Smith, Emmitt James, III

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SMITH, Emmitt James, III

(b. 15 May 1969 in Pensacola, Florida), record-setting running back who won National Football League (NFL) and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards with the Dallas Cowboys.

Smith was born to Emmitt Smith, Jr., and Mary Smith. He was the second child in a close-knit family, oldest of four sons. Smith's father was a bus driver, and also played semiprofessional football. As a baby Smith was captivated by football on television, and as a youngster his favorite team was the Dallas Cowboys. He began playing organized football when he was eight years old, and being big for his age, he usually played with older children. Later Smith helped his Escambia High School team become a two-time state champion after it had posted just one winning season in the previous eighteen years. Playing running back, Smith rushed for 8,804 yards at Escambia, and was Parade magazine's 1986 high school Player of the Year as a senior.

Smith graduated from Escambia in 1987. A good student who received scholarship offers from many colleges, Smith chose the University of Florida over Auburn and Nebraska. As a freshman at Florida, Smith broke the school's single game rushing record with 224 yards against the University of Alabama. He surpassed that mark when he ran for 316 yards against the University of New Mexico as a junior. In three years, Smith had set 58 school records and accumulated 3,928 yards on the ground when he decided to forgo his senior season to turn professional. Yet some experts thought the five-foot, nine-inch All-American was too small and slow to succeed in the NFL.

The Dallas Cowboys and head coach Jimmy Johnson disagreed. They recognized ability, and traded up to pick Smith seventeenth in the 1990 college draft. With quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin already in Dallas, the selection paid handsome dividends. Although Smith missed training camp while his first contract was negotiated, the Cowboys improved their record by six games in 1990, and Smith earned a Pro Bowl invitation. He was also named 1990 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press. In 1991 Smith led the NFL with 1,563 rushing yards, and Dallas made the playoffs for the first time in 6 seasons. A year later, Smith's 1,713 yards again paced the league's runners, and the Cowboys advanced to Super Bowl XXVII, where they routed the Buffalo Bills 52–17 on 31 January 1993.

By this time, Aikman, Irvin, and Smith were nicknamed "The Triplets." Not only did each have exceptional football skills, but each also had a unique personality. The rugged, self-assured Smith balanced the cool, efficient Aikman and the fiery, inspirational Irvin. "Emmitt is the kind of guy you can yell at on the practice field without worrying that you're going to crush him," wrote Johnson in his book, Turning the Thing Around (1993). "He's too secure for that."

Smith was also secure enough to challenge Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at the beginning of the 1993 season. Dissatisfied with a new contract tendered by Jones, Smith sat out the first two games of the year. When Dallas lost both games, Jones raised his offer. Smith returned to the field and enjoyed his most spectacular season, capturing NFL MVP honors and a third consecutive league rushing title.

The first evidence of a special year came on 31 October 1993, when Smith ran for a single game team-record of 237 yards one rainy afternoon in Philadelphia. "I felt so hot and smooth, so natural and unforced, I believed that I could score on any play," wrote Smith in his autobiography, The Emmitt Zone. His 62-yard touchdown burst late in the contest sealed a 23–10 win over the Eagles.

Then on 2 January 1994 Smith totaled 168 yards rushing and 61 more yards on 10 catches in a division title showdown against the New York Giants, despite playing much of the game with a separated shoulder. In obvious discomfort, Smith somehow managed to gain 41 of his yards during the visiting Cowboys 52-yard game-winning drive in overtime. "I was off by myself somewhere, some private zone, feeling too much pain to focus on anything else but winning," recalled Smith in his book. A field goal gave Dallas a 16–13 victory, and Smith was hospitalized upon returning to Texas.

Finally, on 30 January 1994, after the Cowboys had won a second straight conference championship, Smith ran for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns on the way to being named Super Bowl XXVIII MVP, following a 30–13 win over Buffalo. With the victory, the Cowboys became the first 0–2 team to win a Super Bowl. Smith gained 61 of his 132 yards during a 64-yard third quarter drive that put Dallas ahead to stay, capping it with a 15-yard scoring run. "Normally, I don't watch myself in old games," penned Smith. "But I put that Super Bowl drive in my VCR a lot. I'll never forget it as long as I live."

In 1995 Smith gained a single season team-record 1,773 yards on the ground, caught a personal best 62 passes, and ran for 25 touchdowns, breaking the NFL mark previously set by the Washington Redskins John Riggins in 1983. Smith scored six more times in the postseason, and the Cowboys won their third Super Bowl in four years, 27–17 over the Pittsburgh Steelers on 28 January 1996. After that, Dallas began a downward spiral, but Smith continued setting records. In 1998 he broke Marcus Allen's NFL career record for rushing touchdowns and Tony Dorsett's team record for rushing yardage. In 1999 he passed kicker Rafael Septien as the Cowboys all-time leading scorer. And in 2000 he notched a record-tying tenth consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards on the ground, and became the third back in NFL history to pass the 15,000-yard mark, following Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.

Off the field, Smith returned to the University of Florida and received a B.A. in public recreation in May 1996, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother. A professed Christian who has supported numerous charities, Smith married Patricia Southall Lawrence on 22 April 2000. The couple has two daughters.

Smith's autobiography, written with Steve Delsohn, is The Emmitt Zone (1994). More information about the Cowboys and Smith's career can be found in Jimmy Johnson with Ed Hinton, Turning the Thing Around: My Life in Football (1993); and Jeff Guinn, Dallas Cowboys: The Authorized Pictorial History (1996), a pictorial history book; and also on the official website of the Dallas Cowboys A profile of Smith is "Emmitt Unplugged," Sports Illustrated (1 July 1996).

Jack Styczynski