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 teamand historyon his shoulder pads.
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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 consultant] in 1997, people were saying he was washed up. That was five thousand yards ago. I wish I had been his marketing manager.”
“How does he do it?” I ask.
“Emmitt is out here working every day, just like Jimmy Brown did,” Warfield says. “During my rookie year, we were practicing a sweep for a game, and the defense was wearing the other team’s numbers so we’d get a good picture. Suddenly Jim stops in his tracks, points to the middle linebacker, and yells, ‘Sam Huff would never take that angle! Let’s run it again, the right way.’ You see Emmitt do the same thing. He watches the angle of pursuit, then goes another ten to fifteen yards downfield to complete every play. It happens here in camp, or it doesn’t happen.”
“As the team has changed, he has changed his running style,” Hill observes. “Some of his best runs have been no longer than three yards. He knows when to go down, when to fold. A lot of great runners—Earl Campbell comes to mind—self-destructed. Emmitt has missed only two or three games in his entire career.”
We watch in appreciation as Smith breaks up the middle and eludes a linebacker, not with a stiff arm to the face but with a chopping motion of his hand and arm. “Look at that!” Warfield marvels. “I’ve never seen a back do that before. It’s like a martial arts move, except it’s instinctive.”
If there was any doubt about Smith’s importance to this team, Jerry Jones’s impulsive decision to cut quarterback Tony Banks and give Quincy Carter the starting job left no doubt. The announcement caught Smith—and everyone else—by surprise. “All I can say is ‘Wow!'” he told reporters. He knows that with the strategy to throw deep to Joey Galloway and Raghib Ismail scrapped, the team will use a more conservative attack. It’s going to be Smith left, Smith right, Smith up the middle—augmented by an occasional short pass to Smith in the flat. That was the same offense that cost the previous coach, Chan Gailey, his job.
The change of quarterbacks places a dire and daunting burden on Smith. Counting playoff games, he has carried the ball 3,886 times in his career. Football is a violent, unforgiving sport. There is contact on every play, with pain, bruising, breaks, tears. Every time a player steps onto the field, even in practice, he risks injury. A freak hit, a twist, an awkward fall, the unthinkable could happen. The Cowboys could be forced to cut Smith. Jones says he can’t envision that happening, but a year ago he couldn’t envision Aikman retiring or the Cowboys starting a season with an unproven rookie at quarterback. Even worse, next year Smith is scheduled to count $10.3 million against the salary cap. Jones says that the team will be in much better position to afford Smith in 2002. But then Jerry doesn’t always mean what he says, does he? It’s possible, and Dallas fans know it, that when Smith breaks Payton’s record, he won’t be wearing a Cowboys uniform.
Smith understands that if he gets hurt, it’s “So long, Big D.” When asked how he feels about that, he is thoughtful and businesslike. “Why should I be any different?” he replies.