Smith rushes toward Payton in more ways than yards

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2001

IRVING, Texas -- Connie Payton first noticed the similarities when she was invited to Dallas to be part of a new fund-raising campaign for kids.

The night before the event, she dined with her host, his wife and his mother. As they approached a table, she was reminded of her late husband, Walter.

''I said, 'OK, Emmitt, is there anywhere you want to sit?' And he said, 'I don't sit with my back to anybody.' That's why I asked -- Walter was the same way,'' she said.

''Then, while we were eating, people came up to meet him and were in awe, so excited. They said they were sorry to bother him during dinner, but they wanted an autograph anyway. He politely smiled and signed for them. Even when they told him he got the name wrong, he never quit smiling and fixed it. I was laughing because it was so familiar.''

The more Connie Payton got to know Emmitt Smith, the more she was convinced the right man is in line to replace her husband as the NFL's career rushing leader.

One game into his 12th season with the Dallas Cowboys, Smith is 64 yards from passing Barry Sanders for No. 2 on the list.

With a big game Sunday against San Diego, Smith can catch Sanders and start working on the next 1,456 yards he'll need to overtake Payton's record of 16,726 that has stood since he retired in 1987. Payton died of cancer in November 1999.

Although Smith is playing down his run for the record, he's using it to anchor a charity drive called ''Help Emmitt Help Kids.'' The goal is to raise $22 million in 22 months, like the 22 on his jersey.

The kickoff event was canceled because it was scheduled for the same day terrorists attacked New York and Washington. Connie Payton was stranded in a Dallas hotel room and had to scramble to return home to Chicago. Still, she was glad to have made the trip because she got to know Smith and his family.

''He's such a real, genuine person, down to earth and focused on what needs to be done,'' she said. ''He can be fun, but when it comes to work ethic, he seems like a real no-nonsense person -- just like Walter was.''

''They know what they want, set their goals and practice for every Sunday with one thing in mind. They want to help the team by being the best they can be. I sensed that as another similarity.''

Here's one more: When Payton passed Jim Brown in 1984 to become the NFL's rushing king, he didn't do it by hanging around and padding stats accumulated early in his career. It came during the second-best of his 13 seasons and amid his best three-year span.

While Smith is probably a season away from passing Payton, he's also still going strong.

From 1998-2000, Smith ran for 3,932 yards. Only Eddie George (4,107), Marshall Faulk (4,059) and Curtis Martin (3,955) gained more, and all are at least four years younger than the 32-year-old Smith.

''He's one of those special kind of guys who ... you love to watch play,'' Sanders said. ''You don't know whether to be in awe of him or try to shut him down.''

Six years into the league, Smith already had built a Hall of Fame-caliber resume. He was the NFL's best running back, playing on the best team and running behind a line filled with All-Pros. He'd been named the MVP of the regular season and Super Bowl.

But over the past five seasons, the Cowboys came crashing down and so did Smith's reputation.

Mediocre seasons in 1996 and '97 prompted talk that he was washed up. His linemen were getting older, too, fueling critics who said he was a product of the great players and system around him.

Smith knew injuries were to blame, yet he refused to make excuses. He let the accusations drive him, as he'd done his entire life.

After a record-shattering high school career, Smith was supposed to be a flop at Florida. After three superb seasons there, he was considered too small and slow for the NFL. The Cowboys made him the 17th overall pick in 1990, but only after the guy coach Jimmy Johnson really wanted, linebacker James Francis of Baylor, went to Cincinnati.

''You can defy odds,'' Smith said. ''If you believe what the critics are saying, then you become exactly what they said. If you believe in what you have and what you're working for, you have a great chance to create your own history.''

Cowboys coach Dave Campo was an assistant in 1990, and had been following Smith since high school. So he knew Dallas was getting a special player, yet no one could've imagined the career he's had.

''I think running back is probably the hardest position to say what the longevity is going to be,'' Campo said. ''Some running backs take only so many hits, then their career is over. I'm very pleased with him and somewhat astonished.''

With flecks of gray dotting his beard, Smith is now the longest-tenured member of the Cowboys. It saddens him in some ways, because it means many of his friends have left the team and NFL.

Smith and safety Darren Woodson are the only remaining players from Dallas' championship teams in 1992, '93 and '95.

Smith knows much of Dallas' success is still riding on him. The more yards he gains, the easier life will be for rookie quarterback Quincy Carter. Defenses know it, too, so even though Smith is the NFL's second-oldest starting running back, he's still the focal point of every team Dallas plays.

''Until we can show some consistency throwing the ball downfield and converting on third downs, you won't see anything different,'' he said.

Again, Connie Payton can relate.

Football, though, wasn't discussed much during their dinner. They didn't even talk about what brought them together: the Record.

''In my heart, I knew why I was here,'' she said. ''I thanked him for wanting to include me. He didn't have to do that. This is really his time. He's earned it, he deserves to celebrate it.

''The kids use the terms 'new school' and 'old school.' Emmitt is definitely old school. Walter would be very proud of him, and I am, too.''

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