Cowboys' Smith reaches the top

Running back becomes all-time leading rusher, surpassing Payton's 16,726

October 28, 2002|By Don Pierson | Don Pierson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IRVING, Texas - With fireworks blasting and celebrities stalking, Emmitt Smith ran past Walter Payton in the NFL record book yesterday and the Dallas Cowboys turned it into as big a deal as an individual can enjoy in a sport that emphasizes team.

Smith passed Payton's 16,726 rushing yards with 9:10 left to play against the Seattle Seahawks. Needing 93 yards, Smith got 109 on 24 carries, his first 100-yard game of this, his 13th season.

Although Smith scored on the drive to tie the score, the Cowboys lost, 17-14, in a game that was incidental to the festivities organized by owner Jerry Jones. Most of the crowd of 63,854 at Texas Stadium stayed for nearly an hour afterward to watch Smith re-emerge amid smoke and blue lights from the locker room tunnel where teammates had experienced their fifth loss in eight games.

Coach Dave Campo didn't even address Smith's accomplishment in his postgame comments. Asked if the hoopla was a distraction, Campo answered, "No."

"Unfortunately, we couldn't have our cake and eat it too," Smith said. "Winning has always been my focus, but it didn't work out."

Of all the great runners, Smith played on the most successful teams. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls with him as the catalyst - 1992, 1993 and 1995. Smith's 20th carry against the NFL's worst rushing defense was a stumbling 11-yard dash off left tackle Flozell Adams, a Chicagoan with only dim memories of Payton.

Adams was a 9-year-old growing up in Maywood, Ill., in 1984 when the Bears great broke the hallowed rushing mark held by Cleveland's Jim Brown, who set the record in 1963 and retired after the 1965 season.

"I remember Richard Dent more," Adams said. "I remember Payton in the Super Bowl. It felt good to be a part of this. You can see how hard it is to get 100 yards. To get 16,000 is really something."

Smith now has 16,743 yards. It was his 193rd game and he got to Payton's mark on the 3,925th carry of his career. Payton set his record in 190 games and 3,838 carries.

Smith knew he had the record the second he passed it. Former teammate Michael Irvin joked that Smith might have scored on the play had he not stumbled.

"Trust me, I knew," Smith said. "It was very, very important to do it at home. I learned how special this was when I saw Cal Ripken go through what he did."

Payton's brother, Eddie, also a former NFL player, and mother, Alyne Payton, were present. Payton's widow, Connie, sent congratulations via video.

"He meant so much to me," Smith said. "I wish I could have embraced him."

Alyne Payton said she became emotional thinking about Walter, who died in 1999 from complications of liver cancer.

"I was feeling for him and then it passed," she said. "This is like another family member doing something great. When Walter broke it, he said records are made to be broken."

Alyne Payton also remembered how Walter discouraged the Bears from turning his record quest into a sideshow.

"He didn't want it," she said. "He said he would just take a bow and let the game go on."

Said Eddie Payton: "Emmitt felt the same way. You could see the pressure on him and he wanted his teammates to focus on the game."

Asked if this meant he is the greatest running back ever, Smith said: "To say I'm the greatest is not doing everyone else justice for what their talents are. What is the criteria? I'm very confident I'm one of the best. I can't define who is the greatest."

Smith reiterated plans to keep playing despite signs this could be his last season in Dallas because of salary cap considerations.

"I'm still moving on and don't plan on stopping anytime soon," he said.

Don Pierson is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company.

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