The kaleidoscopic puzzles that opened on the defensive side of the ball on every play simply were not as puzzling to him as they were to everyone else. He had a pace about him, rather than an overpowering speed or overpowering strength. He could see what was going to happen, use his blockers, react, use his talents to elude the trouble.
"When I line up, I don't see the wide receivers or the cornerbacks, but I see everybody else on both teams," he explained to sportswriters. "It's not a blur, but a clear picture. I probably see things other people don't see. I can see changes in coverage. I can usually look at a defense and see where the hole will be, regardless of where the play was called. That part is more difficult now. In high school I'd sometimes tell the fullback where the hole was going to be before the snap, and the majority of the time I was right. Sometimes I'd mess around and run toward the hole with my eyes closed."
Again his determination was mentioned. By the end of Smith's sophomore season at Florida, when he had already broken 17 school single-season and five single-game records and had run for more than 100 yards in 15 of his 19 college starts, sportswriter Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union was headed to the library to find out why this guy was so good. Frenette found a quote from sports psychologist Jim Loehr.
"It's always interesting to me that the great athletes don't feel their greatness is due to great genes," Loehr had said. "One [factor] that constantly emerges in psychological tests of greatness is level of drive. That's the single greatest predictor of all. How passionate is the person going after a particular goal? So many people who rise to greatness in sports don't feel they're genetically gifted, like Larry Bird or Wayne Gretzky. Mental toughness, most athletes will tell you, was the deciding factor. They were able to get the emotional part together better than most of their counterparts. You look at Bird, and you don't believe he can be that great when he stands next to all these super Ferraris. Obviously he has something beyond genetic superiority."
Amazingly, most of the pro football scouts seemed to pay no attention to any of this. When Smith became one of the 38 college juniors to declare their eligibility for the 1990 NFL draft—the first class allowed to do so—he was not the generally accepted top-of-the-heap pick. True, his junior season had been played amid chaos as Hall resigned and the threat of probation swirled around Florida's football program, but he hadn't been a part of that. He had simply kept running, relentless as ever. He had broken his own school single-game rushing record with 316 yards against New Mexico, had increased his total of 100-yard games to 25, had finished with a school-record 3,928 yards (a mark that Errict Rhett broke last season). He had been a yardage machine.
Sixteen teams nevertheless passed on him in the first round of the draft. The first running back chosen was Blair Thomas of Penn State. Blair Thomas? It was as if the scouts couldn't believe their eyes, only their stopwatches. Only the Cowboys, who oddly enough had started all of this computer-based scouting—throughout their first run at glory, during the 1970s, they took obscure prospects instead of guys with proven results—went for face value. They traded up to pick Smith 17th.
"There were all these people saying, 'He's too slow,' or 'He's too small,' " coach Jimmy Johnson says. "All I know is that every time I saw a film of him, he was running 50, 60, 70, 80 yards for a touchdown. That looked pretty good to me."
"It was a no-brainer," Dallas backfield coach Joe Brodsky says. "We'd tried to recruit him when we were at the University of Miami, but we didn't have a chance. I guess a lot of teams were worried about how he'd do in a pro offense, as opposed to the toss-me-the-ball-and-let-me-run that they play in college. Well, we just toss him the ball and let him run in the pros. I've said this before. He touches the ball and he takes your breath away, and you don't get it back until he's finished."
Jones, delighted by the pick, said on the radio that Smith was "rated fourth overall on our list," a steal. This giddiness was soon tempered at the bargaining table. With Howell as his agent and armed with that Jones quote and all of those statistics from Florida, Smith asked to be paid as if he were the fourth pick in the draft. This brought an early impasse—and a glimpse of the future. Smith sat out the entire training camp before signing the three-year deal for $2.175 million. The Cowboys wanted a five-year deal, but Smith and Howell wanted something shorter so they could negotiate again.
"And that's the way it went," Howell says. "Emmitt signed, and he didn't ask to renegotiate, as so many players do. He honored the terms of that contract. Then, when it was finished, he wanted to get what he deserved."