PENSACOLA, Fla. - There were nights the most prolific high-school running back of his generation did not dazzle the hometown crowd with his speed or mesmerize with his power.
Sometimes on those nights, Emmitt Smith III, whose public life seems always to have been measured in yards, would walk the five private yards from the front door of his parents' home to his grandparents' house next door.
And while his grandfather, Emmitt Smith, worked heavy labor on the graveyard shift at the Armstrong Industries plant and his father, Emmitt Smith Jr., caught a few precious hours of sleep before reporting in the pre-dawn hours for work at the county bus depot, it fell to Emmitt Smith III to spend the night with his invalid grandmother, Erma Lee.
Emmitt III, "Scoey" as he has been known in the Smith family since the day he was born, would serve her food and drink and sit and talk as long as his grandmother could keep her eyes open.
And when it was time, her Scoey - whose powerful arms and broad shoulders and enormous thighs terrorized football foes on other nights - would gently lift Erma Lee Smith's limp body from her wheelchair and lay her down on the bed.
In the dead of night, Scoey would return to turn his "mama" and, as the doctors prescribed, move the arms and legs she could not.
"We are a family, and we all do things for each other," Emmitt Smith, the grandfather, explains sitting in his living room as his wife of almost 50 years, nods in agreement. "The Lord has blessed that boy. He's so strong. Always has been that way, strong for all who have needed him.
"And even when he was young - 12, 13 years old - he was always here when he was supposed to be," says the grandfather, 68, who can't remember missing a day of work in his 40 years and eight months at Armstrong before retiring in 1986, a year before he saw his oldest grandson off to the University of Florida.
"He's been a blessing."
On the Sunday afternoon in October 1990 that Emmitt Smith III enjoyed the first of his 19 100-yard regular-season rushing days as a Cowboy, he ran into the locker room after the game and made a telephone call.
"Did you and Mama see me on television?" he breathlessly asked his grandfather. "Did you and Mama see me?"
Of course they had seen. Wasn't that why the grandson had bought the satellite dish? If only the grandson could see the smile on his grandmother's face.
"Praise God," says the grandfather, who preaches there is no deed or event too insignificant for which to give thanks to his Lord. "That boy has always brought joy to this house."
On the living room wall opposite the telephone in the home of Emmitt and Erma Lee Smith hangs a poster with their grandson superimposed above the downtown Dallas skyline.
"To grandma," reads the inscription. "Thanks for life and your love and your support."
"That," Erma Lee Smith says proudly, "is our Scoey."
`MOST IMPORTANT THING'
To understand anything about Emmitt III, his success on the football field and his way of life away from the game, you must first understand the Emmitt Smith family of Pensacola, Fla. It is a family that Dwight Thomas, who coached young Emmitt and younger brothers, Erik and Emory, at Escambia High School, says, "should be the role model for all American families."
With that in mind, it may be easier to understand:
-- Why three seasons, 4,213 regular-season rushing yards and 43 touchdowns after signing his first professional contract, Emmitt Smith still lives in his old room in his parents' home when the Cowboys' season ends.
-- Why Emmitt Smith always races back to the western tip of Florida's Panhandle whenever Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson schedules consecutive days off.
-- Why Emmitt Smith's car still has Florida license plates; why he rents a two-bedroom apartment in Irving instead of owning a house in Texas; and why he plans to build his dream house not very far from his parents' and grandparents' on North G Street.
-- Why there is no strut in Emmitt Smith's walk; why he speaks softly; why he seeks no special privileges his status might bring; why he heaps praise on his teammates, particularly his blockers, whenever he sees an opening; why he never forgets that the next time he runs with a ball could be his last; and why he is already planning for life after that final run.
-- Why Emmitt Smith, who left college after his junior year, spent last spring studying back at the University of Florida; and why he believes his parents' living room walls, hidden beneath the athletic plaques and photographs and proclamations earned by all the Smith sons, will remain empty so long as his college diploma does not hang there.
"Family is the most important thing in the world," says Emmitt Smith, sitting in an otherwise deserted Cowboys locker room at the team's Valley Ranch training facility, 600 miles from home.
If it is difficult to remember that Emmitt Smith, three years a Cowboy, is only 23 years old when he performs in front of tens of thousands, it is also difficult to remember he is so young in the midst of quiet conversation.
"There is nothing that I am today that I would be without family," he says. "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."
Mary Smith says she suspected the baby she was carrying in her belly was a boy because of the way it kicked.
Six years had passed since she had given birth to Marsha, her oldest, and she and her husband were eager to expand their family. Mary Smith prayed her next child would be a boy.
She says she would sit in the Sunlight Baptist Church on Sundays, and fellow parishioners would marvel as they could actually see her baby thrashing about inside her. She knew, she says, she was carrying an athlete, like her husband.
When the boy was born, he was christened Emmitt James Smith III after his father and grandfather. To make life simpler in a world populated by three Emmitt Smiths, the boy would be called "Scoey," after his mother's favorite entertainer, comedian Scoey Mitchell.
Mary Smith says the surest way to keep her baby son entertained was to put him in a swing in front of the television, hand him a bottle, and find a football game. "It was just about the only way to keep him quiet," she says.
As Emmitt grew older, he began playing the game he seemed to have studied so intently. He preferred playing tackle football with his friends rather than the more genteel game of two-hand touch. To hide that fact from his mother, who preferred he not get his clothes dirty, Emmitt would turn his pants and shirt inside out when he played.
All the while, the Smith family continued to grow. Erik was born the year after Emmitt. And four years later came Emory, and finally Emil, who is eight years younger than his oldest brother.
Emmitt was 7 when he first began playing organized football. Even then, he was broad across the shoulders, heavy in the thighs and impossible to bring down.
He was a prodigy to all who saw him. So imposing was he, Mary Smith was forced to tote her son's birth certificate to all of his games. It was the only way to lower raised eyebrows when her son ran over and around the others, which was just about every time he touched the ball.
When Emmitt Smith was 8, he was assigned to a league with 10-year-olds. When he was 11 and playing against 14-year-olds, he was already a muscular 145 pounds. He was forced to spend many pre-game hours in a sauna, sweating off the excess weight that would have made him too big for his youth-league football games. It was also that year he broke a would-be tackler's arm in a collision.
At age 12, Emmitt led his team to victory over a team from just over the state line in Mobile, Ala. The 16-year-olds were no match for Emmitt Smith.
The next year, when eighth-grader Emmitt Smith no longer could sweat off enough weight, he became Coach Smith.
Emmitt Smith Jr. says he knew early that his son was something special with a football in his hands and his legs churning. Emmitt Smith Jr. had been a football player of some note at Pensacola's Washington High in the early 1960s. He played fullback and linebacker and, at 5-11, 185 pounds, was good enough to be have been offered several college scholarships.
But Emmitt Smith Jr. wasn't headed anywhere but to a job that required heavy manual labor. He had the grades to graduate but not to play college football.
"I knew from personal experience how important it would be for a child to prepare himself in school," says Emmitt Smith Jr. "That's why we always kept a close eye on Emmitt and all of our children in school."
As the young Emmitt grew bigger and stronger, his grandmother grew weaker and weaker. Finally, it was decided that her only child and his expanding family should live close by. Emmitt Smith Jr. built his family's home in the backyard of the house where he had grown up on North G Street.
"I'll tell you what family is," says Erma Lee Smith. "I've been dying on them all these years and never had to have anyone from the outside come in to help. That's family."
Meanwhile, the house out back was fast becoming a center of neighborhood activity.
Mary Smith frequently sat outside and watched her children play. She always had a kind word, an open ear, and a hot meal for the neighborhood children, many of whom came from single-parent homes where they could find no such warmth. She tolerated no fighting or teasing or foul language or smoking or drugs on her watch.
She and her husband invested in video games and domino sets to keep their children home and the others interested in coming. Sometimes after she checked homework, the neighborhood children would fall asleep on a couch or a love seat and spend the night. It never mattered.
"To tell you the truth," says Marzette Porterfield, who has been Emmitt Smith's close friend since the sixth grade, "we were all a little jealous of Emmitt. Not because of what he could do on the football field. It's the house and his family. They were special, and he got to live there with them."
But in the special house, the special football player never received special treatment.
"My mother and father would never have done it any other way," says Marsha Smith, who at 29 plans to move out of the house this spring when she will be married. "Yards never meant anything in the house. Respect for each other meant everything."
"It was," Emmitt Smith Jr. says, "never a question."
High school proved little more difficult for Emmitt Smith III than the youth leagues. He had stayed in shape during his forced year away from football by leading his middle school to a city championship in basketball.
In his first high-school game, the 5-8, 175-pound freshman gained 115 yards for the Escambia varsity. He would gain 1,525 yards before season's end. In his four years playing for the Gators, Smith ran for 8,804 yards, averaging 7.8 yards per carry, and 101 touchdowns. Only Ken Hall, who gained 11,232 yards at Sugar Land (Texas) High from 1950-53, ranks ahead of Smith on the all-time list.
Like hungry ants who have discovered a freshly opened bag of treats, college recruiters scampered to the house on North G Street during his senior year.
It was during young Emmitt's senior year that his father decided to give football a try again. Emmitt Jr. joined the Pensacola Wings in the semipro Dixie League. "I was the oldest guy on the team," Smith, 49, says in his soft voice. "I don't like to say this, but I was pretty good. With my son, it was in the genes."
Meanwhile, Mary Smith took charge of her son's recruitment. She set down stern rules for the recruiters. They could, for example, call her son only on Sundays. The rest of the week, the Parade All-American would be just plain old Scoey.
But truth be told, most of the recruiters never had a chance.
"I didn't want my family to have to go all over the country to see me play," says Emmitt Smith. "I wanted to stay close to home."
On the day he was to sign his national letter of intent, Emmitt Smith invited the media to watch. When the cameras and notebooks arrived, they found Smith and a dozen teammates there. Smith thought his less-publicized teammates who would also be signing would appreciate the attention.
"I thought it would be nice to spread the limelight around," he says. "I wanted to give some guys a day to remember."
Before his grandson left for the University of Florida, grandfather, whose height (6-1), broad shoulders, strong back and thick legs, earned him the nickname "Big Smith," sat his grandson down for a talk.
"I told him not to forget who he was, what name he carried and his raising," the grandfather recalls. "I told him to do what he was supposed to do and to think. And to say a silent prayer before he did anything."
On the surface, things appeared as if they might even out at the University of Florida. At 5-9 and 190 pounds, Emmitt Smith was no longer the biggest kid on the block.
He was fast, but others appeared faster. He was strong, but others appeared stronger. He had been highly recruited, but so had been most of his teammates as well as the opposing players.
But any doubt that Emmitt Smith's college career would not simply begin where his youth-league and high-school success had left off, was dispelled in his first freshman start. He ran for 224 yards.
Emmitt Smith gained his 1,000th yard in his seventh game, reaching the milestone earlier than any other runner in college football history. Former Cowboys Tony Dorsett (Pitt) and Herschel Walker (Georgia) held the record of eight games.
Early in his junior season, he raced past the University of Florida career rushing record set by Neal Anderson (3,234 yards). By season's end, he had run for 4,232 yards in 34 games. Emmitt Jr. and Mary Smith were there for most of his college games. Even if it meant a long drive after one of Erik's games at Alabama's Troy State University or Emory's games at Escambia High. They certainly were there when Emmitt once improvised an end-zone dance after a touchdown.
"We'll have no more of that," father told his son, the All-American. And there have been no more dances.
It was 1990, the same year Florida was mired in the midst of an NCAA investigation and the NFL was opening its draft to college juniors. There was little question that Emmitt Smith had nothing more to learn on the football field. He was ready to graduate to the NFL.
The telephone lines between Emmitt Smith's dorm room in Gainesville and the house on North G Street in Pensacola sizzled.
There was much talk and much agonizing.
"The records, the touchdowns, the accomplishments are only momentary," says Emmitt Smith Jr. "Someone will come along and surpass them and break the records. Education is something you have until the day you die. Nobody can take it away from you. The proudest day of my life will have nothing to do with one of his runs. The proudest day will be when I see my son walking down the aisle to pick up his diploma."
Still, in the end it was decided that it would be best for the Smith family to move on. But not before the son made a promise to his parents.
"I told them that I would not build a house until I completed my college education," says Emmitt Smith III, whose initial three-year contract with the Cowboys was worth $2.2 million and whose next one, which should come before next season, should be worth three times that. "Nothing can happen to change that. Nothing."
Once Emmitt Smith dreamed of being an architect. He wanted to create buildings that were "unique and pretty that people would enjoy."
But he understood he couldn't devote all of his energies to architecture if he wanted to be a great football player who made runs that were unique and pretty that people would enjoy.
It wasn't really a difficult choice. He would devote himself to what he did best.
But this is no blind run built on fantasy that he is on. He understands that in his chosen vocation, the end can come all too soon.
"I've always been a person who looks at the downside of things," Emmitt Smith says. "I understand it is a matter of time until someone or something like an injury catches up to me. For that day, I have to be prepared."
Toward that end, he decided soon after his rookie season to open a trading-card and sports-collectible business in his hometown.
The store, "Emmitt Inc., 1st and 10 Trading Card Collectibles," has since outgrown its first home and moved to larger quarters.
The idea for the store was born with his father, who was intrigued when his famous son told him how much he could earn for signing his name for a couple of hours at a card show.
Mary and Emmitt Smith Jr., who still drives his bus, run the store with their daughter, Marsha.
"It's turned out to be a family business," Emmitt Smith III says. "Just the way it should be." ---------------------------
-- What: Super Bowl XXXVII. -- Who: Buffalo Bills vs. Dallas Cowboys. -- When: Next Sunday, 3:18 p.m. -- Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. -- TV: KING (Channel 5).