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Lone Star

As he nears the end of his career, Cowboys' Smith is poised to become the league's all-time leading rusher.


SAN ANTONIO — Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith is a mere 540 yards from breaking Walter Payton's all-time rushing record, just a few good games away from immortality.

And at least one football fan out there couldn't give a hoot.

"I was watching some reporters talking about whether [Smith] was the greatest back in NFL history, and I felt like throwing a rock through my TV," said William Sanders, whose son, Barry, abruptly retired from football in 1999 after 10 seasons and 15,269 yards rushing--1,457 shy of Payton's mark.

"I guarantee you this," Sanders continued. "Put Emmitt Smith in that Detroit system with that line and those quarterbacks, and there's no way he could do what Barry did."

Smith, in his 13th season, has heard similar comments. He knows, he knows--he's nowhere near the running back of Jim Brown, doesn't have half the highlight tape of Gale Sayers, couldn't hold Sanders' Gatorade cup ...

"According to the world, the media, the naysayers, my career was over a while ago," said Smith, 33. "But that's just the way it is sometimes. I know the insides of the game and I know what it takes to be successful."

Smith was the second of six running backs selected in the first round of the 1990 draft, a group that also included Blair Thomas, Darrell Thompson, Steve Broussard, Rodney Hampton and Dexter Carter. Not only has Smith outlasted them all, he has rushed for 1,726 yards more than their combined career total.

Lost in all those yards is the fact Smith wasn't the player the Cowboys wanted most in that draft; defensive lineman Ray Agnew was, but he had already been selected by New England when Dallas' No. 17 pick came around. The Cowboys were already loaded with running backs, so Smith was something of a peculiar pick, especially because the knock on the University of Florida junior's speed.

Concerned he might be criticized for taking another running back, then-coach Jimmy Johnson trotted out Cowboy scout Walt Yowarsky to explain the pick to reporters, a highly unusual move. Yowarsky, the most vocal Smith backer in the organization, was delighted when the Cowboys had a chance to get him.

"If I could have done back flips I would have done them," Yowarsky said.

Smith rushed for 937 yards as a rookie, the only sub-1,000-yard season of his career. He's won four rushing titles, was a key component on three Super Bowl teams, and--although he might not have made the All-VCR team with dazzling cutbacks and dizzying spins--he established himself as the league's premier operator in tight spaces. Give him a hint of daylight and it's a first down. Along the way, he's done an amazing job of avoiding huge hits. As much as anything, that accounts for his longevity. Considering the average NFL career lasts about three seasons, Smith is as much survivor as superstar.

Payton once said: "I want to set the record so high that the next person who tries for it, it's going to bust his heart."

Smith has worked heart-busting hard his whole career. It didn't hurt, of course, that for much of it he was surrounded by future Hall of Fame players Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, five Pro Bowl offensive linemen, a Pro Bowl tight end in Jay Novacek and a Pro Bowl fullback in Daryl Johnston.

"Daryl and I share a very special bond because we've been together a long time," Smith said. "When I was out of place, he was in the right place to recover fumbles. When I needed to get from the right side to the left side, he made the key block for me to do that. He has sacrificed his body for me for a lot of these yards; three-fourths, if not 90% of my yardage."

Whereas Aikman, Johnston and Irvin have retired to the broadcast booth, Smith is still churning away, one of the last reminders of the glory days in Dallas. This spring, with last season's 5-11 record still fresh in his memory, he wrote a letter to his teammates advising them of the dedication they would need to exonerate themselves.

"I was trying to give them some insight on what it's going to take, how hard we're going to have to work, how committed we're going to have to be to win another Super Bowl," he said.

If the Cowboys don't win one this season, Smith probably will not get another chance with them. His age is starting to show. Next season, he will be a 34-year-old back who counts $10 million against the salary cap. As it is, he's coming off a 1,021-yard season, his least productive since his rookie year--and he needed 331 yards in the final three games to get there. His three touchdowns last season marked the fewest of his career.

Meanwhile, his understudy started to creep into the spotlight. Troy Hambrick rushed for 579 yards at an average of 5.1 yards a carry (third-best in the league among running backs with 100 carries or more), and established himself as the team's back of the future.

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