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When he was coaching at the University of Miami, Johnson had tried to recruit Smith, but he knew it was hopeless. "He wanted to go to an I-formation team that ran the ball, and we used a multiple offense, with split backs," says Joe Brodsky, Johnson's backfield coach at Miami and now with the Cowboys. "We took our shot early, but he blew on by.
"Now, drafting him was a different story. I'd gone down to Gainesville to work him out, and we'd seen him on films. We knew all about him. You had to be an idiot not to recognize the talent there. What I did find out, though, was what kind of a person he was: played in pain, never missed a workout, not a nick-and-bump guy who'd miss a lot of practice time, an extra-good worker and not a complainer."
In the Cowboys' first draft meeting, Johnson asked Brodsky if Smith was the kind of player who could take Dallas to the next level. "He's magnificent," Brodsky said. Then, Johnson asked about Smith's speed—and got a far more positive response than some of Smith's 40-yard clockings would have seemed to warrant. "He'll take your breath away, and you won't get it back until he scores," Brodsky said.
Halfway through the first round of the draft, only one running back had been chosen—Blair Thomas of Penn State, by the New York Jets. Smith's availability energized the Cowboys, who then traded up to get the Pittsburgh Steelers' pick at No. 17 so they could take Smith.
"Just as we were turning the pick in, [vice-president of player personnel] Ken Herock from the Falcons called," says Johnson. "He had phoned Pittsburgh right after us. He asked me, 'What can we give you for your pick?' I told him it had already been made. He asked me whom we'd taken, and I told him. Then he said, 'Well, what can we give you for Emmitt Smith?' and I just laughed.
"Emmitt had been our fourth-rated player in the entire draft. Our owner, Jerry Jones, went on the radio that night and mentioned it, and when it was time to talk contract, Emmitt's agent reminded him of that. Which I'm sure is one reason why he held out for the whole training camp."
Still, Smith was the Cowboys' starting running back by Game 2 of his rookie season. One big day, 121 yards against the Tampa Bay Bucs, was about it for his first 11 games, and then he did a strange thing. He complained. Dallas was coming off two losses—to the Jets and the San Francisco 49ers—in which it didn't score a touchdown. Smith had carried a total of 21 times in those games. He spoke to Brodsky and then went public on a radio show: The ball, please, I'd like the ball.
"I'd listened to the coaching staff saying in the meetings, 'We need to gain 100 yards on the ground,' " says Smith, "but how were we going to do it if I was only getting the ball in my hands 12, 14 times a game? I felt that we had to run to take the pressure off Troy Aikman."
In the next four games, Smith had 88 carries for 374 yards and seven TDs—and the Cowboys had four wins. He ran for more than 100 yards in two of the games. O.K., so he wasn't quite the yardage machine he'd been in high school and college, but he was getting there.
In fact, he has arrived there this season. After seven games, he leads the NFC in rushing with 699 yards and he has rushed for more than 100 yards four times, his best effort having been 182 yards against the Phoenix Cardinals. That means he has run for more than 100 yards in 77 of 106 games, lifetime—with about 10 more years to go. The most interesting statistic, though, is the way he has dominated Dallas's ground action this season. He has 90.4% of the Cowboys' yards on the ground and has made 81.8% of the team's rushes.