you look at what he’s done.”

We agree that breaking Payton’s record is comparable to the greatest records in sports—Joe DiMaggio’s hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar’s scoring 38,387 points. And Smith is the only player in history who has won a rushing title, a league MVP award, a Super Bowl, and a Super Bowl MVP award in a single season.

“Emmitt!” Hill says, admiring the ring of the name. “One name, a brand. When I came back [to the Cowboys as a

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