"I've been playing football in a Dallas uniform for 13 years now, and I don't ever recall anybody telling me I was selfish," Smith says. "When it comes to the game, I don't know how any man can fix his lips to say I'm selfish."
Part of the hurt arises from the fact that Smith's reputation is beyond reproach. But more than that, Smith regarded his pursuit of Payton as anything but a one-man grind toward a cold number. No, it was a mission to make good, something personal and pure. He first met Payton in 1995, during the Doak Walker Awards in Dallas, when Payton made a point of sitting with him, talking about the game, workouts, life. Payton told Smith that only he and Sanders would have a shot at his record. "Yo, I'm with the man who done did it," Smith says. "And he's just pouring into me, and I'm soaking it up like a sponge soaking up water."
The following fall Smith began what would turn out to be his most injury-stricken season, against the Bears in Chicago, by hurtling over a fourth-quarter pile and landing on his neck. He lost feeling in his left side and was carried off the field on a stretcher, wondering if his career was over. And then, out of nowhere, there was Payton looming above him, telling him everything would be fine. The men kept in touch, and after Payton learned he needed a liver transplant in February 1999, the calls became more frequent. Smith couldn't believe how strong Payton was in facing death, how he refused to be bitter. "He showed me how to be a man," Smith says.
During that last year, Payton asked Smith to keep tabs on his son, Jarrett, a running back about to start his college career at Miami. Smith called Jarrett a few times, but that was the extent of their communication. Then, not long before Walter died in 1999, he spoke with Smith for the last time.
"I'm going to be O.K. It's in God's hands," Payton said.
"O.K.," Smith said. "If you need me, I'm here for you."
"Just keep praying for me and my family," Payton said. "Check on my boy every now and then."
Payton died on Nov. 1, at 45. A memorial service was held that Friday, and three nights later in Minneapolis, Dallas played the Vikings. There was a moment of silence before the game, and "I felt his presence so strong," Smith says. He wept before the kickoff and then had the greatest half of his career, rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns, scoring them just 18 seconds apart. He had never experienced anything like that night, not even in his three Super Bowl wins, and then he broke his hand after 24 minutes. What did it all mean?
Smith and Jarrett kept in touch, but it wasn't until two years ago, at Dan Marino's golf tournament in Miami, that the two finally saw each other in person. After they'd met, Jarrett stepped back and watched Smith greet his peers and fans, then turned to a friend and marveled at the similarities between Smith and his dad.
"He reminds me a lot of my father," says Jarrett, now a junior. "They have the same personality; they're both really nice people. Both are big in the community, helping out kids. So if anybody's going to break the record, I'm glad it'll be him. I've learned a lot from Emmitt—the kind of person he is, the kind of husband he is, the kind of father he is. When I get to be that age, I want to be the same way."