Signing Day, 1987.
Emmitt Smith, the nation's top running back recruit, was keeping a secret. He had visited Florida, Florida State, Auburn, Clemson and Nebraska. But he hadn't made public his decision.
He did give a clue: a red shirt. Rumors swirled through the halls of Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla. Emmitt is picking Nebraska. He's going to play for Tom Osborne. He's going to run the option alongside Steve Taylor.
When Smith stepped in front of the school assembly, he revealed his fake. He signed with Florida that day, declared for the NFL after his junior season and became the league's all-time leading rusher.
Smith, the featured speaker at the D.J.'s Hero Awards Luncheon on May 7 at CenturyLink Center, still laughs about the whole thing. But just how close did he come to wearing the red “N”? In an interview with The World-Herald's Dirk Chatelain, Smith talked about Nebraska, the Cowboys' struggles, concussion concerns, Barry Switzer and, of course, “Dancing with the Stars.”
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Q: What do you remember about Nebraska in 1987?
A: That cold weather did not sit well with me.
Q: You visited in January, right?
A: Yes I did. Nebraska was my second or third trip. It was unbelievably cold. The lakes were super frozen. Snow was all over the ground. Not just a little bit of snow — I'm talking inches and inches of snow. The roads were a little slick. I remember going up there with one of my high school teammates, and we looked at each other like, oh my gosh.
Q: You couldn't hack the winter?
A: No cold I experienced in Florida compared to what I experienced up there in Nebraska.
Q: What else do you recall about that trip?
A: I was totally amazed at the size of the weight room. The strength program that they had was phenomenal. The facilities itself were just mind-blowing. Osborne was a very, very kind, respectful man.
Q: You're one of the most physical runners the NFL has ever had. What do you think of where the game is going now, with the emphasis on player safety and concussion awareness?
A: The game has shifted to a place ... where they're trying to protect the players as much as possible. The games will be affected. I think you're still gonna have some hard-hitting football ... but I don't know if you'll see as many valid hits as we saw in the past.
Q: Is the game better or worse because of that?
A: I don't know if the game is better or worse. But I do know this much: The situations with the concussions and all the other things that have started to crop up definitely have people sitting back and wondering, what can we do to make the game safer? What can we do to protect players? What can we do to enhance the quality of life for these individuals once they leave the game? That's an important topic.
Q: You look at guys around the league that have concussion problems. Are you worried about your own health as you age?
A: Of course I am worried. I've probably taken more shots than anybody in the National Football League. I carried the football more than anybody in the National Football League, and I have more yards than anybody in the National Football League. ... Anything we can do from a preventative medicine side of the equation, I think needs to be done. Guys like myself ought to be looked upon as far as case studies go. Figure what we need to do to increase the quality of life as we get older.
Q: What's the biggest difference between Troy Aikman and Tony Romo?
A: How about three Super Bowl rings? One's a Hall of Famer, one's not.
Q: But when you watch them, what did Aikman do that Romo doesn't do?
A: I notice that the guy cannot get his feet planted. At the end of the day, when you don't have time to drop back and survey the field like some of the other quarterbacks have, it's just a challenge. For the last couple years, once Tony Romo drops back, he's on the move. The offensive line is breaking down. So it's kind of hard to get comfortable as a quarterback and make the accurate throws you want to make when you don't have the pocket you need to have.
Q: What do the Cowboys need to do to turn the corner?
A: I'm a firm believer that you build a team from inside-out. You've got to have a solid defensive line, and you've got to have a solid offensive line. From that point, you can align your skill players to do what they do best — that is make plays. The D-line is OK. But the question is how come the offensive line is not better? Those are two fronts that should be going up against each other every day in practice and making each other better. If that's not happening, something is off.
Q: How has the game changed most in the decade since you left?
A: It's much more of a passing game. You see a lot of quarterbacks throwing north of 35 times a game. And the running game, you rarely see backs having 20-plus carries a game.
Q: Can running backs not handle it anymore, or do coaches just worry about their health?
A: It's a combination of both. When you start talking about concussion syndrome, head trauma and so forth. I don't want to be one of those guys who says they don't build them like they used to. But hey, you have to be battle-tested.
Q: Who's the best running back in the league?
A: Right now, I would say Adrian Peterson is by far. He has proven he's a force to be reckoned with. He bounced back from a devastating knee injury all within a year, which is amazing. He came back and had a beautiful season. He rushed for over 2,000 yards. That's pretty remarkable, too.
Q: Did you ever want to chase Eric Dickerson's record? (2,105 yards in a season.)
A: Don't think I wasn't. Every year, you try to become the very best that you can be. You set the bar as high as you want to set it. You try to rush for more yards than anybody in the National Football League.
Q: If you could take one running back of any era, who's the best?
A: One running back? I would probably say Barry Sanders.
Q: You guys had a good rivalry.
A: We had a great rivalry. A very respectful rivalry.
Q: Did you ever get tired of hearing what Barry Sanders did on Sunday? Or were you watching him, too?
A: I was looking at him, saying 'This is the mark. I'm chasing after this mark. I want to be considered in the same breath.'
Q: But you thought you were better, right?
A: Every football player thinks he's better. At the end of the day, I don't know too many athletes that lack confidence.
Q: I was just making sure.
A: You didn't have to make sure.
Q: If you could host dinner at your house with three football figures, past or present, dead or alive, who would you invite?
A: Probably Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.
Q: All running backs.
A: All running backs. Why not? I am a running back.
Q: Nebraskans really got to know Barry Switzer at Oklahoma. He coached you in Dallas and won a Super Bowl. What did you think of Barry as an NFL coach?
A: I think Barry came at the right time for us. He inherited a veteran football team, which required a coach that was understanding how to treat a veteran football team. It was our job as players to not take advantage of a coach's generosity and be more professional about how we approached the game. For that first year, we kind of took it for granted. After we lost that NFC championship game out at San Francisco, it helped us to get back refocused. I think Barry Switzer was a fine coach for us.
Q: What do you think of the zone-read stuff we see now with Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin? Is it here to stay? Or are defenses going to figure it out?
A: It's going to be very tough to figure out because when you have athletic quarterbacks, it's very, very tough to cover. These guys are very versatile. Whether it's Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick, they can throw the football, they can run the football and they're great magicians. They know what they're doing. That makes it tough for any defense to try and neutralize that. But just like the Wildcat got shut down, I think if you give defensive coordinators like Dick LeBeau and many others an opportunity to really study that veer, they may come out and devise a scheme to slow that thing down.
Q: What's the one thing in your career you wish you could have back?
A: The NFC championship game against San Francisco — the one we lost. No. 1, we turned the football over three times in the first 10 minutes of the game and got behind early. No. 2, I wasn't as healthy as I should've been or could've been. I had some hamstring injuries. I think if I would've been healthy, we would've won that game. That's the one I look back on and say, that's the one that got away.
Q: Who's your favorite athlete in another sport?
A: Tiger Woods. I know LeBron is going to dominate. I know Kobe is going to dominate. But I know Tiger Woods right now is going through that swing change. I want to see him get back on top.
Q: Brady or Manning?
A: Wow, that is a good question. That is a very good question. Can I take Joe Montana instead? (laughing)
Q: What's more pressure: being on the goal line, fourth-and-goal in San Francisco in an NFC championship game or being on 'Dancing with the Stars' with the spotlight on you?
A: Being on 'Dancing with the Stars' was more pressure. Because it's not my natural gift. Football is something that I grew up with. It's something I played since I was 8 years old. To be on the goal line in San Francisco is something I've done many times before. I'm not nervous about it.
Q: I'm sure you got teased a little bit for being on that show ...
A: No, I didn't. I won it. What is there to tease me about?
Q: But so many guys struggle to find something competitive after they retire from athletics. What have you found to fill that void?
A: Well, business itself is the ultimate arena of competition. (Smith owns a Dallas-based construction and real estate company.) I love getting up every morning, knowing I'm getting up with a purpose. With a mission. I know I have something I want to get accomplished. That in itself makes it fun and it makes it competitive. ... All of those things we have are things that replace that competitive spirit I had on the football field. It's totally different right now, and that makes life fun. Most importantly, I'm maximizing my God-given talent. ... What I've done on the football field has afforded me the opportunity to translate that to the business world. My companies are gaining the respect of peers. We're performing.
I don't have any problem not playing football anymore.