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Just after eight o'clock last Saturday morning, the pristine practice fields at Northern Arizona University still wet with dew, NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith jogged out of the locker room to begin the first day of the rest of his football life. But he was in Arizona Cardinals red and white, not Dallas Cowboys silver and blue. He was cheered by a crowd of several hundred, not the several thousand who typically flock to Dallas's summer practices. One man who looked about 60 even walked past sleepy young security guards and approached Smith as he limbered up. "I'm from Pensacola!" the man announced, a reference to Smith's hometown. The man extended his hand, and a stunned Smith obliged. His move to Arizona was the equivalent of Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane bringing The Producers to summer stock on the Delaware shore.
Never mind that recent NFL history (not to mention common sense) suggests that Smith has set himself up for disaster; the 34-year-old future Hall of Famer is so ready to be out of the spotlight on America's team. Last season, during which he surpassed Walter Payton's alltime rushing record, "was the worst year I ever went through playing football," Smith said between practice sessions. "Too much damn drama. Too much selfishness by too many guys on the team. Too much media frenzy around the team. People always looking to me for answers, and I didn't have the answers for them about why we were so bad. It felt like being a diamond surrounded by trash.
"It was just a mental grind," he added. "When I got the record, it was like God said, 'I'm going to give you one moment this year.' "
As he tried to put his three Super Bowl championships and four rushing titles as a Cowboy in perspective, Smith raised both hands to his face and went quiet for a full 10 seconds. A tear trickled from his right eye. "The game, these moments, they mean a hell of a lot," he said. "Damn! I don't think people truly understand what it all means to a player who puts everything he has into a game."
Despite Smith's obvious bitterness, one gets the feeling that his resentment about the way his Dallas career ended—he was released by owner Jerry Jones on Feb. 27 and never met with new coach Bill Parcells—will fade with time. "I look around the league," Smith said, "and I know how fortunate I am to be able to say I only had one sorry-ass year."
He'll be fortunate if he can still say that after playing with the Cardinals, who have had one winning season since moving from St. Louis in 1988. Last year Arizona, which ranked 27th in the league in offense, lost nine of its last 10 to finish 5-11. Quarterback Jake Plummer and wideout David Boston, the team's biggest offensive threat, left as free agents. Plummer's replacement, 32-year-old Jeff Blake, is with his fifth NFL team in 12 years. The Cardinals' top draft pick, wide receiver Bryant Johnson of Penn State, was still unsigned at week's end. The arrival of Smith pushed the team's best remaining weapon, third-year running back Marcel Shipp (834 yards, 4.4 per carry), to the bench. A potentially strong offensive line is still unsettled after a season in which it was riddled with injuries.
If the Arizona passing game doesn't click, defenses will do exactly what they did last year against a Dallas offense that ranked 30th in the league: load up to stop Smith, whose streak of 11 straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons ended. He gained 975 yards, including 13 on 18 carries in his last game as a Cowboy, a 20-14 loss to the Washington Redskins. "We know we'll see a steady diet of the eight-man fronts," Arizona center Pete Kendall says.
With all that to overcome, Smith will be fighting to avoid the kind of ignominious exit made by numerous other NFL star backs who tried to prolong their careers. Of the top 15 alltime rushers, five ended up with new teams—and every ending was ugly. O.J. Simpson spent two injury-marred seasons with the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1970s. Franco Harris had 68 forgettable carries for the Seattle Seahawks in '84. Tony Dorsett, who, like Smith, was 34 when he left Dallas, went to the Denver Broncos in '88 and had a 703-yard season. Eric Dickerson, playing for the Los Angeles Raiders and the Atlanta Falcons in the early '90s, rushed for only 820 yards over those two years. Thurman Thomas had 28 carries for the Miami Dolphins in 2000 before blowing out a knee and retiring.
Smith dismisses any suggestion that he is headed down the same road. "I've defied the odds all my life," he says. "I wasn't supposed to be a productive back for 13 years, was I? Why would I let another tough situation stand in my way?"
When Arizona coach Dave McGinnis and running backs coach Johnny Roland studied last year's videotape of Smith, they saw a back who was repeatedly stuck in traffic. They decided that was due more to the Cowboys' incompetence than to Smith's decline. Says Roland, "When Dave asked me if we should sign Emmitt, I told him, 'He gained 975 yards behind a terrible line, with no quarterback, and with defenses playing eight-man fronts all the time. Of course we should.' "