NFL great Emmitt Smith tackles his family tree, retirement and the pro prospects of Tim Tebow
LaDainian Tomlinson is at a career crossroads. The 30-year-old running back can either ride off into the sunset álà Barry Sanders or he could postpone retirement a while and sign with Minnesota or some other franchise looking for a little help in the backfield.
So, what’s the former San Diego Charger to do?
For starters, he needs to get Emmitt Smith on the phone. The NFL’s all-time leader in touchdowns and rushing yards, Smith has been in the very spot LT currently finds himself. Smith, who excelled on the high school level and at the University of Florida, won two Super Bowls and was invited to eight Pro Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys before furthering his career with the Arizona Cardinals. Some thought the move showed guts. Many said it was just a stupid way to tarnish a legacy.
Eight years after making the decision to keep the cleats on, does Smith have any regrets? In INsite’s candid with the football legend who recently traced his genealogy on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, the 2010 Hall of Fame inductee answers that question, offers LaDainian some advise and shares a few thoughts on that Tim Tebow guy on the eve of the April 22 NFL Draft.
INsite: So, tell me what made you want to take this journey publicly in front of America to discover your family roots with Who Do You Think You Are.
Emmitt Smith: Well, number one it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a complete family reunion because of, obviously, football activities run throughout the summer and my commitment to my sport. So, when this opportunity presented itself I thought it would be a great way to connect back to my family heritage and take a journey that I thought would be very, very exciting and eye awakening for myself. That’s one reason why I chose to do it.
INsite: What do you think that your fans and viewers will get out of watching your episode and the whole season of the NBC show?
Emmitt Smith: I think they get a sense of truly some of the hurt and pain that I was able to feel, especially when you start thinking about loved ones who were mistreated during the darkest times of American history. And, I think, that in itself is moving because then I think the message for me was that opportunities that we do have as African American people here in this great country of the United States of America is for us to take full advantage of those opportunities and handle those open doors so to speak with a great deal of humility. And not only that, but take it to a whole other level because we do add value to this nation that we live in. Our ancestors also added value. Although some of that value has gone unnoticed or unrecognized by some people but times have changed. The legacy of Martin Luther King, where he envisioned a world of blacks and whites and Hispanics and all people coming together to work as one, is starting to happen and has happened. We just need to continue to move the ball forward to make this nation better.
INsite: Sports fans obviously can be so obsessive about their athletes. They think they know everything about you. So, what would these people be most surprising to them to find out?
Emmitt Smith: Probably how emotional I really am as a person. For some reason, most people probably have never seen an athlete that is supposed to be this gladiator-type athlete truly getting emotional. And they’re probably completely shocked at how connected I am to, not only my manhood, but also to the emotions of what the world brings and the emotions of other folk. I’m passionate and I’m sympathetic or empathetic to the feelings of others. And so those might be some things that people might see that they may not have known about me.
INsite: Your Dallas uniform No. 22 is legendary. Is there a story behind that and your famous number or was it just a case of when you were in college they gave you a number and it stuck?
Emmitt Smith: The story is pretty simple. There was an upperclassman [at Florida] who had Number 24 and I was a freshman, so they just put me into 22 just to go behind John L. Williams. Considering that I was built similar to him, that’s just how it ended up happening. So, [it was] nothing that I did on my own; just the fact that it just worked out that way.
INsite: And you were just like, “I’m cool. This number is as good as any,” right?
Emmitt Smith: Without a doubt. I mean, I couldn’t complain. I mean, I’m a freshman. I’m not going to stomp my feet and bump heads with the upperclassman and try to bogart my way. And not only that, but when you’re an upcoming freshman and you’ve been highly recruited from a national basis, it wouldn’t have been the wisest thing to do to go in with a bunch of arrogance.
INsite: When it comes to football these days, do you root for the Cardinals or still the Cowboys?
Emmitt Smith: I root for both of those teams. Now, the Cowboys are my only team that I really truly love. But I root for the Arizona Cardinals because I’ve got guys on that team that I played ball with when I was out there.
DX: And as far as your stats, how protective are you of them? Do you look forward to Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson topping you or do you want to keep some of those as yours?
Emmitt Smith: I don’t even care. I don’t.
DX: LT, Thomas Jones, Brian Westbrook - they’re all at a career crossroads right now. Being someone who has flourished with one particular team and gone on to Arizona, what words of advice would you give those guys as they start new endeavors?
Emmitt Smith: Well, I would look at it this way: One door has closed, another door has opened for a number of reasons. One [opens] to afford you the opportunity to continue to play and to test whether or not your heart is truly in the game or it’s time for you to leave the game. I know every athlete thinks that they want to continue but what they’re going to really find out is how connected their heart truly was to the organization that they played for. And this is an opportunity for them to, obviously, extend their career. But if they do when they do it, they need to understand that the challenge is. They’re going to have to bring their emotions and sometimes, when you play with the organization for a long period of time and you’ve been in this game, it robs some of the essence of who you are as a football player from you. So, it’s kind of hard sometimes to go and sit in a stranger’s locker room or someone that you’ve normally competed against in their locker room and say, Wow, this is weird. Sometimes you have to deal with the aspect of the game itself [that it] is moving on and guys are getting younger and you’re getting older and a lot of guys that you started with are no longer playing. You have to get over all those things. It’s more mental fatigue than anything else.
DX: If you had a second chance, would you have played out your career like you did and moved on to Arizona?
Emmitt Smith: Oh yeah. I still would do it for two reasons: 1)I was able to get closure when I went to Arizona and I love the Bidwills (the Cardinals owners) because they took great care of me. I mean, I played 13 years with the Dallas Cowboys and those other two years when I left the Cowboys, I said to myself I can continue to do this and I can do it at a high level. I’m better than the guys that they’re trying to replace me with. So, when I went to Arizona, it gave me an opportunity to prove that. It gave me an opportunity to really check myself and really see how much I really love the game. And at that time, I realized that my love for the game was tied so much, so much, to the team that I was playing with which was the Dallas Cowboys. That’s where my destiny lies and I realize that to this day. I was able to say the door is closed. I’ve played as long as I needed to play. I’ve done all the things that I needed to do. There isn’t anymore for me to do. I don’t need the money. My love for the game is no longer there like it used to be so it’s time for me to go. I was able to get closure and I think that’s what every athlete truly wants.
DX: As a University of Florida alum, I’m sure you’re interested in the life of Tim Tebow. Obviously, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding him and how he’s used his fame to endorse his political and religious views. What are your feelings on that and what’s your relationship with him?
Emmitt Smith: Well, the amazing thing is people say he uses his fame for political views etc., etc. We use our fame for everything else, why not to help change the way America is run and the way we think about our homeland? I mean, obviously you’ve got people with different views. So, you’re trying to tell him he shouldn’t use his platform to assist in change? To me, I think that’s absolutely wrong because we use every mechanism that we possibly can in order to win an election or even to make change or affect change. I think it’s kind of hypocritical of people who walk around with this double standard like he shouldn’t do this, he shouldn’t do that. This is a free country and we leverage every aspect of who we are as a country to get the best that we possibly can for this nation as well as for our own individual families. It’s a shame.
DX: And what do you think of Tebow’s chances in the NFL?
Emmitt Smith: I think Tebow has an opportunity. Now, obviously he has a lot of work to do. He has to prove that he can read defenses and make the throws that he needs to make at the next level. It’s not going to be easy, but, I mean, he’s a great leader. He’s probably a hard worker and given the opportunity, I’m sure he’s going to probably make the best of it.
DX: Where do you keep your Dancing With the Stars trophy?
Emmitt Smith: It’s in my family room. It’s still in good shape too, by the way.