Emmitt Smith’s attitude off the field is just as important

By Sports View

Playing football in the National Football League is a dream that many players from the… Playing football in the National Football League is a dream that many players from the pee-wee levels to the college ranks aspire to achieve, and for some special players, their dreams not only come true, but records fall in the wake of their desire to achieve. On Sunday, Oct. 27, the NFL saw the dreams and determination of one man culminate into a new all-time rushing leader.

The man I speak of needs little or no introduction in football circles around the country, but like many other running backs that have gone before him, he respects their contributions and desires to achieve not only their greatness on the field, but off it.

Emmitt J. Smith III is a humble and consistent person who will be the first to tell you that his achievements on the field are because of the hard work and effectiveness of his teammates. Smith has long understood what it takes to be a winner on the field as well as off it. The evidence of this can be found in his upbringing and whom he modeled his style of play after.

Smith is a devout family man, who throughout the years has taken care of not only his parents, but his grandparents as well. In his life, family has played a large role in developing Smith into the man he has become and would be the source of Smith’s blue-collar work ethic.

Growing up in Pensacola, Fla., Smith was no stranger to the spotlight, being the star on the Escambia high school team that built its entire offense around the Smith’s skills. Throughout high school, Smith admired the late Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears to the point that he hung in his locker a picture of Payton.

Smith recognized Payton was not only a great player, but a great man as well. By the time his high school playing days were over, Smith amassed numbers impressive enough to rank him third all time in total rushing and scoring in national high school football history.

In college, Smith chose to attend the University of Florida, where he finished his career as the third leading rusher in Gators’ history in only three seasons. After his junior season, Smith made the decision with the help of his family to enter the NFL a year early. Part of his decision to head to the NFL hinged on a promise to his mother that he would in fact finish his schooling and graduate with a college degree.

In addition to completing his college degree, Smith’s mother also made him promise not to build his dream house until he had completed his degree. Smith lived up to both of these promises, and in 1996 he graduated with a degree from Florida, and his house would come a little later.

Smith, arguably the greatest running back of all time, never wavered in his principles as a player or as a person, which is a rare breath of fresh air in modern sports. In his countless hours of charity work and donations to hundreds of organizations through the years, Smith has truly come to embody the qualities of his childhood hero Payton.

If you look at the career chronologies of both Smith and Payton, their numbers are almost identical. In his 13 seasons in the NFL, covering 190 games, Payton rushed for 16,726 yards on 3,838 attempts which gave Payton a per game average rushing yards total of 88 yards per game and an average of 4.4 yards per carry.

Smith has also played 13 seasons that has covered 193 games and counting with 16,746 total rushing yards on 3,929 attempts. Those numbers gave Smith a per game average of 86.75 yards and a per carry average of 4.3 yards. Payton in his career only missed one game, while Smith has managed to miss only two. The biggest statistical difference in the two players is Smith’s edge in touchdowns, which is currently 150 to Payton’s 110.

The durability of Smith and Payton can be attributed to their constant off the field training that is more rigorous than most backs in today’s game could ever imagine. Payton got his strength from running up the steep levees in his home state of Mississippi, while Smith earned his strength in the weight room and going through countless footwork and running drills.

Both are considered as some of the best students of the game because of their constant study of game tapes so they can better understand the tendencies of their opponent’s defense.

So where does Smith rank in terms of the greatest running back of all time? Well, statistically that’s an easy question. Smith now ranks first in total yards, rushing attempts, rushing touchdowns and touchdowns in a single season.

But are stats enough to make him the best? Probably not, but like in all sports the debate will continue long after Smith has exited the game. This I know for sure: Smith doesn’t care if he’s labeled the best. He’d rather be remembered in the group everyone would argue is the best of all time.

After breaking the all-time rushing record that Payton once held, Smith was quick to thank his family, teammates and coaches. With tears in his eyes, he embraced his mother, who was on the sideline along with the rest of his family.

Smith’s class has not gone unnoticed by the family of the late Walter Payton either. Also in attendance for the historical occasion were Payton’s mother and his brother. Connie Payton, the wife of the late record holder, was unable to attend, but taped a video message to Smith that was played on the Jumbotron at Texas Stadium.

For all involved it was an emotional accomplishment, but even now when Smith had the stage to talk about all he had accomplished he cried as he thanked his teammates for making it all possible.

The best in my mind was the embrace that Smith shared with his former lead blocker now turned Fox analyst Daryl “Moose” Johnston who was covering the game for television. Smith and Johnston embraced for several seconds while Johnston quietly told Smith that he enjoyed everything he had ever done for Smith.

What a thing to say. A former teammate who hardly got the same share of the limelight as Smith did when they played together telling his former teammate it was a joy to block for him. I can’t think of a better statement that sums up Smith as a player.

But how did the family of the late Payton feel about Smith’s accomplishment? Connie Payton, in her video address, said that “Along with being a football hero and on his way to joining the ranks of becoming a football legend, I can say with all sincerity, Emmitt Smith is just a really nice guy. Walter always said that records were meant to be broken, and if anyone was going to break his record, he felt it would be Emmitt Smith. Walter certainly knew talent when he saw it.”

If that were not enough of a compliment, Payton in his last days told his son Jarred, a running back at the University of Miami, that Smith is who he needed to pattern his life and playing style after.

No matter what any analyst will tell you in comparing Payton and Smith, I’ll tell you that to compare the two is crazy. Both are in a league of their own that could never warrant comparison as players or as people. These men truly embody the ideals of competitive sports in their honor, integrity and respect for the game and those who have played it.

I cannot think of two finer men who found the balance of upholding family and community values while still succeeding on the field beyond their wildest dreams to represent the mission and the goals that the NFL wants to embody.

Bobby Pugh is a staff writer for The Pitt News and would like to say “thank you” to Emmitt for signing a bowling scorecard for him in 1989.