JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Emmitt Smith decided to stop running. There was nothing left to prove, no records left to chase.
Breaking down in tears and grasping his beloved Dallas Cowboys helmet, Smith retired Thursday after a 15-year career in which he became the NFL's career rushing leader and played a key role on three Super Bowl champions.
The decision had been expected for several days, but the finality of it all was still poignant. Flanked by his wife, Pat, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Smith thanked a list of people several pages long everyone from his Pee Wee football coaches to longtime Dallas fullback Daryl ''Moose'' Johnston, the fierce blocker who cleared so many holes for No. 22.
''It's been a tremendous ride,'' said Smith, who spent his final two years with the Arizona Cardinals after 13 seasons in Big D. ''My 15 years, my 15 minutes of fame, is up.''
There's one more stop Canton, Ohio.
''I'm going to be biased when you ask who's the greatest running back of all time,'' Johnston said. ''You can probably make a case for eight to 10 guys. But for me, it's always been Emmitt.''
The 35-year-old Smith ran for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns in his career, both NFL records. He closed it out by running for 937 yards and nine touchdowns in Arizona this season.
Former Giants linebacker Pepper Johnson still remembers the determined rookie who came out of Florida in 1990.
''I saw a guy with the eye of a demon, a guy that ran the ball with a passion, a guy that had great vision and a small guy that didn't play small,'' said Johnson, now an assistant coach with the New England Patriots. ''I remember him picking me up on a blitz and when he hit me, he was like, 'Oh Pepper, I shocked you on that, didn't I?'''
Smith was more consistent than he was spectacular, a running back who could be relied on to get tough yards when tough yards were needed.
He rushed for 1,000 yards or more every year between 1991 and 2001. He led the NFL in rushing from 1991-93, then again in 1995. He also paced the league in touchdowns three times.
But despite his impressive statistics, he won just two major awards in 15 seasons NFL MVP in 1993 and the Super Bowl MVP that same season, when he rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns in the Cowboys' 30-13 win over Buffalo. He also had perhaps his greatest game with a separated shoulder, rushing for 229 yards in a crucial victory over the New York Giants.
''Emmitt has never forgot he was part of a team and what the team meant,'' Jones said. ''Your place in our franchise has always been secure.''
It was only appropriate that Smith retired at the Super Bowl, having been part of Dallas' glorious run in the 1990s three championships in four years with a team featuring Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.
Many were shocked when Smith left Dallas after the 2002 season, deciding to extend a career that was clearly past its prime. He finished up in a red-birded helmet, playing in a half-filled stadium in the sweltering Arizona desert.
''There were a lot of people, including myself, who didn't want him to go,'' said Darren Woodson, a longtime teammate in Dallas. ''I told him a few times, 'Let's think about this before you do it.' But he had it set in his mind that he wanted to prove he had something left in the tank.''
Plagued by injuries, Smith rushed for a career-low 256 yards in 2003, averaging a meager 2.8 yards per carry. He bounced back to have a respectable season, but the Cardinals still missed the playoffs with a 6-10 record.
Smith said he had no regrets, other than failing to meet his goal of leading Arizona to the playoffs. He acknowledged Cardinals coach Dennis Green, one of several hundred people who crowded the room for Smith's retirement.
''I want to thank the Cardinals for letting me play two more years,'' he said. ''I padded that record. That does mean a lot to me.''
Arizona hastened Smith's retirement by telling him that he wouldn't be back for next season. Like Dallas two years earlier, the Cardinals wanted to go with their younger backs.
''That made my decision a whole lot easier,'' he said, adding that he turned down offers to continue his career elsewhere. ''I have a home. It's with my family.''
Two names stood out on Smith's lengthy thank-you list. There was Jones, mocked by some for drafting a 5-foot-9 1/2 running back who didn't exactly blow people away with his speed. And Johnston, a close friend who stood along a wall during the retirement announcement.
''Daryl, I love you to death,'' Smith said, dabbing at his tears with a tissue. ''You've been there through thick and thin. I don't know why, but every time I think of you, I always break down.''
Smith wasn't happy about leaving Dallas two years ago, but any hard feelings toward his former employer have clearly thawed. Dallas plans to sign Smith to a one-day contract, so he can officially retire as a Cowboy.
''You don't know how much this star really means to me,'' Smith said, breaking down as he placed his left hand on one of two Dallas helmets on the dais.
Wearing a pinstripe suit blue, of course Smith said he'll pursue some business opportunities. But he also vowed to stay close to the game and give something back to the fans.
''I'm moving on to another chapter in my life,'' he said. ''That's a chapter I'm looking forward to.''
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