Emmitt's Journey

Emmitt Smith press conference retiring with the Cowboys in 2005.

need at running back, the Cowboys ended up selecting Smith with the 17th pick in the draft . . . begrudgingly. Remember? 

Johnson was infatuated with Baylor linebacker James Francis. He thought he could get by with Plan B free agent Keith Jones at running back. So Johnson spent the early portion of that first round trying to trade up from 21 to 13 with Kansas City to grab Francis, knowing he was going to go well before the Cowboys ever picked with the choice they received from Minnesota in the Walker trade since the team with the worst record in the NFL the previous season (1-15) actually already had spent what turned out to be the first pick in the 1990 draft selecting quarterback Steve Walsh in the 1989 supplemental draft. 

Cincinnati pre-empted the trade. They grabbed Francis one pick ahead of Kansas City. And even when the Cowboys went back to the drawing board, Johnson still hadn't given up on Francis, then calling the Bengals trying to swing a trade. Cincinnati didn't want to budge. 

Johnson and his coaching staff, made up of his former University of Miami assistants, knew all about Smith, what with that Hurricanes-Gators thing in the state of Florida. He was the guy they wanted but realized they were far too low to have their choice, and there was about to be a run on running backs since the only one taken to that point was Penn State's Blair Thomas going to the Jets at No. 2. 

Time to move. So the Cowboys swapped firsts with Pittsburgh and sent them a third for the right to move to 17, where they selected Smith. After that, get this, the next three picks went like this: Green Bay, with two consecutive picks, first takes Ole Miss linebacker Tony Bennett and then Minnesota running back Darrell Thompson, and then Atlanta takes Washington State running back Steve Broussard - three running backs in a four-pick span. 

Had the Cowboys sat at 21, Emmitt would have been long gone. 

Johnson would have never admitted it at the time, but several years later he finally answered the question I always wanted answered: If you hadn't moved up, what would you have done with the 21st pick? 

He said they would have taken Georgia running back Rodney Hampton, who went 24 to the Giants, one pick ahead of Florida State's Dexter Carter going to the 49ers with what turned out to be the final pick in the first round. 

Six running backs were taken in the first round, and only two were stars - Smith and Hampton. 

The rest is history. 

So during some of those quiet moments that must come with retirement, wonder if Emmitt Smith plays the what-if game in his mind? Like what if the Cowboys didn't . . . . 

Because if he did, and was honest with himself, landing in Dallas later that evening of April 22 for his introductory press conference was rather remarkable. Hey, you just never know. 

He might not have been quietly boarding that flight for Super Bowl XLIV Monday morning.   

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