The legend of Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith’s NFL rushing record and why it might never be broken
FRISCO, Texas — Emmitt Smith swears he wasn’t going through a midlife crisis last month.
“I’ve been wanting to get a tattoo for many years,” the 53-year-old said. “It’s just been weird in my head, ‘Go ahead, do it. Go ahead.”
And so, on a September trip to Las Vegas, he did it.
Smith had no doubt what the tattoo would be: the Dallas Cowboys star, of course. Then the number 18,355.
Fittingly, it’s on the outside of his right leg, which helped him become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards.
“Warren Sapp started calling me ‘Zip Code,'” Smith said. “I’m the only one in that zip code … Population of one.”
On Oct. 27, 2002, with an 11-yard carry in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith passed his idol, former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, on the all-time rushing list.
Twenty years later, Smith’s record looks like it could be unbreakable.
Jim Brown held the record for 21 years before Payton, who finished with 16,726 yards, topped him. Payton held the record for 18 years.
The active rushing leaders are Mark Ingram II (New Orleans Saints), Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys) and Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans). Ingram, 32, would be 43 years old and need to play all 17 games each season at his career pace to break Smith’s record, but he’s carrying a much lighter load at this stage of his career. Elliott, 27, would be 35 at his current pace without missing a game. Henry, 28, would be 37 at his current pace without missing a game.
The Indianapolis Colts‘ Jonathan Taylor, 23, led the NFL with 1,811 yards last season and has 3,366 yards in his first two-plus NFL campaigns, but he has missed two games this season. He would need to play until his mid-30s to sniff Smith’s record.
“Unless at some time the game starts to flip back to run-first, I think it’s going to be hard for a back to reach those numbers,” Elliott said. “I just feel like a lot of it is philosophy, and I don’t know if there’s enough coaches right now that have that type of philosophy to allow a back to be that.”
Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin was more succinct.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s the one record that’ll never be broke,” Irvin said.
SMITH PLAYED 13 of his 15 seasons for the Cowboys and spent his final two with the Arizona Cardinals before retiring in 2005. He completed “The Triplets” with Irvin and quarterback Troy Aikman when Dallas took him in the first round of the 1990 NFL draft. Smith won three Super Bowls (XXVII, XXVIII, XXX) and was the NFL Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl XXVIII MVP for the 1993 season. Smith won four rushing titles (1991-93, ’95) and ran for more than 1,000 yards a record 11 times.
The night before his first game, he predicted all of this to his roommate, Irvin.
“Curfew is around 11 and it’s about 10, 10:30,” Smith said. “Michael and I are in the room. He’s laying on his bed. I’m laying on my bed and we’re having a conversation. He asked me a question, ‘So what is it that you want to achieve in this game?’ I think he was being inquisitive, trying to figure out where my mindset was and whether or not I was motivated the right way.”
Irvin remembers being incredulous at Smith’s answer.
“When that young man came in, we won three games one year and one game the year before. That’s it. Three when I came in [in 1988] and one when Troy came in [in 1989],” Irvin said. “Emmitt comes in and says, ‘We’re going to win Super Bowls and I’m going to be the all-time leading rusher.’
“I’m like, ‘Boy, shut up. What’s wrong with you? We won four games in two years. Take your ass to sleep. This ain’t Miami [Irvin’s college] or Florida [Smith’s].'”
Smith had 2 yards on two carries in his first game, a 17-14 win against the San Diego Chargers.
“But ultimately, he did all that,” Irvin said. “We won Super Bowls and he became the all-time leading rusher.”
SMITH’S CONNECTION WITH Walter Payton ran deep.
At Escambia High School in Pensacola, Florida, Smith put Payton’s nickname — “Sweetness” — on his letterman jacket as an ode to the Bears’ legend. They grew up in the South; Payton is from Mississippi, Smith from Florida. Although Smith said he never tried to emulate Payton, they had similar running styles. They could run by or through defenders. They could juke defenders in small spaces. They avoided the big shots from tacklers.
In 1993, they met for the first time at the Doak Walker Award (top college running back) dinner in Fort Worth, Texas. Smith peppered Peyton with questions about his preparation, training and life after football.
“Seeking wisdom from someone that I’m chasing after. Someone that I admire,” Smith said.
“There’s Walter laying over my head, kissing me on the forehead, and I can hear him whispering in my ear, ‘You’re going to be OK. You’re going to be fine.'”
Emmitt Smith on Walter Payton
How much Smith meant to Payton came into focus three years later.
In 1996, the Cowboys played the Bears at Soldier Field on “Monday Night Football.” In the fourth quarter, Smith faked a dive over the top at the goal line, landed awkwardly and lost feeling on the left side of his body.
Strapped to a board and staring at the locker room ceiling, Smith wondered if his career was over.
“There’s Walter laying over my head, kissing me on the forehead, and I can hear him whispering in my ear, ‘You’re going to be OK. You’re going to be fine,'” Smith said. “I could hear him telling the people around me, ‘If he needs anything, clothes, anything, contact me.’ It was just a true testament to who he was as a man and what he meant to me.”
Payton died on Nov. 1, 1999, from complications due to bile duct cancer. He was 45.
On the day Smith broke the record, he thought of a conversation in which Payton said he thought Smith and Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders had a chance to break his record. Sanders would retire after the 1998 season with 15,269 yards (3,086 yards shy) when he was 30 years old.
“I told him specifically, ‘I don’t know what Barry wants, but I have that on my goal list to become an all-time leading rusher and I want to break it,'” Smith said. “And he said, ‘Go for it. It’s there for you to get.'”
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said: “Emmitt Smith is the best setter of goals and keeping his eye on that and striving to attain it. He’s the best I’ve ever been around — on and off the field. Owners, coaches, TV executives, you name it. He had a vision of wanting to be the rushing champion.”
THE 2002 COWBOYS were not a good team. They would finish 5-11 for the third straight year. Smith, safety Darren Woodson and guard Larry Allen were the last holdovers from the 1990s Super Bowl teams. But Texas Stadium was alive on Oct. 27.
Smith badly wanted the record that day because the Cowboys would not play at home again until Nov. 24. He did not want to make his family and friends travel to Detroit or Indianapolis. He also wanted to share the experience with the home fans.
“Oh, you could cut the suspense with a knife,” Jones said of the feeling inside the stadium.
“Move over, Sweetness, make a place for Emmitt!”
Announcer Brad Sham’s record-setting call
Smith did not count down the yards to the record, but before his record-setting carry, one of the team physicians, Dr. Daniel Cooper, told Smith he was close and congratulated him.
“I said, ‘Doc, it’s not done yet, because in this sport, anything can happen at any point in time. Injuries and all those kind of things can set you back,'” Smith said. “And so it wasn’t time to celebrate. It was time to stay in the moment.”
He doesn’t remember the name of the play, and 20 years later, he still has some regret that it was 11 yards and not a longer run — maybe a touchdown — because he stumbled, although he did end that drive with his 150th career touchdown.
“Yeah, but I could’ve got it all in one shot,” Smith said, shaking his head.
In the radio booth, longtime Cowboys play-by-play announcer Brad Sham knew he wanted to mention Payton when Smith broke the mark.
“There’s no, there’s no point in preplanning it. It just has to come to you,” Sham said.
“Move over, Sweetness, make a place for Emmitt!” Sham told radio listeners.
After the game, Sham had Smith sign his spotting chart (a list of players on the field). He knew it was historic.
“It’s the most unreachable football record,” Sham said. “And I think the only thing that I could really correlate it to would be [Major League Baseball pitcher] Cy Young winning 511 games. And second on the list is Walter Johnson at 417 … No one’s going to pitch long enough or enough innings to get anywhere near Cy Young, and no one’s ever going to carry the ball enough to get anywhere near Emmitt.”
The game was stopped briefly as the crowd roared. Smith hugged Irvin and shared a tearful embrace with his longtime fullback, Daryl Johnston, who was working as a sideline reporter that day. He eventually found his family members who had made it down to the sideline.
The Cowboys lost 17-14 but held a postgame celebration to honor Smith.
“We all, in our own way, felt like we touched a little of this record, but Emmitt did the heavy lifting for us,” Jones said.
LADANIAN TOMLINSON WAS in the second year of his Hall of Fame career with the Chargers in 2002. He grew up in Texas and played at TCU. He admired Smith from afar. In his first eight seasons, he ran for 11,760 yards. After turning 30 in 2009, he ran for just 1,924 yards in the final three seasons of his career.
After turning 30, Smith ran for 5,789 yards.
“It was the durability, but I thought Emmitt broke more tackles than anybody I saw,” Tomlinson said. “Emmitt never went down from the first contact. And he always seemed to get that extra 3 yards at the end of the run, like, ‘Oh, he’s going down — oh, no, he got 3 extra yards.’ That happened with him so much. Also, he was able to [break tackles] even in his older days.
“I remember my rookie year, we came to Dallas to play the Cowboys, and we had a pretty good defense with Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison and those guys … and at that time, we didn’t give up much running lanes. But he would find these little creases, duck through, come out on the other side. He just had a gift for finding yardage. And that’s the thing that, honestly, a lot of running backs throughout history, and even today, they just don’t have.”
Tomlinson, who ranks seventh all time with 13,684 yards, doesn’t think Smith’s mark will be broken.
“Dude, no one is going to have a chance to play that long anymore,” Tomlinson said.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Tim Brown was 38 years old in his final season. He said he doesn’t think Smith’s record will be touched either, and not just because of how the game has changed.
“It’s great for the guys who, like Emmitt and [Hall of Fame wide receiver] Jerry [Rice], who put those records out there,” Brown said. “I joke all the time and say, ‘I’m the oldest man ever to return a punt for a touchdown and to return a punt.’ And it’ll never be done again because nobody will ever be dumb enough to return a punt at 35 or 38 years old.
“It’s just the way we looked at the game back in the day. Look, hey, I’m not certainly talking bad about these guys when I say the money would affect it. If I had $100 million, there’s no way. My family would tie me down to the bed before they let me go play football if I had $100 million in the bank.
To Aikman, 18,355 yards is not the true measure of Smith’s career. It’s that he missed just nine games because of injury in 15 years. He missed two more games in 1993 because of a famous contract dispute.
“No, the reason he’s great is because he rushed for a lot of yards every year, and in order to do that, you’ve got to be on the field. So he missed very few games and he played at a really high level,” Aikman said. “That’s his greatness.”
SMITH PLAYED HIS last game on Jan. 2, 2005, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, finishing with 69 yards on 23 carries in a 12-7 win for his Cardinals, though he had yet to formally decide on retirement. Brown, the Raiders legend, was playing the final game of his career in an unfamiliar uniform too, as a Buc.
“I’ll never forget this: Tim and I embraced at midfield, and he asked the question, ‘What are you going to do?'” Smith said. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.’ I said, ‘You know what? You’re right.’
“And I think right then and there I closed that chapter. I walked off, took my jersey off, shoes off, walked to the edge of the Sun Devil Stadium, turned around, looked around, took a deep breath, waved to everybody and walked down the tunnel.
“And I knew right then and there that was it.”
But teams weren’t done pursuing him.
Less than a month after the season ended, he was on the 14th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Florida, golfing with a buddy, when his agent, Eugene Parker, called.
Smith said the Buffalo Bills had a conversation about signing him when free agency began. The exact financial details weren’t discussed, but Parker threw out a number, and Smith didn’t give it much thought.
“I said, ‘You know, Gene, I’m done, bro. I’m going home. I’m not going to move my family, have my family chase my career and me chasing after something that I already know is behind me,'” Smith said. “I’m going back to Dallas and get started on my next phase of my life.”
Smith announced his retirement from Super Bowl XXXIX between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles a few days later.
Unlike when Payton envisioned Smith or Sanders breaking his record, Smith does not know of a successor to his.
“Because the game has changed,” Smith said. “The systems have changed. As they quote-unquote say, ‘Devaluing the running back position,’ which I think is absolutely ludicrous. It’s kind of hard to say. Longevity is going to be key, and the league is not giving people an opportunity to have longevity. I thought Adrian Peterson was on his way. Frank Gore was still kicking it, but those two are no longer in the game now. So we’re looking for the next one to rise up.”
The zip code remains a population of one.