At a tear-filled press conference yesterday, the NFL's all-time leading rusher walked away from pro football.
Surrounded by friends, family, and two Dallas Cowboy helmets, Emmitt Smith announced he had taken his last step in an NFL uniform only 24 hours after denying he was done.
"You don't know how much this star really means to me," Smith said as he placed one hand on a Cowboy helmet while wiping away tears.
Smith played 15 years in the NFL, the first 13 with the Cowboys before finishing with two lackluster seasons in an Arizona Cardinals uniform. He was no longer the back he had been while amassing most of the 18,355 yards he gained in the NFL, but to the end he remained the epitome of what a professional should be.
During the course of thanking nearly 100 people for his success, from his first Pop Warner coach to the last players who had blocked for him in Arizona, Smith finally broke down, his voice catching as he named Troy Aikman before finally coming completely apart after mentioning his old lead blocker in Dallas, fullback Daryl Johnston.
"I thought I could make it," Smith said, his wife clutching his hand as he wiped his eyes. "Daryl, I love you to death. You've been there for me through thick and thin."
Later, as he continued his roll call of thank-yous, he joked, "Even Troy Hambrick." Hambrick was Smith's backup in his final season in Dallas and kept publicly insisting he should be in the starting lineup ahead of the most productive running back in history. Eventually he was, and he did nothing, a fact Smith was kind enough not to mention.
Smith eloquently thanked Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for his support, saying, "You took a chance on me and I thank you for that. You gave me the opportunity to have a life I never could have envisioned. I hope in my mind and my heart I didn't disappoint you in the 13 years I worked for you."
Smith was anything but a disappointment after coming out of the University of Florida as a guy considered too small at 5 feet 9 inches and too slow at 4.55 in the 40-yard dash to long survive or succeed in the NFL. Yet many faster and bigger men have come and gone since the Cowboys drafted him in 1990. None has come close to doing what he did.
But every player's time, no matter how great, comes to an end. Yesterday that time came for the most productive running back in the history of the game. Like all that preceded it, it was a class event.
Update from Upshaw
"Show me the money." That's what the NFL Players Association is finally threatening to say to NFL owners. All the money.
"This will be the most difficult [basic agreement] extension since 1993," NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said yesterday while giving the union's perspective on the state of the game. "We're looking to change the revenue model. Whenever you ask for change it's a little bit difficult. We consider it a major change."
Upshaw and the union are seeking to add a new term to NFL contract negotiations with the league's Management Council --
When Upshaw first started his union involvement while still a player, the goal was 55 percent of the gross. That became the battle cry during the first strike of NFL players. Today that number is 65 percent of the gross, but Upshaw acknowledged yesterday that because of previously agreed to exclusions of revenue from NFL Properties, premium seating, signage, naming rights, parking, concessions, and other local revenues, the pot is far smaller than it should be and the players are the ones being excluded.
"The fact is, our share is shrinking," said Upshaw. Not in the opinion of the eight highest-earning teams, however, which Upshaw claimed were opposed to changing the revenue formula. The union's biggest target is Jones, whose Cowboys Upshaw claimed were second in the league in revenue, first in value, and "20 something" in payroll.
"When you're a high revenue club and you're not in the top 10 [in payroll], you're taking advantage of the system," Upshaw said. "They're really getting a discount. They're not paying a fair share." The present contract between the union and the league expires in three years.
Patriots center Dan Koppen again will be among the highest- paid recipients of what is called performance-based pay, a formula the NFLPA uses to divert some of the salary cap money into the hands of minimum-salary players who are performing admirably. Koppen will receive an extra $141,000 later this year. Rookie cornerback Randall Gay, who is playing for the league minimum of $230,000, will receive a 65 percent bonus totaling an additional $150,000. A year ago, Koppen's first as a starter, he earned an additional $101,000, meaning in two years he's been paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars above his salary for becoming a regular despite playing for minimum wage. Koppen earned $369,000 this season in base salary. Each club contributes $2.4 million from its salary cap figure to fund the bonus plan . . . For the first time in league history, a position other than quarterback will carry the highest franchise and transition player tags this offseason. Cornerbacks have now passed quarterbacks as the highest-paid position, with the franchise tag for that position now $8,816,000 and the transition tag $6,938,000. When the salary survey began, cornerbacks were the seventh-highest paid of the 11 positions. Defensive back compensation is up 419 percent. Running backs are up 274 percent and wide receivers increased 269 percent. The lowest average increase was to quarterbacks, at 90 percent . . . Upshaw said he expects the 2005 salary cap to be $85.5 million, up $5 million from a year ago. The total pay and benefits paid to all NFL players should be an estimated $3.25 billion.