Cowboys' Smith finds maturity without losing equipment. . .

January 27, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Emmitt Smith keeps his helmet in sight and his ego in check at all times.

It was inevitable that the Dallas Cowboys running back was asked about his helmet yesterday because Buffalo's Thurman Thomas was facing all the questions about last year's Super Bowl.

Smith quickly mentioned he thought he misplaced his playbook last week.

"It turned out I put it on top of my locker. I'm trying to make a point to make sure I keep everything intact, keep my helmet by my side everywhere I go, keep my playbook by my side everywhere I go except places like this," he said.

The differences between Smith and Thomas, who figure to be two key players in Super Bowl XXVII Sunday, go beyond the fact Smith has never lost his helmet.

Both have different styles on and off the field. On the field, Thomas is more a part of the passing game than Smith is. Off the field, Thomas, 26, still is struggling for the maturity that Smith displays at age 23.

Thomas used to complain when he was "only" called the best all-around back. He wanted to be called the best back period.

Smith doesn't worry about such distinctions. He even says he'd like to be like Thomas.

"He is just Mr. Versatility," Smith said of Thomas. "He does it all. That's something that I want to become [like Thomas]. But I've just got to take my time and just do what my offense calls for me to do."

He also said he doesn't feel he's dueling Thomas. "I can only do my job and take what the Buffalo defense gives me. I'm not going to go out and compete against Thurman," he said.

Smith isn't surprised he's in the Super Bowl. He likes to tell the story of the last time the game was played in the Rose Bowl when the New York Giants beat the Denver Broncos. He was in the stands because he had won a trip for being the national high school player of the year.

"I remember telling one of my best friends that one day I'm going to play right here in the Super Bowl on this field. It's like a dream come true."

Smith, though, doesn't want anybody to think he's bragging that he fulfilled his dream in six years.

"I don't brag on myself for one thing. It was just the excitement of being in the Super Bowl," he said.

Bragging wasn't condoned growing up in Smith's tight-knit family in Pensacola, Fla.

He's actually Emmitt James Smith III. His grandfather, Emmitt Smith, won't be able to attend the game because he takes care of his wife, who is confined to a wheelchair. But his father, Emmitt Smith Jr., and his mother and his siblings will all be on the scene.

Smith is still so close to his family that he only rents a two-bedroom apartment in Dallas. He plans to build his dream house not far from the home of his parents and grandparents in Pensacola.

His high school coach, Dwight Thomas, told a Dallas reporter that the Smith family "should be a role model for all American families."

Smith said: "There is nothing that I am today that I would be without family. I inherited my athletic skills and I learned all about life, how to love, how to act, how to treat people, how to expect to be treated from my family. It's family, not football, that has been the greatest gift of all. I could get hurt tomorrow and football would be over. Family will always be there."

His grandfather is now retired, but when he was working the graveyard shift at a plant and his father got up early for work at the county bus depot, Smith would put his grandmother to bed and, as the doctors prescribed, move the arms and legs she could not.

On the football field, Smith has always been special.

When he was 8, he was assigned to a league of 10-year-olds. His mother had to produce his birth certificate to prove he wasn't older.

When he was 11 playing against 14-year-olds as a 145-pounder, he broke a tackler's arm by running him over. In the eighth grade, he was too big to play, but in high school, he gained 8,804 yards. That's third on the all-time list.

Smith, who's now 5 feet 9 and 203 pounds, went to college at Florida so his family could see him play. He left after his junior year after rushing for 3,928 yards. He slid to the 17th spot in the first round because scouts thought his speed was questionable.

"When I started falling, I was thinking I should have stayed in school, but the Cowboys came through for me," he said.

It took a year for them to use him. In his first year, he carried only 241 times. The last two years, he has carried 365 and 373 times.

The difference was the arrival of Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator in 1991.

"In my first year, I wasn't real sure of what we were doing. With Norv's system I stepped on the field and I was very confident," he said.

The only question now is whether he's carrying it too much.

He admits he'd rather not carry 30 times a game, which he did against Philadelphia for 163 yards.

"If I carry 30-plus times week in and week out, my career is going to be shortened," he said.

Smith figures he's got many more years to play, but he's not taking it for granted the Cowboys are going to be back in the Super Bowl.

"I look at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You don't know if you're going to be back."

Smith probably would like to get the MVP honors, but he's not the type to admit that.

"I have my own personal goals about playing in the Super Bowl, but I learned a lesson about spilling my goals to the media. I'm not going to tell," he said.

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