Saturday, February 06, 2010

Izenberg: Never mind stats, it's power, skill, and courage that will put former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith into Hall of Fame

By Jerry Izenberg/Columnist Emeritus
February 06, 2010, 7:30AM

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Go tell it from the top of the NFL mountain. Beat it out in Morse code on a set of George Halas’ old cardboard shoulder pads. Spread it from deep in the heart of Texas on up through the rust belt corridor that leads to what once was Giants Stadium.

Today is the day they will vote Emmitt Smith into the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
If he doesn’t make it on the very first ballot today, then God didn’t make little green apples and Peyton Manning doesn’t play for Indianapolis in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

The Hall is where Emmitt was ticketed to go ever since he played for Escambia High School in this state’s panhandle region and finished each touchdown run by courteously handing the official the ball without a single celebratory gyration. His father, who still drives a bus in Pensacola, demanded that kind of respect for the game.

For what seems like light years, he was the legs of the Dallas Cowboys, a low center of gravity kind of bulldozer who might as well have designed the star in the Cowboys logo.

In power and skill and courage, he is the equal of any running back that now calls the Hall of Fame home.

I am reminded of a frost-bitten kind of day in January of 1994 when Smith took each of those qualities to a new level. It was the right weather for what Emmitt did that day. Such performances do not belong in the sunshine. They belong under dishwater gray skies and in the teeth of a Jersey Meadowlands wind.

It was against that kind of backdrop that Emmitt ran the ball the way it was meant to be run back in the day by pro football’s early mill-town teams.

He was hurt, which is about as much of an understatement as a Custer scout returning to General Yellow Hair’s command post and saying “I think I saw an Indian.”

Two or three times in the second half, Jimmy Johnson, the coach, walked slowly over to where his running back was sitting on the bench, leaned over and told him: “We’re thinking of playing the kid (a rookie named Lincoln Coleman) some.”

But it was more of a question than a statement. Each time he said it, he stared into the running back’s eyes and tried to see past the pain mirrored there. He was looking for the answer that all coaches look for in such situations, and because it was Emmitt Smith, he got it every time he asked.

“No,” the running back would say, and then he would shake his head. “I want to finish. I want to be the guy.”

And then the ball would change hands, and the Cowboys’ offensive unit would be jogging back onto the field, and he would bite his lip and hold his right arm close to his body and try to ignore the pain that ripped through his entire right side as he jogged along with them.

By the time this day would end in the frustration of a near-miss overtime defeat for the home team and the Dallas Cowboys would leave town with the division title and home-field advantage for the playoffs all wrapped up, Emmitt Smith would have rushed for 168 yards (38 yards more than the entire Giants’ ground game) and he would have caught 10 passes for another 61.

“You see other guys making the kind of money he makes,” Smith’s teammate, Jim Jeffcoat, said down the hall in the Dallas dressing room, “and with something like this, they won’t play. But not Emmitt. He’s going to play through anybody and anything.”

And if that isn’t a Hall of Fame reference, what is?

The cliché is probably as old as the Flying Wedge: “You have to be tough to play this game ... you have to suck it up and play hurt.” And there isn’t a guy who makes his living in this business who hasn’t heard its siren call and responded at one time or another in his career.

But not like Emmitt Smith did every time.

In the first half, on a short-yardage play, Smith landed on his shoulder. “The pain,” he would say later, “it’s like nothing I ever felt ... I mean ever in my life. I mean, I thought I heard my bones breakin’ all afternoon. But I never thought of not playing.”

In the second half, each time he got hit on the shoulder and each time his body hit the ground was the equivalent of reaching into a furnace barehanded to sift through hot coals. And when it came down to overtime and Dallas got the ball on its own 25 after the Giants had failed to move it, nobody talked about “playing the kid.”

That was Emmitt Smith’s game. The Cowboys would run 11 plays before they kicked the winning field goal. Three times Troy Aikman threw to Smith and six times he carried it. On one of those receptions, he would somehow raise his right arm, straighten it and stiff-arm a defender.

Just one game, but put it in the copying machine as often as you like.

He did.

It added up to a Hall of Fame career.