Talking With…Emmitt Smith

by Tzvi Twersky

I never really had a choice. I had to hate Emmitt Smith. Born a Philadelphia Eagles fan, nurture and nature collaborated to ensure that one more Philly kid rooted against the Dallas Cowboys. So that’s exactly what I did. For the better part of a decade, I hated Emmitt Smith. Until I met him.

Back in November, Reebok hosted a party commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Pump sneaker. With free drinks on tap, plenty of bums like myself were in attendance. But the stars of the night were legend of dunking lore Dominique Wilkins, and Emmitt Smith.

Being there as a representative of SLAM, I positioned myself to sit down and talk with Dominique first.

Meeting Dom was pretty much what I expected. More than 10 years removed from his playing days, Wilkins still looks like a ball player, meaning, he’s still taller than your average.  He still talks like one, too. Never making any eye contact or showing any real interest in conversing, Wilkins shared some good insights. Problem was: I could tell he wasn’t too interested in sharing them. And why should he have been? With the scene swirling around us with good times to be had, I let the Human Highlight Reel bounce after a few questions.

Next on deck was Emmitt Smith, the man I’d despised since I could spell “E-A-G-L-E-S.”

Having known that Smith was set to appear, I’d prepped a whole slew of questions for him. Walking up to the spot that night, I was ready to grill him (as if tongue-tying him would make up for Dallas beating up Philly all through my childhood). So when time came for me to meet with Smith, I was ready…or so I thought.

emmitt-smithHe appears small on first glance. Wearing everyman-kinda dress clothes, a glittering diamond earring and a bright smile, Smith looks average. He also looks anything but hateable.  I wasn’t letting that stop me, though. I was gonna get pent up venom out of my system…until he motioned for me to take a seat across the table from him. With a smile that stretched across his face and eyes fixed on mine, Smith asked me how I was doing.  It’s hard to hate someone who feigns interest in you; it’s even harder to dislike them when their interest comes off as genuine.

So I sat with Em and we talked. And talked. And talked. Thirty minutes across a wooden table washed away 20+ years of disgust, of baseless hatred. My opinion of Emmitt Smith changed for the better for good.

When Smith was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame a few weeks back, I found myself cheering for him. When he broke down crying afterward on TV while talking about his new status, I felt for him. I knew he wasn’t faking the emotion.  And I knew—and no one else did—that Smith’s greatest accomplishment wasn’t setting the NFL rushing record, or the TD record or lasting so long in the NFL. No. Smith’s greatest feat: Getting a dude who bleeds Eagle green to clap for a Cowboy.

Now that’s worthy of a spot in Canton.

SLAM: What do you think of the running backs down there in Dallas now?
Emmitt Smith: You know what? They’re all pretty good.  I like ’em all.  They work well together.  Inside threat of Marion Barber, Tashard Choice doing what he’s doing, as well as Felix Jones, you know, his feet are burning once he gets in the open he makes things happen.

SLAM: But they don’t have Moose like you did?
ES: They don’t necessarily need Moose when they run a different kind of offense.  They run a single back some times; they run a little wildcat, its variations.  But when it comes down to really getting in I-Formation they got a guy, but he’s not the Moose.

SLAM: What you think of the wildcat? You threw one career pass…Like Ronnie Brown throwing the ball 3, 4 times a game?
ES: Hey man, you gotta take advantage of your assets.

SLAM: You think you would’ve been able to do it?
ES: I threw one! It’s all I needed to be able to do.  They don’t pay me to throw they pay me to run. [Laughs]

SLAM: Since you’ve retired, do you think the game has changed a lot? Guys getting bigger and everything?
ES: The game was changing while I was playing. Guys are getting bigger, stronger and faster. They hit harder, too.  The game itself has changed in terms of the physicality of the game.

SLAM: Everyone is talking about head injuries now. How do you feel about all the head injury talk?
ES: I think it’s something serious.  I think it’s something the league needs to take a look at.  I was talking to Dominique Wilkins, it’s amazing how NBA players and their league and owners take care of some of their key players, have them on the staff and so forth.  Here in the National Football League, we’ve got guys scrapping over Disability.  Which is a crying shame, for the work that a lot of guys put in, including guys that came before me.  And if the game continues to evolve to the physical state that it has thus far, something has to be done for the athletes, looked at and taken care of in a lot of ways.

SLAM: Would you have been able to play for a hated rival, the way Brett Favre did this past year? Could you imagine yourself doing that?
ES: Nah, I really couldn’t.  I couldn’t imagine myself playing for any team other than the Dallas Cowboys, until I was forced to make a decision.  And, you know, fortunately for me, I was at the tail end of my career. Football, as a running back, there’s only so many hits that a brother can take, and I took more hits than anybody.

SLAM: Do you think that helped Ricky Williams, being out of the league for a bit, avoiding hits for a few years?
ES: Yeah, I think it did. I think it helped Ricky, I think it helped Marcus Allen, who was out on the bench for Oakland for a while. He had a long career, but, there were some years when he didn’t do a whole lot because Al Davis was trippin’.

SLAM: A lot of talk here about Allen Iverson, how maybe his legacy is a little tarnished. How did you want to end your career?
ES: You know what, I’m happy about my ending for two reasons: One, I got football completely out of my system by going to the Arizona Cardinals. I knew once I left the Arizona Cardinals it was time for me to leave the game alone. So I’m happy and content. Two, my career, all the work I’ve done, was done in 13 years. Thirteen years, look at what I was able to achieve. Three super bowl rings, four rushing titles, the all-time leading rusher, playing for my favorite team I always wanted to play for.  What can I complain about? Two years out of fifteen years for the Arizona Cardinals and that experience was a great experience. It was a blessing within a blessing. It afforded me the opportunity to say, I’ve had enough of football. Brett Favre hasn’t had that yet. So I got closure. A lotta guys leave the game without closure.

SLAM: You were also blessed to be in a great situation with the Cowboys. What if you were in Detroit like Barry Sanders? Do you think you would have lasted as long?
ES: I can’t answer that question. I can also answer the things that I know about. The things I don’t know about, I’m only speculating on. And I don’t know how I would respond unless I was in that situation. It would be unfair for me to even give a comment on that.

SLAM: What do you think it would be like to play in that new stadium?
ES: Now I can speculate on that! [Laughs] I know how exciting it is to go into something new. For me, my mindset was always like, the bigger the crowd, the better I’m gonna play. Now, that stadium is a monument. And, whenever you go into that place, the attention that’s coming on that stadium, at that time, the focus on that particular game, is gonna be huge. All because of the venue itself. So, as a performer, you definitely want to put up your best performance in that environment.

SLAM: After playing in front of a great crowd in Dallas and winning so many games, was it hard going to Arizona? Did your passion kinda tail off?
ES: No, no. You know how it tailed off? I realized how much my heart was tied to that Star, and my passion for the game was tied to that organization.  Because as you heard me say earlier in the interview, I always wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys. So as a childhood dream, I lived that dream, and you love that game, and I love the game, but I realized how much my love for the game was tied to the team I was playing for, at that time.  So things I would do, had meaning, had purpose. Now, I was moving to an area where I had to prove something for me, and that was, do I really want to continue to play this game? And so when you separate the two, you come to realize, you cannot, because you’ve got to have passion, and you’ve got to have purpose, and they’ve got to come together in order to have the focus and determination and energy that you need for the cause.

emmitt-smith-si-coverSLAM: Do you have a favorite career moment?
ES: Man, I have a lot of favorite career moments.  Should I drop you a few? New York Giants 1992 up here January the second. Shoulder hanging off. Scoring the winning TD in overtime against Minnesota up in Minnesota. Coming back after missing the first two games of the season that same year and playing against Philadelphia and having 237 yards on a rainy night, and then winning the rushing title that same year. You know, the first time I stepped onto the Rose Bowl field in Pasadena, California, in the Super Bowl. Going out on that field for the first time and saying, Wow, here I am, in the stadium that I sat in six  years prior to with my best friend to watch the Giants play the Denver Broncos. I sat in that stadium, and then six years later I’m playing in it. You know, my life has been surreal, I mean, just been crazy. So, as much as a story as people want to make it and say this, this and that, I say, The hell with that. My life has been freak-tastic, and you ain’t have nothing to do with it. Because  God orchestrated it for me. You are just writing about; you’re viewing it; you have the chance to watch a movie in real life. And I’m living the movie, I’m living the dream.

SLAM: Was your first Super Bowl your favorite one?
ES: You know, there’s nothing like your very first one. That first one is the one where you get the most butterflies because you don’t know what the outcomes gonna be. The second one, the butterflies are not quite the same, and you still don’t know what the outcome’s gonna be, but you feel confident that, Hey, we gonna do this.

SLAM: How about the last one? You couldn’t have known it’d be your last one.
ES: I didn’t know it was gonna be that hard.  I knew it was gonna be a challenge because our team was nowhere near the same as the first two teams. But, we pulled it out. [Laughs] We pulled it out. Made plays on the mistakes of others. That’s what sport’s all about, that’s what life’s all about. Someone else’s misfortune can be someone else’s pleasure.

SLAM: What’s it like watching the game now that you’ve been through your career?
ES: You know, it’s cool because I see a lot of the mistakes that took place throughout the game. Mistakes in terms of blocking assignments, running back position. I see some guys that may miss a cut. I see a lot of mistakes made up front by the offensive line. I see what the defense is doing, to try and stop the offensive attack. And… I sit back and watch guys sometimes and I see how sometimes they take things for granted, because they’re young, they’re strong and they believe it’s gonna last forever. That’s not the case.