This feature on future Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith was featured in the Arizona Daily Sun during preseason training camp in July 2003.
Different But The Same
By Ed Odeven
For 13 seasons, Emmitt Smith made a living dashing between the tackles, side-stepping would-be tacklers and leaping head first over a pile of linemen into the end zone with the Dallas Cowboys.
That was then.
Now, Smith is the marquee member of the new-look Arizona Cardinals after signing a two-year deal with the club during the off-season.
“The only thing that’s changed on me has been the helmet color, the jersey color, the shoe color and the pants color,” Smith said after Saturday morning’s practice at NAU’s East Sky Fields. “That’s it. Football is football. It’s the same kind of football I played since I was in Pop Warner. It’s just at a higher level now and a different location.”
A location with enthusiastic supporters. About 1,500 spectators showed up for the first practice of training camp, many to snap photos of No. 22 or to get a prized autograph of the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
With a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, Smith looked like a 7-year-old ready to go on a $5,000 shopping spree at Toys ‘R’ Us as he explained his outlook entering the season.
“I’m glad to be here and I think I can bring some of the things that the Cowboys have given me right here,” he said. “That in itself is a tremendous opportunity for the Cardinals as well as for myself. We just have to embrace change. Everyone has to embrace change. Change is good. Sometimes when you stay stagnant, you get stale. That’s one reason why I think the change from Dallas to here was something that was very much needed.
“I think when you change you do have new motivation and you do have newly found energy and new excitement, and excitement brings a lot of energy and a lot of change. You have to embrace it. It’s one thing to just look at it and say, ‘Let it weigh on your mind.’ It’s another thing to accept it and move past it and make the best of it, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Smith has already proved his worth to the Cardinals coaching staff.
“No. 22 is pretty sweet,” said head coach Dave McGinnis, whose team lost nine of its final 10 games a year ago. “Just to stand around with him and watch him interact with these players, even when he’s not in there, to see him talking with Pete (Kendall) and the other offensive linemen, to see him over there talking with the young receivers. Emmitt Smith is Emmitt Smith for a reason, and I love the reasons.”
Asked what especially stood out about Smith’s first day in camp, McGinnis said: “Just his presence. Everywhere he moved and everywhere he moved around, you could tell Emmitt Smith was there, and that’s why he’s here.”
Yet many wonder whether Smith’s best days are behind him. His rushing total has decreased in each of the past three seasons — from 1,203 yards in 2000, to 1,021 in 2001 to 975 last season.
Peter King, a longtime NFL writer for Sports Illustrated, discussed this topic with Phoenix sportscasters while watching Saturday’s morning practice.
“A 34-year-old running back going to a rebuilding team has the recipe for disaster,” said King, who’s writing a cover story on Smith for SI this week. “But that’s why they play the game.”
Smith dismissed the notion that he might be tarnishing his legacy by joining Arizona.
“You know who tarnishes legacy? People (fans and media). We don’t. We play the game because we love it. We don’t think about a legacy,” he said. “As an athlete, or a gladiator so to speak, you don’t worry about your past. You worry about what your future is like and what you’re doing right now. That’s what we do. We play football for a living. We don’t play legacies and history for a living. We play football for a living. That’s on a day-to-day, year-to-year situation. That’s that.”
In 13 NFL seasons, Smith topped the 1,000 yard rushing mark 11 straight seasons . As a rookie in 1990, Smith rushed for 937 yards. Last season he wracked up 975 yards on the ground. In between, he helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls in four years.
Smith has rushed for 10 or more touchdowns eight times, including 21 in 1994 and 25 a year later. He has 153 rushing touchdowns over the past 13 seasons. By comparison, the Cardinals’ leading rushers in each of those seasons combined for 53 rushing touchdowns, led by Ronald Moore’s nine in ’93. The Cardinals have had three 1,000-yard rushers in the past 16 years, mostly recently Adrian Murrell in ’98.
Those stats are indicative of why the Cardinals want Smith in the starting lineup.
“Emmitt’s done it. He is who he is — he’s a great back,” veteran offensive lineman Pete Kendall said. “He’s got the numbers, the stats, the production, the rings. All that stuff backs up those statements. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.
“I think we all like that his consistency is going to be a model for all of us throughout the season. I don’t know that it’s going to happen but I think that’s the expectation. I think that’s why they brought him here. That’s certainly been his history, and that’s what we’re all looking forward to.”
After all he’s accomplished in his distinguished career, a career that will one day place him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, one might wonder what motivates Smith to continue playing football.
“Some players always walk around with a chip and have never been happy or satisfied with what they have done in the past,” Smith said. “They are more looking forward to what they can do in the future, and that’s where I’m at.”