Emmitt Smith’s Second Half
Post-football, the Gator great emerges as a businessman, philanthropist, author — and, yes, ballroom dancer.
By Kristin Harmel (BSJ ’01)
It was a sunny September Saturday in Gainesville, and Emmitt Smith was about to show the world what it meant to be a Florida Gator.
The year was 1987, and at Florida Field, the Gators were facing off against Tulsa in the second game of the season. A week earlier, they’d lost 31-4 to Miami, but this week was going to be different. This week, head coach Galen Hall would give Smith, the most highly touted recruit in the nation, his first real chance.
Smith* (HHP ’96) had played briefly the week before when the Gators were down by 27 points with five minutes left in the game. Against Tulsa, however, Smith played three quarters, rushing for 115 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
“Trust me, I remember that,” Smith, now 42, says with a laugh. “It was awesome. The whole student body was chanting, like, ‘Emmitt! Emmitt!’ It was cool as all getout. It was an amazing moment, because it was like, ‘Yes, I can do this at this level.’ And I did it in front of the home crowd.”
For Smith, who would break Florida’s all-time single game rushing record with 224 yards the next week, it was just the beginning. He’d go on to lead the SEC in rushing in 1987 and 1989, have 23 hundred-yard rushing games over his three-year college career, and become one of the most storied running backs in the NFL, leading to his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But since retiring from football, Smith hasn’t rested on his laurels. Instead, he has reinvented himself as a businessman, author, philanthropist and TV sensation, courtesy of his win on “Dancing with the Stars.”
It all began in the sandlots of Pensacola, wedged against Alabama on the western edge of the Florida panhandle.
A Father’s Passion
Emmitt Smith III was born on May 15, 1969, the third of six kids — and the first boy — born to Emmitt Smith II and his wife, Mary.
“Pensacola was a great place to grow up, learn family values in a close-knit community, and develop my early childhood skills in football,” Smith says. “Everybody in the city knew my family, so you really couldn’t get into any trouble.”
His father was a talented football player, so when Smith started playing organized football at the age of 8, neighbors took notice.
“I took on the passion my daddy had for the game,” Smith says.
But it wasn’t just passion he took on; it was an innate set of skills. “The amazing thing was that I was a natural from the start,” he says. “I was passionate about it at an early age. I was very competitive. It hurt my feelings bad to lose.”
That passion helped Smith lead Escambia High School to two state titles. As a senior, Parade magazine chose him as the high school National Player of the Year. That honor came with a trip to the 1986 Super Bowl, which changed Smith’s life. He boarded a plane for the first time to watch the New York Giants beat the Denver Broncos at the Rose Bowl.
“I’d always had a desire to play at the NFL level, but it’s one thing to have a vision for something and another to get close to the ultimate game,” he says. “When you’re in that type of environment as a young person, it just gives you that drive and determination so you can have that same experience.”
As fate would have it, six years later, Smith would be back on that same field, starting at running back for the Dallas Cowboys as they bested the Denver Broncos 52-17 in Super Bowl XXVII.
But first, Smith headed to college. He’d already chosen Florida.
Football Opens Doors
When Smith was young, before he realized that football could take him to college, he’d assumed that a career in the military was the only way out of Pensacola.
“My family members couldn’t have afforded to pay for a college education,” he says. “I didn’t realize I’d have an opportunity to earn a scholarship until I got to high school.”
By then, colleges across the country were calling, and the world was suddenly wide open for Smith. But his high school mascot had been the Gators, his colors orange and blue. Plus, he’d grown up admiring the University of Florida’s football program.
“Once a Gator, always a Gator. Plus, my mom told me I wasn’t leaving the state,” he says. “She said, ‘You’re going to UF.’ That made the decision a lot easier.”
On and off the field, he found a perfect fit in Gainesville.
“Now I think just how beautiful it really is there, and the size of the university, the level of the education that one was able to attain there, plus the quality of people who were there,” he says. “It was a college town where every college student had a chance to experience various cultures. I had a very, very, very good experience at the University of Florida.”
Then, of course, there was football.
“Playing against some of the biggest guys I’d ever played against, it was intimidating,” Smith says. “So the pressure was on. But as time went on, I learned that yes, I do belong.”
Although he played at a time when the team wasn’t having much success, he earned the hearts of Gators fans quickly.
“After that second Gator game against Tulsa, I earned a level of respect with The Gator Nation,” he says. “From that point on, we won the Alabama game, we won against LSU as well, and The Gator Nation was like, ‘We got us a running back.’”
Three record-setting seasons followed. During his time at UF, Smith scored 36 rushing touchdowns, averaged 126.7 yards per game, had eight consecutive 100-yard games and had Florida’s longest-ever rushing play at 96 yards against Mississippi State in 1988. And that’s just a handful of his on-field accomplishments.
Then, during the 1989 season, Smith’s junior year, head coach Galen Hall was forced to resign, along with his coaching staff.
Smith made the difficult decision not to return for his senior year at Florida, even though Steve Spurrier had been hired on for the 1990 season, and the new coach came with great expectation.
“Going into my senior year, I felt like I was risking a lot to learn a brand new offense,” he explains. “I would have been risking injuries and maybe lowering my stock value. I felt like there wasn’t any more I could prove or anything more I could do.”
Smith was picked up in the first round of the 1990 draft by the Dallas Cowboys and went on to a stellar NFL career. Over 13 seasons with the Cowboys and two with the Arizona Cardinals, he won four NFL rushing titles, became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in 11 consecutive seasons, was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times, scored 164 rushing touchdowns and was the league MVP in 1993. He broke Walter Payton’s record to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, finishing his career with 18,355 rushing yards. And he won three Super Bowls, including his first one, in January 1993, when he returned to the Rose Bowl wondering what the future would hold.
A year later, the Cowboys would return to the Super Bowl, beating the Buffalo Bills 30-13. The game’s MVP was Smith, who had 30 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
“I cannot believe that I’ve been blessed with being able to achieve this level of success,” he says. “I say to myself, ‘I was predestined to do this work.’ I feel honored and blessed to be put in that position to do that.”
But for Smith, that was just the beginning. He was just 35 when he retired from the NFL. That meant he had a whole lot more living to do.
Back to College
Midway through Smith’s NFL career, he decided to keep a promise he’d made several years before.
“I promised my mom if I left school early, I’d come back and get my degree,” Smith explains. “I wanted to get that done.
“Besides,” he adds, “my brothers were on the verge of graduating, and I wanted to do it first.”
And so he did. He returned to UF’s campus and earned a bachelor’s degree in public recreation in 1996, becoming the first member of his family to graduate with a four-year degree.
“It was awesome being back in Gainesville,” he says. “I gained great appreciation for education, because I had real world experience that I could apply in a classroom application. That real world experience changed what the textbook was talking about.”
He announced his retirement from the NFL in February 2005, but that didn’t mean he was ready to retire to a life of leisure.
“There’s only so much golf I can play,” he explains with a laugh.
So he got into real-estate development and then into construction. He’s now the majority partner and co-chairman of ESmith Legacy, Inc., a Dallas-based commercial real estate company, and he has recently opened EJ Smith Industries, which builds bridges and roads and manages other construction projects.
“I love what I do,” he says. “I’m just as passionate about this as I was as an athlete. Also, when you retire from sports, those bills still keep coming. I did make good money, but I plan on being on the planet the next 50 or 60 years, so I want to make lasting money for my family.”
That family includes his wife, Pat, a former Miss Virginia USA, and five kids: Jasmine, 16; Rheagen, 13; Emmitt IV (who goes by EJ), 9; Skylar, 8; and Elijah, 1.
In 2006, when Smith decided to be a contestant on the hit ABC show “Dancing with the Stars,” he counted on the support of his family to propel him through the experience.
“‘Dancing with the Stars’ turned my world inside out,” says Smith, who won the third season with his dance partner, Cheryl Burke. “Having a household name as an athlete is one thing. But having a household name that touches Grandma, Grandpa and the dog; to be known for something that was totally and completely out of my element; to be a champion in that arena; it meant a lot.”
So, too, does Smith’s charitable endeavor, Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities, which he runs with his wife. The organization helps provide educational and life opportunities for underserved kids. He wants to share the kind of experience he had on his highschool trip to the Super Bowl.
“I realize now that if you place a young person in a situation like that, you’re telling them, ‘The world is bigger than just your ghetto. There’s more to society than just your current environment.’ So we’re trying to show them how they fit in the world and how they can become part of society in a positive way.”
Smith is perfectly poised to deliver that message. He didn’t come from a life of privilege, but he became the stuff of legends. And in 2010, his status became solidified when he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“That meant a lot more than I ever thought it would mean to me,” he says. “When my name was called to be enshrined, that’s when it really hit me that my entire life, my entire athletic life, was about to be wrapped up in a bow. What that moment meant to me was that it was a big thank you for the wisdom people shared with me and the opportunities they created.” That includes UF, he says, “for giving me the opportunity to go there and investing in a young kid.”
In 1987, when the Gators signed Smith, recruiting expert Max Emfinger told the Orlando Sentinel, “He’s not fast. He can’t get around the corner. When he falls flat on his face, remember where you heard it first.” Smith had doubters and obstacles in his way, but as he explains in his new book, “Game On: Find Your Purpose — Pursue Your Dream,” he was able to imagine himself being great, and then he was able to make it so. That allowed him to begin a lifetime of giving back.
“In football, I was taught and trained to run the plays in my mind so that when I got there, I’d know what to do. From a life standpoint, why not do the same?
“I hope to inspire people to find and develop a vision for their own life,” he adds. “Figure out along the way what that will mean for you. Then, you can turn around your success and do things for someone else. That’s what it’s all about.”
*UF Alumni Association life member