The holdout was deep into the ugly stages. There is a ballroom-dance formality in the beginning of any of these financial negotiations—player asks for moon, while management says moon is out of the question—that is accompanied by the required winks and grimaces and a reasonable understanding that everyone will eventually wind up on the same page of a new contract, signatures scrawled at the appropriate places as cameras click to record the historic moment. That feeling had long since passed. Running back Emmitt J. Smith III was home. The Dallas Cowboys were into their regular season. The formality had been replaced by a standoff, a siege, intractable ugliness everywhere.
"I'd walk across Texas for five dollars," Cowboy owner Jerry Jones said.
"Emmitt Smith is a luxury, not a necessity for the Cowboys," Jones said.
The numbers on the two sides were not close. The Cowboys were offering $9 million for four years, and Smith was asking for $15 million, and the $6 million hole in the middle was certainly about as wide as the Lone Star State. No one was going to budge. The Cowboys had lost their opener in Washington—had been manhandled 35-16 by the Redskins—and were heading into a rematch of Super Bowl XXVII at home against the Buffalo Bills. Smith was working in his store in Pensacola, Fla., selling football cards and T-shirts and other collectibles. An imaginary clock was clicking off real seconds. Time was running out.
"Emmitt was a restricted free agent, which meant that the Cowboys could match any offer," Smith's agent, Richard Howell, says. "There was a feeling around the league that Jerry would make Emmitt the Cowboys' designated franchise player and match the offer, so there were no offers. Not one team showed any interest. My own thought was that if we didn't sign by the third game of the season, there wouldn't be a deal. I didn't think it was going to happen. I thought that Emmitt was going to sit out the entire season, and then next year things would open up, and some other teams would come around. That's what I truly thought would happen. Emmitt was prepared for that."
What would he do if he didn't play? He would probably continue to do what he had been doing for a while. In the mornings he would go over to Escambia High School and work out on the track or in the weight room, which had been renovated with his donation to the school last year. In the afternoons he would be at the store. At night he would mostly be at home. He was sleeping in the same bedroom he had had as a kid, doing many of the same things he had done as a kid. Where's Emmitt? In the living room. Playing video games.
Despite a $2.175 million contract for his first three years in the NFL, despite having led the league in rushing for the previous two years and despite having edged into the commercial endorsement field with companies like Starter and Coca-Cola and Reebok, he was still very much a home-based guy. His father still drove a Pensacola bus. His three younger brothers still lived at home. His older sister, Marsha, 29, had moved out only in the last year, after getting married. She lived all of six miles away.
"I think my children are always going to be around the house," Mary Smith, the mother of this family, says. "And that's the way I like it. Emmitt will get his dream house someday, but not right away. We have a deal—when he left college at the end of his junior year to join the Cowboys, we agreed that he wasn't going to buy a house until he went back and completed college—and we're going to keep to it. It's like I always tell him, 'How can you go around telling kids to stay in school if you didn't stay yourself?' You have to live what you preach."