Of the 24 News-Press Athletes of the Year who had their picture taken with NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, there wasn’t one Smith didn’t try to steer toward his alma mater, the University of Florida.
He was devastated to hear Offensive Football Player of the Year Carlin Fils-Aime and Defensive Football Player of the Year Tyler Byrd, both from Naples High, signed rival Tennessee.
“How did they let them out of the state,” Smith asked.
And there were those like Fort Myers’ Krissy Gear, a Runner of the Year in cross country and track and field, and Boys Basketball Player of the Year Jacob Tracey of Riverdale where he still had hope.
“Why not? I’m always recruiting,” Smith said. “There’s nowhere better than UF.”
Smith was the guest speaker at the Sixth Annual News-Press All-Area Stars banquet Tuesday at Germain Arena. The former Gator and Dallas Cowboys running back’s message to the 200-plus Southwest Florida athletes in attendance was heartfelt.
“These kids need to hear this,” Smith said before heading onstage for a question and answer session with News-Press high school sports columnist Cory Mull.
The former Pensacola Escambia standout had plenty of advice for athletes aspiring to excel at the college and pro levels while discussing the pitfalls of recruiting services and taking time to reminisce about his three Super Bowl victories with the Dallas Cowboys.
“They need to pay attention,” Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, said. “Pay attention to the guys who came before you – good, bad and indifferent. A lot of athletes, a lot of people in general don’t learn from other folks’ mistakes primarily because they don’t believe it can actually happen to them. What I hate seeing is watching athletes make the same dumb mistake the guy before them made.
“Playing a sport that we absolutely love and getting paid for it, those are rare moments. Those are life-changing moments. Those are financially-changing moments because a lot of athletes come from the bottom. The role and the responsibility of that isn’t hard. Just do what’s right.”
Coming out of Escambia in 1987, recruiting analyst Max Emfinger famously wrote Smith was a “lugger, not a runner. He can’t get around the corner. When he falls flat on his face, remember where you heard it first.”
Smith went on to break Florida’s single-game rushing record in his first start and ran for 18,355 yards in the pros.
“I still have people forming opinions about me,” Smith joked.
“A lot of kids have been told they’re great too soon. I think they miss the elements of what it takes to be great. You’re not great today. You’re in the process of becoming great. Once you’re at that level you’re still in the process of becoming great.”
Smith said he still uses “bulletin board material” as motivation to this day.
“From a motivational standpoint, we all look for something to fuel us, especially in athletics,” Smith said. “ … People find stuff to fuel them, things to motivate them, things to inspire them. For me, try not to take offense. Try not to take offense. It’s hard when people are saying things that aren’t right. The only one who can speak for you is really your performance. Having the opportunity go back and utilize someone’s statement about you as motivation is a powerful thing.”
One of Smith’s fondest memories of his time with the Cowboys came in his rookie season with the team coming off a 1-15 season. With Smith in the backfield, Dallas finished 7-9 and won no less than 11 games in 1991 to 1995.
“To see it come to fruition it reinforces the statement that if you work hard you can be successful,” Smith said. “It put action to words.”
Admittedly, the NFL’s shift to a running-back-by-committee approach hurts Smith, who was a three-down back who carried over 4,000 times in his career. However, it’s something he understands.
“I look back on it and think, ‘What about me?” Smith said. “I had to run, I had to block and I had to catch passes. And I’m doing OK and feeling OK, but I look at it and I understand. It’s hard to get your body back and ready to go. I think that back pay is due for what I’ve done.”