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20 Years Later, Emmitt's Record Looks Unbreakable


Editor's Note: Twenty years ago today, Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith surpassed Walter Payton as the NFL's all-time rushing leader. He would go on to earn 18, 355 rushing yards over his illustrious career, earning a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mark Ingram will turn 33 years old before this football season ends, which is ancient for a running back. Through Week 6, his career rushing yards stood at 8,068, which leads all active players (Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott was second at 7,772).

That left the Saints bruising back just 10,287 yards behind all-time leader Emmitt Smith, who broke Walter Payton's career mark 20 years ago this week on Oct. 27, 2002. Here's guessing the Hall of Famer and Ring of Honor member isn't losing any sleep fretting over Ingram, or anyone else for that matter, passing him anytime soon.

For whatever reason, when unbreakable records in sports are discussed, be it Cal Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games played, Wayne Gretzky's 2,857 career points or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Smith's 18,355 yards are rarely mentioned. Sure, it's not unbreakable like, say, Cy Young's 511 career wins, but it's pretty darn close.

Not only was Smith's career an outlier for the position, having rushed for at least 900 yards in three of his final four seasons before retiring at 35 years old in 2004, the game has obviously evolved since his playing days. Sure, Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor led the NFL last year with 1,811 rushing yards, but the Cleveland Brown's Nick Chubb was second with 1,259. Smith eclipsed the latter total seven times in the midst of a ridiculous 11 straight 1,000-yard campaigns.

Offenses pass infinitely more than in Smith's prime, not to mention the majority of running backs are out of the league by their 30th birthday. The days of the Cowboys having a second-half lead and head coach Jimmy Johnson telling offensive coordinator Norv Turner, "Run Emmitt until they stop him," are long over. Teams routinely pass the ball even with fourth-quarter advantages now.

No less of an authority than LaDainian Tomlinson, who is seventh on the career list with 13,684 yards, broached the subject on NFL Network in 2020.

"No one will ever break this record," he said. "There's not enough opportunities that running backs will get. We know the shelf life is a lot shorter for running backs. I just don't see guys getting a lot of opportunities. That's a lot of yards for a guy to amass, and I just don't think it's going to happen."

Perhaps there is no better example of just how out of reach Smith's mark is than Tomlinson. He led the league with 1,474 rushing yards for San Diego in 2007 at 28 years old and four seasons later he mustered 280 with the Jets before retiring. No position in sports ends as abruptly as running back.

When asked about the record in 2010, Smith gave his usual polished prose, saying, "Every record that has been made thus far has to be broken by somebody. I understand that no one has sniffed it, but you never know how the game itself might evolve into an opportunity for someone to break the record."

Told that he was wrong, that no one would ever come near his mark, Smith laughed and said, "Maybe."

Fittingly, Smith was able to break the mark at Texas Stadium against Seattle. The play, 15-Lead, was essential Smith: behind left guard, broken tackle, 11 yards, the iconic call of Brad Sham on the Cowboys Radio Network, "Move over, Sweetness, make a place for Emmitt."

Smith finished the game, an otherwise irrelevant 17-14 defeat, with 109 rushing yards, surpassing Payton's 16,726 yards with that historic fourth-quarter run.

While Payton tragically died of cancer in 1999 at just 45 years of age, his mother and brother were on hand along with 30 of Smith's relatives.

"Today is a special day for me, my family and the Payton family," Smith said during a postgame ceremony on the field. "Because without Payton doing what he did in the National Football League and representing all he represented, he wouldn't have given a young man like myself a dream, something to shoot after and a person to look up to and try to emulate in every way possible."

It's worth mentioning that 20 years later, no one beside Smith has topped Payton's yardage, Frank Gore coming the closest with 16,000 yards before retiring this past offseason.

Smith is also the career postseason rushing leader with 1,586 yards, 30 more than Franco Harris. The closest active player on that list is Tennessee's Derrick Henry with 732. The seven times Smith cracked the century mark in the playoffs, the Cowboys were 7-0, including his 132 yards in earning Super Bowl XXVIII MVP honors.

Among the Pro Football Hall of Famer's other records are rushing attempts (4,409), rushing touchdowns (164) and touches (4,924). He is also second all-time behind Jerry Rice in yards from scrimmage (21,579) and total touchdowns (175). An eight-time Pro Bowl selection, Smith was a four-time first-team All-Pro and the 1993 NFL MVP.

Beside missing two games over a contract dispute, Smith sat out just five outings over 13 seasons with Dallas, a remarkable feat considering how many times he was tackled over the years, even going back to high school and the University of Florida.

The Ring of Honor member was also a complete player, one of 11 tailbacks in NFL history with more than 500 career receptions. And while he never received credit for doing so, Smith was more than willing to block against the blitz.

"I don't know how many negative plays he's had in his career," New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said the day Smith broke Payton's record. "My guess is it's not too many. He doesn't have bad plays."

Twenty years ago, Smith broke one of the most sacred records in all of sports. They say records are made to be broken. Perhaps, but it's hard to imagine someone unseating Smith atop this career list.