Emmitt Smith was home alone one night in April, minding his own business, when the old picture started crowding his head again. It was Walter Pay-ton, the former Chicago Bears great who rushed for more yards than any back in NFL history. Payton was wearing his familiar number 34. He had that big C on the side of his helmet, and he was chomping on that funny-looking mouthpiece. And he was running, running because that's how Emmitt sees him whenever the picture comes back: Payton slipping past the defense, Payton finding open field, Payton scoring a touchdown.
This night a torrent of numbers came trailing after the picture, and Emmitt felt compelled to write them down. He got out a pen and a piece of paper and made a note that Payton had rushed for almost 17,000 yards in his career. Next to that figure Emmitt scribbled the number 9,000, which is approximately how many yards he has gained since joining the Dallas Cowboys in 1990.
On the page the difference seemed incredible. Payton's figure looked huge, almost epic, while Emmitt's seemed small and insignificant. After considering the disparity for a while, Emmitt did some simple arithmetic. If over the next five years you gain 1,500 yards a season, he said to himself, that'll give you another 7,500.
He was writing furiously now, his face crimped with intensity. It was history, after all, that he was trying to draw a bead on: a place where no runner had ever gone before. Add the 7,500 to the 9,000 you've already gained, he continued, and your total is 16,500.
It was still a few hundred yards short of Payton's mark. But there was something else to consider. In five years Emmitt would be 31. Payton finished his playing career at 33.
"I can be there," Emmitt said later, when he found himself fixating on the great Walter Payton again. "But I've got to hit one helluva pace. I've got to get ahead of the curve...and I can do that. There's time, there's time."
What makes Emmitt run? Why is he in such a hurry? What, exactly, does he expect to find when he gets where he's going?
Today he'll find a new $2 million manse in Addison, Texas, just north of Dallas, because that's where he's headed now, wheeling through traffic with an intensity of purpose that would shame even the Indy 500 boys. Emmitt moved into the house over the Christmas holidays, and he really couldn't be happier, despite the fact that the curtains and bedroom suite haven't come yet and the lawn's a little spotty. Emmitt spared no expense in building the place, for this was to be the home of a man who in only six pro seasons had already won three Super Bowls and four rushing titles and who last year set the NFL record for most touchdowns in a season, 25. To reflect his great good fortune, Emmitt wanted something altogether spectacular. And so now he has it: a home suited for Jay Gatsby, or at least for the best football player in the game today.
Until he made the move, Emmitt occupied fairly modest accommodations for a man of his means, in keeping with his reputation for being someone who likes to stay close to his money. He rented apartments, one after another, never paying more than $800 a month for two bedrooms. But when the annual value of his endorsement deals came to equal that of his $3.4 million salary with the Cowboys, Emmitt threw some money at an architect and said, "O.K., build it," and after 13 torturous months it was ready.
To celebrate, Emmitt's family came out from Pensacola, Fla., over the holidays, and some 30 guests stayed at the house. Emmitt's mother, Mary Smith, always the paragon of modesty, took her shoes off before climbing the staircase, not wanting to scratch the mahogany. "Emmitt, you should cover this with some carpet," she told him. And Emmitt answered, "Mama, you don't cover wood that pretty with carpet." What was amazing was how easily the house held everyone. On Christmas morning the family held hands and sang songs, and everybody was just so happy that Emmitt was happy. He remembered how, when he was a boy, he mowed lawns for money and sold pecans and aluminum cans and squirreled away his savings in a beat-up shoe-box and dreamed a house like this one, dreamed it from top to bottom.