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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 1, 2002
His team faded. Cowboy blue turned deathly pale. After three Super Bowl victories, Emmitt Smith kept wincing as talented Dallas sidekicks disappeared.
Michael Irvin had off-field troubles, then departed the NFL. Jimmy Johnson had left town. Nate Newton was doing rotten; he's headed to prison for drug trafficking.
Deion Sanders aged.
Troy Aikman retired.
Through it all, Smith persisted with honor. Blockers became so inept Emmitt's sturdy 5-foot-9 body absorbed constant beatings.
Smith suffered through losing like he'd never known, at mighty Pensacola Escambia High or during a lukewarm period (1987-89) for Florida Gators football.
Admirably, if painfully, he stood like a champ in the fracturing Cowboy kingdom. Final remnant of franchise greatness. Running with heroic determination. Functioning with class and professionalism.
Today, at 33, Emmitt wants to believe his 'Boys are back, apt to rise from the 5-11 ashes of last year. A more predictable accomplishment should occur around midseason when No. 22 gains a 540th yard to surpass Walter Payton as the most prodigious rusher in NFL history.
In a time of outrageous jock exhibitionism, with rancid spills over bounds of sporting decency, Smith has old-pro attitude. Avoiding showoff funks. Respecting opponents. Frequently expounding on his respect for bygone ball-carrying excellence of Payton, Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson and, yes, O.J. Simpson.
Smith was a high school wonder, scoring 106 touchdowns while running for 8,804 yards in four seasons at Escambia High. When he signed with the Gators, you figured the squat gent might well fail to approach magnificence among the big kids of the tough Southeastern Conference.
I was skeptical until, in Emmitt's third game as a 1987 freshman, he hoisted the Gators on his 18-year-old back and carried them to a 23-14 upset win over Alabama in Birmingham. His gifts kept coming.
Afterward, in the UF dressing room, Smith's youthful maturity and presence were immediately apparent; a teen handling a barrage of interviews with entertaining efficiency.
Smith was magnificent in Gainesville, even as the Gators won just 20 games while losing 16, rushing for 3,928 yards in three seasons before opting for the NFL. Still, many wondered, how might his skills hold up in the elevated air of pro football?
Dallas took a chance with the 17th pick in the first round. Jackpot! Emmitt never fails. In his 13th season, there is no debate about Smith's next career juncture. It unquestionably will be in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Alongside the Paytons, Browns, Dickersons and Simpsons.
He was packing to leave the UF campus just as Steve Spurrier was coming home as Gators coach in early 1990. During most of Smith's time with the Gators, the man in charge was bald, chubby Galen Hall, an old Penn State quarterback who would be dismissed after five games of No. 22's final season in 1989, to be temporarily replaced by Gary Darnell before the Spurrier christening.
Hall and Smith were tight. Now, in Dallas, there is a warm, wonderful new twist going on with the relationship. For all his autumns since Gainesville, Hall has bounced around the business. He became Coach Obscurity.
Hall worked for a flurry of off-Broadway teams including the Orlando Rage of the short-lived XFL, the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe, the Charlotte Rage in the Arena league and the Orlando Thunder in NFL Europe.
But now, in his 37th year as a coach, Hall is the new boss of Dallas running backs, working every day with Emmitt. A reward richly merited. Since their Gainesville parting, Smith has led the NFL in rushing four times, won three Super Bowl rings, scored more touchdowns (148) than any NFL runner ever, and with 16,187 career yards is bearing down on Payton, the late Chicago Bears icon.
"We will hear increasing talk of Emmitt closing in on Payton's record, which will cause 22 to be asked about it every day," said Aikman, a former Cowboys quarterback who likewise has Hall of Fame credentials.
"I can guarantee everybody, having played alongside Emmitt Smith for so long, that the only numbers that will be truly active in his mind will be this year's Cowboys wins and losses.
"We see so many runaway egos in pro football. A lot of popoffs and showoffs; some who back up their bragging and many who do not.
"Emmitt is so far from all that. Football is his life's work and 22 puts in all the strain, sweat and attention possible.
"I will love it when he goes past Walter, so Emmitt can get through all the adulation, and then return to being what he really is, the most dedicated football player you'll ever see. Truly special."
Smith's life off the field appears no less exemplary.
After he had become rich and NFL-famous, Emmitt returned to UF and earned his degree. At home, he and wife, Pat, have two daughters. But now there's more.
Even if the Payton number is surpassed a few weeks from now, No. 22 already has had his best day of 2002 when, on his May 15 birthday, he became father to a son, Emmitt Smith IV.
-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.