JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Emmitt Smith decided to stop running.
There was nothing left to prove, no records left to chase.
Breaking down in tears and grasping his beloved Dallas Cowboys
helmet, Smith retired Thursday after a 15-year career in which he
became the NFL's career rushing leader and played a key role on
three Super Bowl champions.
The decision had been expected for several days, but the
finality of it all was still poignant. Flanked by his wife, Pat,
and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Smith thanked a list of people
several pages long -- everyone from his Pee Wee football coaches to
longtime Dallas fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston, the fierce
blocker who cleared so many holes for No. 22.
"It's been a tremendous ride," said Smith, who spent his final
two years with the Arizona Cardinals after 13 seasons in Big D.
"My 15 years, my 15 minutes of fame, is up."
There's one more stop -- Canton, Ohio.
"I'm going to be biased when you ask who's the greatest running
back of all time," Johnston said. "You can probably make a case
for eight to 10 guys. But for me, it's always been Emmitt."
The 35-year-old Smith ran for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns in
his career, both NFL records. He closed it out by running for 937
yards and nine touchdowns in Arizona this season.
Former Giants linebacker Pepper Johnson still remembers the
determined rookie who came out of Florida in 1990.
"I saw a guy with the eye of a demon, a guy that ran the ball
with a passion, a guy that had great vision and a small guy that
didn't play small," said Johnson, now an assistant coach with the
New England Patriots. "I remember him picking me up on a blitz and
when he hit me, he was like, 'Oh Pepper, I shocked you on that,
didn't I?' "
Smith was more consistent than he was spectacular, a running
back who could be relied on to get tough yards when tough yards
He rushed for 1,000 yards or more every year between 1991 and
2001. He led the NFL in rushing from 1991-93, then again in 1995.
He also paced the league in touchdowns three times.
But despite his impressive statistics, he won just two major
awards in 15 seasons -- NFL MVP in 1993 and the Super Bowl MVP that
same season, when he rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns in the
Cowboys' 30-13 win over Buffalo. He also had perhaps his greatest
game with a separated shoulder, rushing for 229 yards in a crucial
victory over the New York Giants.
"Emmitt has never forgot he was part of a team and what the
team meant," Jones said. "Your place in our franchise has always
It was only appropriate that Smith retired at the Super Bowl,
having been part of Dallas' glorious run in the 1990s -- three
championships in four years with a team featuring Smith, Troy
Aikman and Michael Irvin.
Many were shocked when Smith left Dallas after the 2002 season,
deciding to extend a career that was clearly past its prime. He
finished up in a red-birded helmet, playing in a half-filled
stadium in the sweltering Arizona desert.
"There were a lot of people, including myself, who didn't want
him to go," said Darren Woodson, a longtime teammate in Dallas.
"I told him a few times, 'Let's think about this before you do
it.' But he had it set in his mind that he wanted to prove he had
something left in the tank."
Plagued by injuries, Smith rushed for a career-low 256 yards in
2003, averaging a meager 2.8 yards per carry. He bounced back to
have a respectable season, but the Cardinals still missed the
playoffs with a 6-10 record.
Smith said he had no regrets, other than failing to meet his
goal of leading Arizona to the playoffs. He acknowledged Cardinals
coach Dennis Green, one of several hundred people who crowded the
room for Smith's retirement.
"I want to thank the Cardinals for letting me play two more
years," he said. "I padded that record. That does mean a lot to
Arizona hastened Smith's retirement by telling him that he
wouldn't be back for next season. Like Dallas two years earlier,
the Cardinals wanted to go with their younger backs.
"That made my decision a whole lot easier," he said, adding
that he turned down offers to continue his career elsewhere. "I
have a home. It's with my family."
Two names stood out on Smith's lengthy thank-you list. There was
Jones, mocked by some for drafting a 5-foot-9½ running back who
didn't exactly blow people away with his speed. And Johnston, a
close friend who stood along a wall during the retirement
"Daryl, I love you to death," Smith said, dabbing at his
tears with a tissue. "You've been there through thick and thin. I
don't know why, but every time I think of you, I always break
Smith wasn't happy about leaving Dallas two years ago, but any
hard feelings toward his former employer have clearly thawed.
Dallas plans to sign Smith to a one-day contract, so he can
officially retire as a Cowboy.
"You don't know how much this star really means to me," Smith
said, breaking down as he placed his left hand on one of two Dallas
helmets on the dais.
Wearing a pinstripe suit -- blue, of course -- Smith said he'll
pursue some business opportunities. But he also vowed to stay close
to the game and give something back to the fans.
"I'm moving on to another chapter in my life," he said.
"That's a chapter I'm looking forward to."