After holdout, $2.2 million Cowboys rookie Smith hasn't hit stride

September 21, 1990|By Michael Gunstanson | Michael Gunstanson,Special to The Sun

IRVING, Texas -- Think of all the reasons a 21-year-old star athlete would forgo his senior year in college for the National Football League -- big money, fast cars, national exposure.

In Emmitt Smith's case, throw them all out.

With Smith, upon whom the Dallas Cowboys have banked a part of their future, the choice to forgo his senior year came down to this decision -- should he stay at the University of Florida and learn his fourth offense in as many years or take off for the pros?

He made the decision alone.

And with $2.2 million and a starting spot in the Cowboys lineup to console him, he has few regrets.

"My only regret is not winning the Heisman," Smith said of the trophy awarded annually to college football's most outstanding player. "But deep in my heart I believe I should have won it my freshman year."

That year, Smith rushed for 1,341 yards and 13 touchdowns. He finished in the top 10 for the award.

But after a long training-camp holdout, Smith has found life in the NFL less than grand.

Over two games, Smith has 13 yards on eight carries.

"It'll get better," Smith said. "I'm the type of back that needs to be in there carrying the ball for a few plays. Once I'm in there for more than a few series, things will change."

Smith's life has changed dramatically in the slightly more than three years since Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson tried to lure him to the University of Miami.

"We wanted Emmitt real bad," said Johnson, who came to the Cowboys from Miami. "But he wanted to go to a more run-oriented offense. We were pretty sure from the start he was going to go to Florida."

Smith had it all as a high school player. At Pensacola's Escambia High, Smith led the team to consecutive state championships.

"I never experienced losing until I got to college," Smith said. "And all the problems the school had directly affected me."

Smith's Gators were branded the most corrupt college regime since Southern Methodist University of the early 1980s.

"People were saying I wouldn't win the Heisman because my school was a cheater," Smith said. "That's not right. People shouldn't judge me for what my school did or didn't do."

Smith went through three different offensive coordinators in as many years.

"If [former SMU coach] Whitey Jordan had stayed," Smith said, "I think I would have, too."

Instead, Smith was chosen by the Cowboys with their 17th pick in the April draft. After three years with an average program -- Smith's teams at Florida never did better than 7-5 -- he was determined to make his mark in the NFL.

He attended every minicamp and quarterback school. But when training camp rolled around, Smith was a no-show.

"Sometimes you have to do what you have to do," Smith said.

Now that he is in the fold, the Cowboys are making long-term plans that focus on Smith and quarterback Troy Aikman.

"We saw him all throughout his college career," Johnson said. "We knew he would fit in with what we wanted to do here. We knew he was a great back, and it's just a matter of time before the rest of the NFL knows it too."

The game plan this week calls for Smith to get his second start. He hopes he'll get to equal his season-long number of carries.

"I'll run it till I drop," Smith said. "If they give it to me 30 or 40 times a game, it doesn't matter to me."

Smith is aware that the holdout hurt his image. And he has taken steps to court the media.

"The media are brutal here," Smith said. "I read an article last week saying how bad the rushing game is. Then, I get to this paragraph that says, 'and the Cowboys could have averaged that without Smith's $2.2 million.' These guys are tough."

All the criticism, the holdout, the losing have made him tougher, Smith said.

"This forces you to grow up a lot faster than you normally would," Smith said. "I'm doing my best to adjust. In Pensacola, the fans never booed me. I was loved. Here, it's very different."

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