|Steve Hamm / Associated Press|
|Emmitt Smith had the ability to turn short gains into long ones -- and did it frequently during his career.|
I started watching Emmitt Smith play during his freshman season at the University of Florida in 1987. He would be named SEC Freshman of the Year after rushing for 1,341 yards. I thought so much of him that I helped him get a spot on the 1988 Playboy Preseason All-American team (I was a member of the selection committee, along with Gary Cole).
Smith didn't attend the weekend of festivities at a resort in Arizona to celebrate his selection because he had made a commitment to attend a friend's wedding. He was able to take part in 1989, however, when he received the preseason honor again.
I had the opportunity to watch Smith practice in September 1989, his final season at Florida. They had just lost the season opener to Mississippi, but Smith had played well.
In scouting Smith, I found him to be a difficult player to grade. He wasn't very big (5-foot-9, 199 pounds) and ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash on turf. He also had good -- but not great -- quickness, which is very important to the success of a running back. What he did have was great balance and very strong legs. He had outstanding burst when he saw a seam, which gave him the ability to turn a likely 2-yard gain into 6 yards.
I thought he would be a good player in the NFL, but I never expected him to reach the level that he did during his 15-year career. Smith left school and declared for the draft after three glorious years in college in which he broke dozens of Florida school records.
The Cowboys wanted Smith, and made a trade with Pittsburgh on draft day to get him, moving up from No. 21 to 17 in the first round. The Cowboys had done their homework and knew Atlanta was waiting to pick Smith at No. 20.
It was a great move on Dallas' part.
After missing most of training camp as a rookie holdout, Smith rushed for 937 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1990. Where he really surprised everybody was with his receiving skills.
That continued throughout his career, as he finished with 515 catches.
Smith's favorite running play was the lead draw behind fullback Daryl Johnston, who blocked for him in 55 of his NFL-record 78 100-yard games.
The honors speak for themselves with Smith: eight Pro Bowls, four All-Pro team selections, and, of course, the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards.
Smith showed some grit during his career, too. With Dallas needing a victory to clinch the NFC East and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in the 1993 regular-season finale against the Giants, Smith played through a serious shoulder injury and helped the Cowboys win in overtime.
They went on to win their second consecutive Super Bowl, and Smith was the game's MVP.
Smith was known for his loyalty. He signed an apparel contract with Starter as a rookie and continued with them for considerably less money than was offered by other companies. He was very active in the community, doing events like Take a Player to School. Even now, he continues to be active in many charitable events.
During the latter years of his career, he acquired a passion for golf and has become very good at it. He currently has a single-digit handicap.
Smith holds seven NFL records and 32 Cowboys marks. I always thought he was going to be a good player, but I did not envision him reaching the heights he did. I believe one of the reasons he did was because he was one of the most competitive people I have ever been around.
Smith has kept every football he scored with in the NFL. That's 175 in all, second most all-time. I'm sure that some day he's going to look back at all of them and remember something special with each one.