Emmitt Smith dreamed about this as a teenager, planned for it as a rookie, lived it for the past year as his personal countdown grew louder and shorter.
Sometime soon -- possibly on Sunday -- the Dallas Cowboys' running back will pass Walter Payton as the most prolific rusher in NFL history. It will be the crowning accomplishment in a career destined for the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and a deserving tribute to one of the game's most respected stars.
But what makes it all the more remarkable is that Smith, now 33, envisioned this day for the first time as a youngster -- at the age of 14 or 15, he says -- growing up in Escambia, Fla.
Jarrett & Emmitt: A friendship Walter Payton planned
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) -- Jarrett Payton remembers sitting at the head of the table and making eye contact with Emmitt Smith.
Payton would have been happy with a wave, a smile or even a nod. He got much more attention. Smith left his wife and kids, pulled up a chair and spent the evening talking with the son of Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.
Jarrett and Smith hardly knew each other when the NFL veteran was given the Spirit of Sweetness Award in July. But they since have become close friends -- a bond Walter Payton envisioned before his death in 1999.
It was right around that time that Payton slashed past Jim Brown in the record book. The late Chicago Bears great seized the record in 1984 and has held it for 18years. Back then, Smith says he embodied a little bit of all the great runners he saw.
"I thought I was O.J. Simpson. I thought I was Walter Payton. I thought I was Tony Dorsett. I thought I was all those backs in one," Smith said.
"I used to go out there and run around and just think that Howard Cosell was talking about me with that football."
By the time Smith arrived in the NFL in 1990 as a first-round pick of the Cowboys, he was ready to address the dream. Sitting in an apartment at Valley Ranch before his first training camp in July, he jotted down a list of goals. Among them, he wanted to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher.
It wasn't pie in the sky.
If Smith gets 93 yards against the Seattle Seahawks' 32nd-rated rush defense on Sunday in Texas Stadium, he will topple the mark of 16,726 that Payton left. Payton reached that milestone in 13 seasons and 190 games. Smith has gained 16,634 yards in 13 seasons and 192 games.
It's not so much that Smith was prescient; it's more that his ambition merged blissfully with the course of history. He was fortunate to go to Dallas with Coach Jimmy Johnson (followed by Barry Switzer), quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin and a Pro Bowl offensive line. Three Super Bowl victories grew out of that union.
What sets Smith apart from the vast majority of running backs is his passion for the game, his dedication and his consistency. He is quick, but not fast. He is small, at 5 feet 9, but strong enough to move a pile and come out the other side. He isn't as spectacular as he is effective at what he does.
"I'm not flashy," Smith says. "I come to work with my hammer and my hard hat every day."
A strong finish last season enabled Smith to set the NFL record for consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons (11). That level of production is what impresses Aikman.
"(The record) means that he's been able to play at a high level for a long period of time," Aikman, an analyst for Fox Sports now, said recently. "To me, that's what defines greatness."
Smith has been selected to the Pro Bowl nine times. He won the league rushing title four times. He was NFL Player of the Year and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player for the 1993 season. He holds league records for most career rushing touchdowns (149) and carries (3,905).
His longevity at a position noted for its punishment is a key element in Smith's record chase.
"Emmitt is an unusual athlete," Johnson said, "but I think more than anything else he has taken care of himself as far as his conditioning. Emmitt is a smart running back in that he doesn't take a whole lot of hits and big collisions, so he's been able to protect himself."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.