Smith met Payton's widow, Connie, on Sept. 10, 2001, when she flew to Dallas to help kick off Emmitt's foundation for kids. The next morning, after the planes had hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Connie couldn't get back to Chicago. She sat watching the TV in her hotel room when the phone rang. Pat and Emmitt insisted she come to the house. She stayed all that day, scared but secure, eating dinner and staring at the news. "I couldn't think of anybody else I would want to break the record but Emmitt," Connie says.
This past summer the Paytons invited Smith to the family restaurant in Aurora, Ill., to present him with the first Spirit of Sweetness award. Film clips of Payton and Smith were shown, and Jarrett spoke before Smith took the podium. All at once, as tears rolled down Smith's cheeks, everything he knew in the abstract became concrete: Payton was dead, he was going to break the record, and he had been given something precious. He felt Jarrett staring at him. "Right then I realized what I was about to embark upon," Smith says. "And what it meant to me."
On Sunday, with Payton's mother, Alyne, and brother, Eddie, in the Texas Stadium stands, Smith wept again. In a videotaped message, Connie told him and 63,854 fans how proud she was and how "truly blessed" she felt to have him as a friend. This is why there was no shame in Smith's protracted pursuit of the record. Too often, in the past few years, the news concerning the league's greatest backs has been sad or strange or appalling. Smith knows that a man's life can be measured by how much he learns from those who came before, and how much he gives to those who come after, and without some purity of purpose, all those yards add up to nothing more than a cold number on the page. The record? Lord, yes, he wanted it, blessing, curse and all.
"But what really means more to me," he says, "is not letting that kid down."
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