On the second floor of the Westin Galleria Hotel in a small reception room, the VIP-types for the Community Council of Greater Dallas’ 75th Anniversary luncheon gathered on Monday, November 2. It was mostly a suit group including presenting sponsor Oncor CEO Bob Shapard, NBC5 Sports Director Newy Scruggs and Levi Davis. But the gals were also there, including Katy Menges and Luncheon Chair Kristi Sherrill-Hoyl. While they were taking full advantage of the coffee bar, they were also waiting for “the man” to arrive. He was none other than former Dallas Cowboy/”Dancing With The Stars” champ/business man Emmitt Smith.
As soon as Emmitt appeared in the Westin driveway, it was as if a rock star had arrived. The flutter of chatter and eyeballing continued up the escalator, past the check-in table and as he made his way through the guests to the sponsor backdrop for photos. He didn’t disappoint, greeting everyone with a big smile, a solid handshake and non-blinking eye contact.
Upstairs in the ballroom, the crowd of 450 was pretty darn impressive with the likes of Annette Simmons, Diana Dutton, Adlene Harrison, Lee Ann White, Sydney Huffines, Christie Carter, Lottye Brodsky, Clay Jenkins, Lois Finkelman, Veletta Lill, Steve Mansfield, Diana Strauss, Lisa Ogle, Lynn McBee, Royce West and Lupe Valdez.
At 12:20 CCGD Executive Director Martha Blaine recalled how the CCGD, originally called the Council of Social Agencies in 1940, had evolved over the past 75 years providing more and more support to human services organizations dealing with youth, health, seniors, information and referral, human relations, transportation, volunteerism, education and homelessness and housing. There is hardly a Dallas agency that has not benefited from its partnership with CCGD’s. Thanks to the luncheon, financial support will continue the efforts on which so many depend.
Following the meal, Oncor’s Bob Shapard was at the podium and introduced the main act of Emmitt chatting with Newy. While some thought it would be just a couple of guys talking sports, it went well beyond that.
Emmitt recalled that in his hometown, the best running back had been his father. There had been such expectations of his going on to college and playing professional football. But that dream ended when Emmitt’s grandmother got sick.
Emmitt himself would often take care of the ailing grandmother, when his father and grandfather would go to work.
Initially Emmitt started off playing quarterback because he wanted to be like Roger Staubach. When he turned 9, his Pop Warner coach suggested that he play another position. But Emmitt was insistent about being quarterback. After all, that’s the position that the girls love, gets the notoriety and handles the ball the most. When Emmitt asked if the coach had seen him play the season before, the coach said he had and that’s why he was encouraging him to change.
That new position ended up being running back and he never looked back.
In high school a new influence entered his life with the arrival of Coach Dwight Thomas, who changed the name of the team from the Rebels to the Gators. He also changed the pep rallies. In the past, white students had been seated on one side and minorities on the other. After Dwight got there, the students were seated according to homerooms.
The coach’s goal was to raise young boys to young men. He did that by instilling structure in his players. That was a life-changing development for Emmitt. It would be the basis for his life both on and off the football field.
One of the ways that Dwight created the structure was by having his players write down their goals. He said, “Until you write down your goals, they’re only dreams.” Once they wrote them down, he had them post the list in their lockers and review them each day.
Dwight’s efforts led the team to winning state both Emmitt’s sophomore and junior years and his holding the national high school record of 45 100-yard rushing games. During his high school career, he made 106 touchdowns.
Expanding on goals, Emmitt admonished the group, “If you’re gonna make a goal, make it big. Everyone should stride for greatness.”
While still in high school, he won a trip to the Rose Bowl for Super Bowl XXI in 1987 and took his quarterback Johnny Nichols. “I picked Johnny because I knew if I picked my mom, my dad would be upset. If I picked my dad, my mom would be upset. And if I’d taken my girlfriend, my whole family would have been upset. Johnny was probably the safest choice.” It was their first trip on a plane. In seeing the game, he was having the time of his life and told Johnny that one day he was “going to play right here in a Super Bowl.” When he did play the 1993 Super Bowl in Pasadena, Johnny was in the stands watching.
Emmitt said another important part of his life was vision. That was what made him realize that he needed to do more than football. He had to create another path and did, so that when he retired in 2005 he knew what to do.
Changing subjects, Newy recalled the University of Florida vs. University of Alabama game where a Gator freshman stole the show running for two touchdowns and 224 yards. He asked why Emmitt had gone to the University of Florida instead of the University of Alabama, where the legendary Coach Bear Bryant was working. A bit hesitant, Emmitt said he didn’t want to embarrass Alabama, but when he was being recruited by colleges, he went to the Penn State-Alabama game. When he, Johnny Nichols and their girlfriends were walking back to the car, a bunch of white frat brothers called him a bunch of names: “It was the first time I’d experienced racism.” The Alabama coach, who was recruiting Emmitt, stood up for him, but still the friends were shocked, saying, “Do you believe what we just saw?” When the coach called the following Monday to apologize, Emmitt said it was all right but he wouldn’t be coming to the University of Alabama.
Ironically, the first game that Florida freshman Emmitt played in was against Alabama, where Newy saw him make the two touchdowns and run the 224 yards.
But Emmitt’s college career was cut short when he decided to turn pro. After all, he thought he would be a top draft pick. While he had wanted to play for the Cowboys since he was 7, the Dallas team was not in the top tier. Emmitt thought he would probably be picked up by Tampa, so he had folks in to party for the big announcement. But no call came. In fact no call came during the first 10 picks. But then the phone rang. It was Emmitt’s brother Emory Smith saying, “You haven’t been drafted yet!”
That didn’t calm Emmitt’s concerns. After all, “Who was gonna pay for this party?”
Finally, his agent called and reported “There’s activity.” The Packers needed a running back. Emmitt thought, “Oh, no, it’s too cold.” Then magically the Cowboys made a trade and he was selected 17th.
That first year was rocky with Emmitt adjusting to Coach Jimmy Johnson. “He used his degree in psychology,” Emmitt said.
At one point, Jimmy unloaded on Emmitt at a Tuesday practice. Baffled and hurt, Emmitt didn’t speak to Jimmy until Saturday. When asked the reason for the treatment, Jimmy said, “I got on you, but it wasn’t for you. It was for the others. If I get on my best players, the rest of them will stay in place.” Emmitt reflected, “Sometimes the leaders have to be the sacrificial lambs.”
But Jimmy’s leadership impressed the relatively young team as they rose despite the fact that “Nobody gave us a chance.” For the 1993 NFC Championship against the 49ers at Candlestick Park, the rains had “totally soaked” the field. Jimmy walked the entire field and told his players which side of the field was better to move the ball. The young team ended up winning the game (30-20) and going on to win the Super Bowl against the Buffalo Bills (52-17).
At 1:25 p.m. Emmitt recalled how he and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones handled his 1993 contract negotiation. According to Emmitt, Jerry didn’t want to pay, adding, “Does Jerry ever want to pay?”
Couldn’t tell whether Emmitt was directing that question to a lady seated at a table just a few feet away: Gene Jones.
Emmitt felt that he “did what I was supposed to, and thought I should be compensated.” Jerry balked and the Cowboys started the 1993 season without Emmitt.
In the meantime, there was a collective bargaining going on, and “I had 30 days to negotiate with the other teams and no one approached me. You ponder on that.”
Eventually, having lost the first two games of the season, the salary was worked out, making Emmitt the highest-paid running back in the NFL.
The final subject for discussion was his appearance on “Dancing With The Stars” with Cheryl Burke. Emmitt found that Cheryl was as demanding as Jimmy. He said, “I humbled myself and told her I would do everything you ask. But you’ve gotta respect me and I’ll respect you.”
In addition to winning the mirrored ball and earning a whole new level of exposure, he said, “I learned not to take myself so seriously.”