Snap Judgments: Emmitt Smith's career comes full circle, more
Watching Emmitt Smith go from high school star to Hall of Famer was a treat
The Ravens have a history of getting a lot out of veteran QBs like Marc Bulger
Keep an eye on Chargers rookie Shawnbrey McNeal as the next Darren Sproles
Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we prepare to hit the road next week for some NFL training camps and the stickiest, sweatiest portion of every football season...
Listening earlier this week to Emmitt Smith ruminate and reflect on his upcoming induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame made me feel particularly ancient and acutely aware of the passage of time. In the midst of his NFL-organized conference call on Monday, it dawned on me that I have now witnessed as close to the complete arc of his football life span as any player I've ever interviewed or written about.
In a little more than 2½ weeks, Smith and six other football luminaries get to pull on those gaudy yellow blazers and closely inspect their newly unveiled busts as they're enshrined in Canton. But when it comes to Jerry Rice, John Randle, Rickey Jackson, Floyd Little, Dick LeBeau or Russ Grimm, I can't say I've been watching and hearing about them since they were 15-year-old sophomores in high school like I can with Smith, who is the biggest thing to ever come out of Pensacola, Fla.
The first time I heard Emmitt Smith's name was 26 years ago this fall, when he and his Escambia High Gators soundly beat the undefeated St. Petersburg High Green Devils in the Class 3A state championship game. That was late 1984, and the title game was a big stinking deal in my hometown of St. Petersburg, where I was just out of college and starting my reporting career covering high school sports for the St. Petersburg Times.
It was no doubt the biggest game to date of Smith's nascent football career, but as you know, he would go on to star in quite a few more, including the next year when Escambia repeated as state champs thanks to their unstoppable junior running back. And here he is today -- after 15 NFL seasons, three Super Bowl rings and the league's all-time rushing record -- getting ready to be bestowed with football's highest honor, a spot in the hallowed Hall, not to mention being presented in Canton by Jerry Jones, no doubt a thrill in its own right.
I've told this story before (even reminding a slightly hazy Emmitt a couple of times), but I went up and spent three days in Pensacola in May 1986 to do a blowout feature story on the 17-year-old Smith as he prepared for a senior season that would see him climb to No. 3 among the country's all-time high school rushing leaders, with 8,804 yards. Though he was already a superstar on the national high school football scene and being wildly recruited by colleges far and wide, he informed me on that trip, remarkably enough, that I was the first out-of-town reporter he had ever spoken to. I even spent most of an evening in his family's living room, talking to his parents and collecting Emmitt stories from everyone and anyone who was willing to tell them. (Funny, but no one told me that young Emmitt had a gift for ballroom dancing).
You could tell even then that Smith was the real deal, but how could anyone have foreseen where he would go and what he would accomplish with a football tucked in his arms? As hard as it is for me to wrap my late-40s mind around it, since those days in mid-May '86, the polite, well-mannered kid who gave me mostly yes-sir, no-sir answers has put in one last, monstrous fall of high school football, three record-breaking seasons at the University of Florida (1987-89), 13 years in Dallas (1990-2002) as the preeminent Cowboy, two more hanging on in Arizona (2003-2004), and five full seasons of retirement from the NFL.
That's pretty much the blueprint for a Hall of Fame football career. Though it has mostly been from afar, having witnessed Smith go from football phenom to one of the game's legendary figures gives me a sense of the magic carpet ride that is experienced by the handful of players who spend nearly every moment of their football careers at or near the top. I'm talking about the first-ballot types, the league's record-holders and former MVP-level stars. It's rarified air up there with the best of the best, a very select club in which Smith certainly belongs.
And now, it's Canton calling, coming full circle in a football career where Smith always seemed to be running downhill and picking up steam. Consider this: While it seems like we've all known about Emmitt forever, he's still only 41. If he's fortunate, he might be able to live half his life as the member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not a bad gig if you can get it.
But a word of warning to the good folks who run the Hall: Like he did with a tackler or two in almost every game, Emmitt Smith might just wear out a few yellow blazers along the way. Better make sure his is one size you've got in stock.
On that same conference call, Smith was asked if he could see anyone ever breaking his career NFL rushing record of 18,355 yards, a mark that some have speculated may never be approached in a league that grows more in love with the forward pass every year. Smith, who broke Walter Payton's mark in 2002, said he didn't think his record was unbreakable, but he also didn't endorse any potential challenger to his throne with much enthusiasm.
LaDainian Tomlinson is the closest active rusher to Smith, but he's still almost 6,000 yards behind him with 12,490, and Smith doesn't sound like he considers him a threat. LT is 31, couldn't crack 750 yards last year in his final season as a Charger, and is slated to get No. 2 back carries with the Jets in 2010.
"I thought LaDainian Tomlinson would have been one guy that would challenge it,'' Smith said. "The last couple of years his career has kind of been going a little sideways. Now, he's in New York and how long he's there can determine how close he's going to get.''
A little sideways about sums it up. Come to think of it, LT is more of an east-west runner these days, rather than good ol' north and south.
Speaking of the Jets and Chargers, they won't meet during the regular season, so we'll have to wish for a rematch in the playoffs if we want to see if cornerback Antonio Cromartie can tackle a Chargers ballcarrier any better than he did a Jets ballcarrier last January.
That was one of the great surprises of this offseason, that the Jets, of all teams, traded for Cromartie after his infamous whiff on an attempted tackle (sort of) of Shonn Greene paved the way for the Jets rookie running back to break off a game-sealing 53-yard touchdown run late in New York's 17-14 AFC divisional-round upset of San Diego.
More than anything, that embarrassingly half-hearted attempt by Cromartie sent a Chargers team that had won 11 in a row home for the winter and punched his ticket out of San Diego. As much Rex Ryan demands that his Jets defenders to play an aggressive, physical style, it's going to be interesting to see if an old dog can be taught a new trick. The Chargers were under the belief that Cromartie was more athlete than true cornerback.
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