As difficult as it is to get to the NFL, some athletes are destined to play in the league.
Emmitt Smith was one such athlete.
Smith was a spectacular running back in high school who also shined in college and the pros.
As a member of the famed Dallas Cowboys “Triplets,” Smith helped the organization win three Super Bowls.
Standing only 5’9”, Smith played larger than he was and carried Dallas on his back during a number of memorable games.
Today in 2002, Emmitt Smith surpasses Walter Payton as the NFL's all-tme rushing leader. pic.twitter.com/ibkQVnTHlh
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) October 27, 2018
His will to win was unquestioned, and Smith became the NFL’s all-time leading rusher on his way to a hall-of-fame career.
This is the story of Emmitt Smith.
A Burgeoning Star in Florida
Emmitt James Smith III was born on May 15, 1969, in Pensacola, Florida.
NFL All-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith was born May 15th, 1969. pic.twitter.com/EqKeXa4bv2
— Some Old Photos (@SomeOldPhotos) May 15, 2014
His date with football destiny began when Smith was just eight years old.
That year, he joined a youth football league and played on a team that the Salvation Army sponsored.
When Smith reached Escambia High School in Pensacola, the coaches recognized his natural talent, and he started playing right away as a freshman.
Opposing coaches couldn’t understand how a player so young could run circles around their players.
Smith rushed for more than 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns as a freshman, then added 2,424 yards and 26 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Escambia High hadn’t had much success before Smith arrived, but the end of his sophomore football season brought the Gators their first-ever state title.
Before Smith’s junior year, Escambia moved up a class to 4-A, although the tougher competition did nothing to slow Smith.
Emmitt Smith. Escambia High School. Pensacola, Florida. 1985 (junior year). Wow. pic.twitter.com/Wwuj1gdqFz
— Major Blackentarry (@blackentarry) December 27, 2022
In 1985, he ran for an astounding 2,918 yards, 33 touchdowns, and a second straight state championship.
Escambia High didn’t return to the championship game in 1986, but Smith was named an All-American and National High School Player of the Year.
He polished off his prep career with a total of 8,804 yards and 106 scores, and Smith’s yardage total included 45 games with 100 yards, a mark that is still good for second all-time.
Smith Becomes a Gator for the Second Time
Needless to say, Smith’s insane stats brought the attention of every big-name college program in the country.
Nebraska, Auburn, and the University of Florida made strong cases, but Smith ultimately chose Florida.
After playing for the Escambia High School Gators, Smith would now play college ball for the Florida Gators.
As Smith’s freshman year began, head coach Galen Hall didn’t start him, and the Miami Hurricanes trounced Florida.
In the second game of the 1987 season, the Gators were blowing out Tulsa, and Hall inserted Smith into the contest.
In just ten carries, Smith gained 109 yards and blasted through the defense for a 66-yard score.
Coach Hall was now fully aware that Smith had some impressive skills and started him in Florida’s third game against Alabama.
— CFB Home (@CFBHome) January 30, 2021
By the end of the contest, the entire country knew Emmitt Smith’s name as he set a new program record with 224 rushing yards and two touchdowns to help roll over the 11th-ranked Crimson Tide, 23-14.
Only four weeks later, Smith reached the 1,000-yard mark, making him the only collegiate running back in history to reach that total as quickly as he did.
As Florida wrapped its 6-6 season with an Aloha Bowl loss, Smith had 1,341 yards and 13 touchdowns along with 25 receptions for 184 yards and was named an All-SEC first-team member.
The following year, Smith began his sophomore season on a tear, running for at least 120 yards each game and helping Florida to a 5-0 record.
Then, in an early October game against Memphis State, Smith sustained a serious knee injury and was forced to the sidelines for the next few weeks.
While he was out, the Gators suffered four straight losses.
Smith returned in time to help Florida reach six wins again and face Illinois in the All-American Bowl.
During the game, Smith reeled off a 55-yard run for a touchdown on the game’s first snap.
His score led to a 14-10 win over the Illini, and Smith was named the contest’s MVP.
Smith’s totals for the season were 988 yards and nine touchdowns and another first-team All-SEC nod.
Dazzling Junior Year
Now fully healed in 1989, Smith made up for lost time and ran for 1,599 yards (a new Gator record), 14 touchdowns (tied for the program best), and added 21 catches for 207 yards and another score.
He was named first-team All-SEC, SEC MVP, and a unanimous All-American.
Emmitt Smith as a Florida Gator, 1989 pic.twitter.com/XWbCwG4qrw
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) February 24, 2018
Smith was able to accomplish such great stats despite Florida having struggled to win seven games and losing to the Washington Huskies in the Freedom Bowl.
Coach Hall was axed part-way through the year and Florida turned to former Gators Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier to begin the 1990 season.
Smith was aware of Spurrier’s love of the passing game and wondered how much he would be used as a runner for his final year in college.
That eventually led Smith to announce he would forgo his senior year and enter the NFL Draft.
In only three years in college, Smith broke 58 program records including career rushing yards (3,928 yards), rushing scores (37), 100-yard rushing games (23), and yards per game (126.7).
Two other program records Smith set that stood out include his 316-yard rushing day against New Mexico during his junior year and a 96-yard scamper against Mississippi as a sophomore.
Smith would eventually be added to the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Gator Ring of Honor.
Smith Becomes a Cowboy
It’s a known fact that sometimes pro scouts overthink a player when evaluating him.
After announcing his intention to enter the 1990 NFL Draft, many pro scouts were unanimous in their assessments that Smith was too small and slow to be effective at the next level.
This was in spite of the records Smith set in high school and college.
In fact, second-year Dallas Cowboys head coach, Jimmy Johnson, was looking to add to his defense after a 1-15 record in 1989.
Johnson had selected UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, Syracuse fullback Darryl “Moose” Johnston, Pitt center Mark Stepnoski, and UTEP defensive end Tony Tolbert in 1989.
Thankfully, smarter heads prevailed, and the Cowboys traded up with Pittsburgh to slide into the Steelers’ 17th spot.
April 22, 1990:
With the 17th pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys select…
— ✭Cowboys News✭ (@DemBoyz_News) April 22, 2018
When it was their turn, Dallas used the selection to pick Smith.
Johnson was still able to add bodies to his defense when he selected defensive tackle Jimmie Jones and safety Kenneth Gant later in the draft.
As training camp and the preseason arrived, Smith held out so he could receive a contract that was commensurate with his draft position and talent.
By the time he signed his deal, Smith had already broken a Dallas record for the longest-ever rookie holdout in franchise history.
He then proceeded to start 15 games for the Cowboys and rush for 937 yards and 11 scores and add 24 receptions for 228 yards.
He was named to the PFWA All-Rookie team, his first Pro Bowl, and was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
With Smith in the backfield, Dallas’s record improved to 7-9 in 1990.
“The Triplets” Turn the Cowboys Around
Jimmy Johnson’s turnaround of the Cowboys was quick and well-planned.
One year before he arrived, Dallas had selected Miami Hurricanes receiver, Michael Irvin. Smith’s addition to the backfield led to the immediate success of “The Triplets,” named in honor of Irvin, Aikman, and Smith.
The three best to ever do it! Triplets: Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, and Troy Aikman. pic.twitter.com/lNKvu5Hfll
— Cowboys History (@CowboysHistory) June 17, 2014
Of course, they were only part of a talented offense that included Johnston, tight end Jay Novacek (who arrived in Dallas as a free agent in 1990), and 1991 draft pick Alvin Harper to play opposite of Irvin.
Dallas’s 1991 draft class alone included Harper, Russell Maryland, Williams, Leon Lett, and Larry Brown, among other picks who contributed right away.
With their recent influx of talent, the Cowboys went 11-5 in ’91 and returned to the postseason for the first time since 1985.
They advanced to the Divisional round before losing to Detroit.
Smith made a huge impact that year as he led the NFL in carries (365), yards (1,563), and total offensive touches (414). He also scored 12 times on the ground.
Additionally, Smith caught the ball 49 times for 258 yards and a score.
He was named a second-team All-Pro and voted to his second Pro Bowl.
Super Bowl XXVII
In the 1992 NFL Draft, Dallas selected four payers who would contribute immediately, including corner Kevin Smith and safety Darren Woodson.
Both players were added to a defense that was talented in its own right.
In addition to Smith and Woodson, the Cowboys’ D boasted Russell Maryland, Lett, Tony Casillas, Charles Haley, Jim Jeffcoat, Chad Hastings, Tolbert, Ken Norton Jr., Brown, Gant, and James Washington.
With their fully loaded roster, Dallas cruised through the ’92 regular season with a 13-3 record.
Meanwhile, Smith led the NFL in several categories including rushing yards (1,716, also a franchise-best) rushing scores (18), total touchdowns (19, including one receiving), and yards per game (107.1), and had a career-high 59 receptions.
He returned to the Pro Bowl and was named first-team All-Pro for the first time.
The Cowboys returned to the playoffs and beat Philadelphia and San Francisco to face the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII.
It was the franchise’s first Super Bowl since 1978.
During the contest, Smith was the leading rusher with 108 yards and added a touchdown as Dallas won easily, 52-17.
°° SUPER BOWL XXVII °°
MVP Troy Aikman's stellar day (22-30, 273 yards, 4 TD) & a SB record 9 forced turnovers by the defense stake #Cowboys to 52-17 win over Bills at the Rose Bowl.
• DAL's 3rd SB title
• Emmitt Smith: 135 total yds, TD
• Michael Irvin: 6-114-2 pic.twitter.com/gGCaSzFI3e
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) February 1, 2019
He was the first NFL player to win the league’s rushing title and a Super Bowl in the same year.
Super Bowl XXVIII and MVP
The following year, the Cowboys returned to the Super Bowl after a 12-4 season and victories over Green Bay and San Francisco in the playoffs.
Smith led the NFL again in rushing yards (1,486), yards per carry (5.3), yards per game (106.1), and total yards from scrimmage (1,900) to go with his 10 total touchdowns.
He also had a career-high 414 receiving yards.
Remarkably, his totals came after Smith missed the first two games of the season due to a contract dispute.
During a Halloween game against Philadelphia, Smith ran for a Dallas-record 237 yards.
Then, in the final week of the season, the Cowboys played the New York Giants for the chance to win the NFC East and get a first-round bye.
OTD 1994 – 25th ANNIVERSARY
~ "The Emmitt Smith Game " ~
One of the great performances in NFL history: Emmitt severely separates his shoulder in the 2nd Qtr, but logs 42 touches for 229 total yds & a TD as the #Cowboys edge NYG to win #1 seed, 16-13 in OT.https://t.co/Vx6wlAJ04d pic.twitter.com/wBvP2ER9Rz
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 2, 2019
Not long into the game, Smith suffered a painful shoulder separation but continued to play, ultimately gaining 229 yards on the way to a 16-13 win.
“My heart,” Smith said after the game, “is as big as the world.”
Smith’s effort astounded the Giants as well as his teammates.
“We see him walk off the field holding his arm, and we think he is hurt,” Giants linebacker Michael Brooks said. “But he still ran through us.”
“He came into the huddle and said, ‘Guys, whenever I get tackled, somebody has to help me get up,’” Cowboys guard Nate Newton said. “The man is like a mule. As long as he’s standing, he’s working.”
With the regular season concluded, Smith was named the NFL’s MVP along with first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.
Super Bowl XXVIII was a rematch between Dallas and Buffalo, and the Bills held a 13-6 lead at halftime.
Smith, however, would not be stopped and tallied 132 yards and two touchdowns along with four catches for 26 yards.
Today in 1994, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills 30-13 in Super Bowl XXVIII. Emmitt Smith was named MVP. pic.twitter.com/UvR5x2Rhut
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) January 30, 2016
He was named Super Bowl MVP as Dallas pulled away for their second consecutive title, 30-13.
Super Bowl XXX
In 1994, Smith continued his stellar play by leading the league in rushing touchdowns (21) and total scores that included a receiving score (22).
He also rushed for 1,484 yards and had 341 receiving yards.
Dallas’s three-peat attempt for the Super Bowl was thwarted when the team lost to the 49ers in the NFC Championship game.
Not to be denied, the Cowboys returned to the NFL’s biggest game in 1995.
As the ’Boys were winning 12 games in ’95, Smith recorded several league bests including a career and NFL-high 1,773 yards and 25 touchdowns.
His 25th touchdown put Smith at 100 career touchdowns (in six seasons), becoming the fastest player in NFL history to reach that total.
He was voted to another Pro Bowl and received first-team All-Pro honors.
Smith’s rushing yardage made him the first NFL player to post five consecutive years of more than 1,400 rushing yards.
Not bad for a player who had been deemed too small to have a meaningful career in the NFL.
After eliminating Philly and the Packers in the postseason, the Cowboys won their third championship after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-17.
20 years ago today, Emmitt Smith, Larry Brown and the Cowboys topped the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX pic.twitter.com/8Q8xjH2q7A
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 28, 2016
Smith only rushed for 49 yards during the game but scored twice.
Smith Becomes the All-Time NFL Rushing Yards Leader
Despite the fact that The Triplets remained together through the 1999 season, the Cowboys did not return to the Super Bowl.
Jimmy Johnson left the organization after 1993, and Barry Switzer led the team from 1994 through 1997.
That was followed by two years with Chan Gailey at the helm.
During the 1999 season, Irvin was injured and never played again.
After the 2000 season, Aikman retired.
While the Cowboys were cycling through head coaches, Smith was still producing at a high level.
From 1996 to 2001, he ran for more than 1,000 yards each year.
Smith became the first player in league history to reach 1,000 yards or more in 11 consecutive years and the first to rush for 1,000 yards in 11 seasons in a career.
In 2002, Smith barely missed a 12th straight 1,000-yard season but still ended the year with 975 yards.
His career highlight came on October 22, 2002, when Dallas played at home against the Seattle Seahawks.
In the fourth quarter, Smith ran for 11 yards and broke Walter Payton’s all-time NFL rushing yards record, passing Payton’s 16,726-yard mark.
October 27, 2002: Dallas #Cowboys RB Emmitt Smith became the NFL’s all-time leader in career rushing yards, surpassing Walter Payton (16,728). Smith remains the leader with 18,355 RUSH YDS with Payton still in 2nd place pic.twitter.com/cWPrA8PZzf
— Best of Pro Sports (@pro_sports_best) October 27, 2021
Brad Sham then made his memorable comment on the Cowboys Radio Network.
“Move over, Sweetness, make a place for Emmitt.”
Also during the contest, Smith ran for his 150th career rushing touchdown.
Although the Cowboys lost the game, an emotional Smith made a statement, recalling the late Payton who had passed away in 1999 from cancer.
“Today is a special day for me, my family, and the Payton family,” Smith said. “Because without Payton doing what he did in the National Football League and representing all he represented, he wouldn’t have given a young man like myself a dream, something to shoot after and a person to look up to and try to emulate in every way possible.”
Smith Becomes a Cardinal
Before the 2003 season, head coach Dave Campo was fired and former Giants, Patriots, and Jets head coach Bill Parcells was hired.
Parcells wanted to go with a younger team and did the unthinkable by releasing Smith.
Several teams believed that Smith had a few good years left in him, as did Smith, himself.
3/26/03 – The Arizona #Cardinals signed the #NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, to a two-year contract worth $7.5M. Heralded by the front office that his signing meant the franchise was competing, Smith's role included mentoring and box office attraction. pic.twitter.com/9cLf11HMfk
— Arizona Sports History (@AZSportsHistory) March 26, 2022
He eventually signed a two-year deal to play for the Arizona Cardinals.
“This was definitely a football decision,” Smith said. “A couple of other teams were asking me to come in and be a backup. I didn’t foresee myself being a backup.”
Several media members openly questioned whether Smith could help the Cards as he appeared well past his prime.
“I think I’m a 1,300-yard back, and I will be out to prove that,” he said.
Unfortunately, Smith didn’t reach the mark.
— Legends In The Wrong Uniforms (@WrongUnis) March 9, 2022
In fact, in the 2003 and 2004 seasons combined, Smith started 20 games and rushed for 1,193 yards as the Cardinals won only 10 total games.
However, Smith was knocked out of action for six games in 2003 due to a broken shoulder he received while playing against the Cowboys.
The injury limited him to five starts.
In 2004, Smith started 15 games and rushed for 937 yards and nine scores.
At the end of the 2004 season, Smith knew he was done.
“And I think right then and there I closed that chapter. I walked off, took my jersey off, shoes off, walked to the edge of the Sun Devil Stadium, turned around, looked around, took a deep breath, waved to everybody and walked down the tunnel,” Smith commented. “And I knew right then and there that was it.”
That didn’t stop a number of teams from pursuing Smith yet again, even though he was about to turn 36 years old.
The Buffalo Bills wanted Smith to join their team and contacted Smith’s agent, Eugene Parker, about extending his career.
Smith appreciated the interest, but he didn’t want to play football anymore.
“I said, ‘You know, Gene, I’m done, bro. I’m going home. I’m not going to move my family, have my family chase my career and me chasing after something that I already know is behind me,'” Smith said. “I’m going back to Dallas and get started on my next phase of my life.”
Smith signed a one-day contract with Dallas so he could retire as a Cowboy.
In his career, Smith won three Super Bowls, was a Super Bowl MVP, NFL MVP, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, first-team All-Pro four times, second-team All-Pro twice, NFL rushing yards leader four times, NFL rushing touchdowns leader three times, and league scoring leader once.
He was eventually named to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team, the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, and placed in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.
Smith rushed for 18,355 yards, 164 rushing touchdowns, caught 515 passes for 3,224 yards, and 11 more scores.
– NFL’s all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns
– 3x Super Bowl Champion
– Super Bowl XXVIII MVP
– 8x Pro Bowl selection
– 4x First-team All-Pro
– 1993 MVP
– 2010 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee
Happy 50th Birthday to an NFL legend, Emmitt Smith! pic.twitter.com/rfEzXlQi0S
— Andscape (@andscape) May 15, 2019
His rushing yards and rushing touchdowns still lead the NFL all-time.
Smith and former Cleveland great Jim Brown are the only two players with 10 touchdowns in a season in seven consecutive years.
Among Smith’s many other accolades, he also leads the league all-time in rushing attempts with 4,409.
Smith and Jerry Rice both scored 1,000 points in their careers, the only non-kickers to have reached that mark.
Just as he was busy during his NFL career, Smith has been busy in retirement.
He has been active in charity work and commercial real estate and even won a season of TV’s Dancing with the Stars.
In 2010, Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Today in 2010, Emmitt Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/YZqRZh9j3p
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) August 7, 2020
He was reunited with his Triplets teammates, Aikman and Irvin, who had already been inducted into the Hall.
Smith’s induction was a no-brainer, especially for someone who has the most rushing yards in NFL history.
Given the league’s current propensity for passing, the running back position has largely been a secondary character for the last several years.
That makes Smith’s record almost unbreakable.
“Unless at some time the game starts to flip back to run-first, I think it’s going to be hard for a back to reach those numbers,” current Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “I just feel like a lot of it is philosophy, and I don’t know if there’s enough coaches right now that have that type of philosophy to allow a back to be that.”