NFL Great Emmitt Smith Shares Lessons Learned

SAN DIEGO–As a six-year-old boy laying on the floor of his home while his family watched a Dallas Cowboys game on TV, Emmitt Smith looked at his father and said, “Someday I’m going to play for the Cowboys.” 

Fourteen years later, he was wearing a star on his helmet. What happened in-between those years were shared by Smith in remarks before credit unions here. 

Feature Smith

Speaking to NACUSO’s annual meeting, Smith said he is often asked how he achieved all he has in his life, including becoming the all-time leading rusher in the National Football League, being elected to the Hall of Fame, and then launching a successful business career (not to mention winning Dancing With the Stars).

After making that  announcement to his father,  Smith said his dad could have responded by laughing or crying, but he didn’t. “My dad said, “Son, that’s a great dream to have, but life is going to deal some things to you, and you are going to have to overcome them.”

Smith wouldn’t play organized football until he was eight and he chose to play quarterback and wore number 12 in honor of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. And although he was QB, Smith said he ran on every play and never passed the ball. 

A New Word

“I turned nine and this new word was introduced to me, change,” said Smith. “Change paralyzes a lot of people. Most people don’t know what’s on the other side of change.”

Smith Speaking 1

Emmitt Smith speaking to NACUSO meeting in San Diego.

The change Smith was introduced to was a new coach who wanted him to play a new position—running back. Smith told the coach no.

“Sometimes, other people see things in ourselves that we don’t see in ourselves,” Smith said. “When we resist change, we resist opportunities to grow. It’s about the adjustment to what the possibilities could be and the expansion of the mindset.”

That coach, Eugene Warren, set Smith on a new path. That included so-called Oklahoma Drills, where to players square off against each other. Smith, who had been moved up an age division, squared off against an older kid named Billy Spriggs who crushed him. That didn’t happen again.

A Valuable Lesson

“I learned a very valuable lesson: avoid contact at all costs and I avoided it from that point on,” said Smith. “We all have things that come in our lives that will keep us on the sideline or in our seat, and we don’t believe we have enough to measure up. I’m here to tell you we do. It’s those things you tap into that make you the best version of yourself. It will also tell you a lot about who you are inside and what you truly are capable of achieving. Everybody has a Billy Spriggs in their lives.”

Smith said he stores all those memories in what he calls the “Library of Life,” which he draws upon for strength.

When he arrived at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Fla., there was a new coach, Dwight Thomas, and new changes  to deal with.  That coach was leading a team that had had many losing seasons and he had every member of the team write down their team goals.’

“He said, ‘It’s only a dream until you write it down, and then it becomes a goal,” related Smith. “The team hadn’t won. We wanted more, we wanted to be the best. And coach said, ‘If you want to be the best, you have to sacrifice, be focused and committed, because this is not easy. If it were, everyone would be trying to do what you’re trying to do.”

A Lesson in I, I, I

Smith soon became a dominant running back in high school, which led to his first media interview.

“It was a bunch of I, I, I things,” said Smith. “Coach heard the interview and walking back to the locker room and he said, ‘Every chance you get you share the spotlight with your teammates. No one is successful by themselves.’ I said I get it, and we came to practice on Monday and the offensive line laid down on the ground and I got killed. I got up and said, ‘Coach, I got it.’ It was a lesson in humility. Some people cannot handle success. They are up and down. How you deal with success is extremely important. Having a humble attitude about success and life itself, to me, it brings more things your way when you are able to share the spotlight with others. Success has a way of spoiling all of us. How do you remain hungry and grounded at the same time? The way I do it is by remembering to share the spotlight with others.”

Smith was named Gatorade High School Player of the Year his senior year, for which he was awarded a trip for two to the Super Bowl game between the Broncos and the New York Giants. Once again, Smith said he told the friend accompanying him he was going to play in the NFL.

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Emmitt Smith as a Florida Gator.

The Florida Gators

Smith’s success in high school led to a scholarship to the University of Florida, where, even though the Gators changed offensive coordinators every year, Smith was a starter by the third game of his freshman year, and he was soon setting records as a running back. When the Gators’ coaching staff was fired, Smith said he had a decision to make at age 20—stay in college or turn professional. 

“I chose to leave school early, but I promised my mother I would return and graduate,” Smith said (and he did in 1996).

A Star Wears a Star

Smith entered the NFL draft, and even though he was projected by some as a top five pick, he lasted until the 17thpick of the first round.

“And then (Dallas Cowboys Coach) Jimmy Johnson caslled  and said, ‘Emmitt, how would you like to wear a star on your helmet?’ Right then and there I reflected all the way back to that kid sitting on that floor saying, ‘One day I’m going to play for the Dallas Cowboys.’” 

Smith Cowboy

Emmitt Smith as a Dallas Cowboy.

In Smith’s third season, Dallas went 11-5 and brought in a new offensive coordinator, Norv Turner. The team went to the NFC Championship game before losing in San Francisco. The team vowed not to let it happen again, and a year later the Cowboys were in the Super Bowl, playing in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., where six years earlier Smith had been sitting after winning the Gatorade Player of the Year and vowing he would one day be playing there. 

“I believe it was destiny, and that was the last Super Bowl played in that stadium,” said Smith. “Success is not there for a select few. It’s there for all of those who are willing to put in the work and who believe in the process. But most importantly, when you get there, are you willing to help another person achieve their success? Often-times, we see ourselves in one vain, but we have to get outside to see how much broader we can be and how much more we can do to help others be the best version of themselves.”

So, You Think You Can Dance?

Smith, 49, who played his last two years with the Arizona Cardinals, retired from the NFL after the 2004 season. And while he has been involved in numerous ventures since retiring, the most high profile has been an appearance on Dancing With the Stars (which he referred to as proof “God has a sense of humor.”) After turning down requests to participate in the first two seasons, Smith said he asked himself, “How hard can it be?” 

He would soon find out.

Smith Dancing

Emmitt Smith on Dancing With the Stars.

“I meet (professional dancer and champion) Cheryl Burke for the first time and I said I will be on time, be committed and work harder than anyone you ever worked with, and I want to win,” said Smith. “I thought I could manage a 1:22 routine (by practicing for) four hours. And then it’s every week. By the second or third week in, I’m doing the tango and I get a 19 on my score and I got beat by Jerry Springer. I was hot! I was mad! I went from four hours to eight hours to 12 hours of practice. I didn’t realize how much time was required.”

Despite all those hours, Smith said whether in professional football or dance practice, he has learned a number of lessons he applies in business and life.

“Do not take yourself so seriously. Enjoy the process. Learn every step of the way,” Smith told the NACUSO meeting. “Share that knowledge with others. Stay committed and focused. Be determined to be successful. And remain humble so you can continue to grow in whichever space you’re in.”

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