(This story appears in the Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine 2017 Draft Preview, which also includes mock drafts, team needs and scouting reports on more than 100 players. Click *here to get a digital version of the magazine today.)*
On the cusp of a dynasty, stocked with a bevy of draft picks via "The Great Train Robbery" that was the Herschel Walker trade, Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson entered the 1992 NFL Draft a quarter century ago with the singular mindset of chaos and numbers. Jerry Jones and he knew their team was close, having lost to the Detroit Lions in the divisional round the season previous, and that this was their time to shine.
Johnson lived for the draft, in many ways even more than game day. In his mind, Sundays would be easy if the talent and preparation were taken care of beforehand.
This was a generation previous to unlimited long distance, so it's hard to fathom the Valley Ranch phone bill for that April. Johnson was Adam Schefter minus the Twitter handle and reporting. A world-class gatherer of information and contacts who worked the phones like an old-school 4-1-1 operator.
At the conclusion of the two-day haul, which took place April 26-27 at the Marriot Marquis in New York City, the Cowboys had selected 15 players amid a flurry of trades. That didn't include the previously dealt picks for starting defensive tackle Tony Casillas and backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein. Also, after a four-year stint with the Air Force, another defensive tackle, Chad Hennings, a late-round pick in 1988, was joining the team.
The Cowboys' 1992 draft class isn't recalled on the same level as, say, 1964 (Pro Football Hall of Famers Mel Renfro, Bob Hayes and Roger Staubach), 1975 (The Dirty Dozen led by Hall of Famer Randy White) or even 1989 (Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, Daryl Johnston). And that's fair. However, as a whole, the 1992 draft itself was nowhere near as deep. There isn't a single player in the Hall of Fame, while the other three years mentioned have combined for 18. Also, only four players overall, two of which were drafted by the Cowboys, were even named to five Pro Bowl teams.
That said, in many ways this was Johnson's most impressive class. Even some of the players who never dressed for the Cowboys went on to successful NFL careers.
As a group, they played in 919 NFL games with cornerback Kevin Smith and linebacker Robert Jones, both first-round picks, as well as offensive tackle James Brown, a third rounder, all cracking the century mark, although Brown never took the field for Dallas. Another third-round selection, Clayton Holmes, was a key nickel back and special teams performer for the Cowboys.
There is no denying that the Cowboys' focus in the 1992 draft was definitely on defense. Four of their first five selections were on that side of the ball. And entering the first round, Johnson had just about the entire league believing he was looking to trade up in hopes of landing Florida State cornerback Terrell Buckley, who went fifth overall to Green Bay. The reality was, Dallas was hoping to turn its two first-round picks (at 13 and 24) into three, and they almost pulled it off after several trades.
Regardless, Smith was the cornerback whom they coveted all along. The love was mutual, with the Texas A&M product signing a four-year deal within hours of his selection and telling reporters afterward, "I told my agent not to overdue it, that I want to be in Dallas. Money shouldn't even be an issue. I probably would have taken a decrease to be in Dallas. I feel Dallas got the best cornerback in the draft. Troy Vincent didn't do much at Wisconsin and Buckley had interceptions (12 in 1991) but was beaten every week for a touchdown. I'm happy those guys were ranked before me because I might have ended up in Green Bay like Terrell Buckley. I'm happy where I'm at."
And while Smith didn't finish his career with more picks than either Vincent or Buckley, he was a heck of a corner, an eight-year starter outside of injuries, and a three-time Super Bowl winner. If not for a devastating Achilles' tendon tear in the 1995 season opener against the Giants on Monday Night Football, many think he would have been one of the greatest cornerbacks in franchise history. Back and knee injuries eventually led to his retirement in 2000.
The jewels of the class, though, came on back-to-back selections in the second round: wide receiver Jimmy Smith out of Jackson State at No. 36 and safety Darren Woodson from Arizona State next up. Both would become five-time Pro Bowl selections, and both would be given their franchises' highest honor in retirement.
Alas, only one of them would do so with the Cowboys, that obviously being Woodson, the team's all-time leading tackler who was inducted into the Ring of Honor in 2015.
At Arizona State, Woodson, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, was the Bugs Bunny of the Sun Devils' defense, playing inside linebacker, strong safety, rover and even defensive end.
"I can promise you, I wasn't thinking about what team drafted me. I just wanted to get drafted," Woodson said. "I definitely knew the Cowboys were interested. [Cowboys secondary coach] Dave Campo came to my Pro Day at Arizona State and more or less took control of it.
"No one seemed sure what position I was. And Campo ran me through every drill known to man. Then we had a long conversation. We sat down in the grass and just talked. I've never forgotten that."
The first rookie camp, not surprisingly with Johnson running the show, included all of the veteran players. Woodson recalls being somewhat shocked at the attitude of the room, especially considering that he never won more than six games at ASU.
"There was so much energy, and this was rookie camp in May," Woodson said. "I'm not sure how other teams were, but these guys expected to win and win now. They kept watching their playoff loss to Detroit from the year before, saying that was never going to happen again. Ken Norton Jr., James Washington, those guys had plans for a deep run. They had that rare confidence that they knew where they were going. They were going to start winning Super Bowls."
Indeed, Dallas won three of the next four Lombardi Trophies with Woodson, among others from his draft class, playing a significant role. As a rookie, he started just two games, but was a special teams' maven. The kickoff and punt coverage roles became a staple of his career, even when was being tabbed All-Pro as one of the league's elite safeties. It's not often, then or now, to see stars on special teams, but Woodson always wanted to be on the field, no matter what the gig.
And even though he wasn't starting that first season, there were plenty of nickel opportunities. He finished the year with 33 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack.
"It was a different experience for me. I had always been the best player on my teams in high school and college," Woodson said. "I was a tweener coming in so there were some nerves on making the transition to safety, but it wasn't long into camp that I was picking up our wide receivers and tight ends one-on-one and holding my own. At that point, I knew I could play on that level. I was on par with anyone there athletically, just not on par mentally. I had a lot to learn."
Much of his education came from another member of the draft class in Kevin Smith, who to this day remains one of Woodson's closest friends. They would work on backpedaling and press coverage, oftentimes late into the night in their room at training camp or even in hotels on road trips.
The rookies as a group were close, both for the obvious reasons and their common bond of trying to survive the boot camp that was Johnson's welcoming party. There were many ways to upset the head coach, chief among them making dumb mistakes. More, making dumb mistakes as a rookie. Then again, no one was off limits.
"Jimmy was a CEO in the most domineering way imaginable," Woodson said. "It wasn't just us, either. He'd go after the coaching staff all the time. He'd jump a coach, just start chewing them out right there in front of the team. He wasn't bashful in anyway. Jimmy would jump anyone's butt in a second.
"And he would cut guys in the middle of practice. I'd never seen that. Not after practice. He'd tell the guy to leave the field, he was cut. He was always threatening to cut guys, too, almost every day. I'm going to cut you if you do such-and-such again.
"Jerry wasn't really around at all those first few years. It was Jimmy's show. He ran it all."
When asked who the most impressive rookie was some 25 years later, Woodson doesn't hesitate for a second, saying, "Oh, 'Silk,' it's not even close. There was no bigger impact rookie. He was running past the veterans like he was a starting NFL wide receiver. It was baffling how that all turned out."
"Silk" was Jimmy Smith, who was the third wideout taken in the draft behind Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, who went fourth overall to Washington, and Carl Pickens, who was selected 31st by Cincinnati. Both had solid careers: The former a Super Bowl MVP winner; the latter a two-time Pro Bowler with the second-most receptions (540) and yards among those in that year's draft (7,129).
However, as Johnson said at the time, "(Smith) can make the big play after the catch. He may be the best receiver in the draft, and he was definitely the best player on the board."
The pick was surprising to most because the Cowboys already had Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper, Kelvin Martin and Alexander Wright as receivers. Irvin and Harper were both first-round picks with Harper being tabbed just a year earlier.
But when Smith's NFL career ended following his ninth 1,000-yard campaign in 2005, there was no doubt his first pro head coach knew of what he spoke. Not only was Smith easily the most productive wide receiver from his class, he was among the most accomplished to ever play the game. Even 11 seasons removed from his final catch, in this pass-happy era of football, Smith ranks 24th in career receptions with 862 and 21st in receiving yards at 12,287.
And then there's this: The only player in the near 100-year history of the National Football League with more 1,000-yard receiving seasons is Jerry Rice. So yes, like Woodson, Smith's career is more than worthy of Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration.
Unfortunately, Smith played only seven games with the Cowboys over two seasons. He was by all accounts a bust, left for football dead, not even taking the field for a regular-season game for nearly 1,000 days at one point. If not for his mother and a scrapbook, he likely would have become a footnote, much like thousands of other forgotten draft picks.
After dominating the rookie camp, Smith entered training camp with a legitimate chance at becoming the team's No. 3 receiver behind Irvin and Harper. At the annual Blue-White scrimmage, on the first play of the game, he caught a skinny post, Irvin's go-to route, for a long gain.
"That was supposed to be the start of everything. I mean, I was living the dream of dreams," Smith said. "I was the biggest Cowboys fan in the world growing up. I had the Tony Dorsett book bag, the Tony Dorsett sweatshirt, the Tony Dorsett notebook. If Tony Dorsett was on it, I had to have it. And we were about to start this run of success the league would never witness again, and here I was, showing the coaches and my teammates that I could play on this level.
"Then I broke my leg in the preseason. The safety came over as I was running a post. I never saw him."
Entering his senior year at Jackson State, Smith didn't think there was a chance the Cowboys would be calling his name at the NFL Draft. Until, that is, longtime assistant coach Joe Avezzano and a scout showed up one day to watch practice. Then they stuck around and watched every ounce of film the Jackson State staff could provide. At that point, Smith was thinking there was a possibility, although once Dallas took Robert Jones at No. 24, Smith reasoned the opportunity had passed as he was projected as a first-round pick.
As for meeting his head coach for the first time, yes, Smith was intimidated just like everyone else, but he was also in awe.
"The man was legendary, even at that point. He was always on TV all those years at [the University of] Miami," Smith said. "This was the kind of coach you looked up to, idolized. And from the first day, he was high octane on us rookies. He was relentless. That was his style, and it was terrifying because you never knew. You never knew when he was going to explode, when he was going to cut someone. Could be at practice, in the shower. He was cutting guys in the parking lot. It didn't matter.
"Jimmy could draft talent, though. Yeah, it helped he had all those picks, like two every round from the Walker trade, but taking Darren and me back-to-back, he knew his stuff."
Smith returned from the broken leg around midseason in 1992, but by then he was more or less starting over and Johnson was comfortable with the receiver rotation. He played in seven games, mostly on special teams, and didn't have a catch. The rookie did, though, take the field for a few snaps in both the epic NFC Championship Game at San Francisco, a 30-20 win, and in Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena when the Cowboys defeated the Bills, 52-17.
"I was on the field for three plays in the Super Bowl, and my goodness, I'm still nervous even thinking about it," Smith said. "It was the greatest experience in the world, nothing could ever top that. But at the same time, I was so scared Steve Beuerlein was going to throw me the ball late in the fourth quarter. I didn't want to drop a pass in the Super Bowl.
"Here was my problem: Michael [Irvin] is a great guy, I love him, but he would not let me on the field. I was always asking him, 'Hey, Mike, you need a breather?' And the man wouldn't leave the field, not even for a play, not in a blowout. No one was taking his snaps or his catches.
"I was able to watch one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game, and see how hard he worked, the dedication it takes. It was a blessing for me to be drafted by the Cowboys. It taught me the kind of work ethic I needed to be successful later on when the opportunity arose."
The following season, in 1993, Smith was again the talk of the preseason, the team's leading receiver through three games, certain to be the No. 3 wideout. Then bad luck visited once again, this time an emergency appendectomy. Following surgery, there was an infection, one that nearly killed him and most certainly ended his season before it began.
"I was thinking in the days beforehand, What in the world is happening to me? I kept telling the trainers that I had cramps and they kept telling me I didn't, to take some Pepto," Smith said. "When I woke up from the surgery the doctor tells me, 'You were about to die, you were an hour or two from dying.' Then comes the infection, and I almost died again. I spent a lot of time that season almost dying while the Cowboys won another Super Bowl."
That offseason, the team approached Smith about taking a pay cut, considering he had only played in seven games and not caught a pass in two seasons. He declined, and the Cowboys decided to release him. A week later, the Philadelphia Eagles signed him, but even after a solid camp and preseason, Smith was among the final cuts by head coach Rich Kotite. After that, there were no more phone calls and he ended up sitting out yet another NFL year.
"I understood the Cowboys perspective. They paid for a high-round pick and I hadn't produced, but I was also injured," Smith said. "It was a business move and it taught me a lot going forward. I remember at camp with Philadelphia, Pro Bowl corner Eric Allen telling me how great I was playing, how I was the baddest receiver there, and then, I guess I wasn't what Kotite was looking for.
"That was a tough year. My confidence faded. I couldn't stay on the field. I had some bad luck and I figured that was it, my chance at accomplishing all my dreams had come and gone. For a lot of guys, the dream can die that quickly."
A player of Smith's talent, and high-draft status, usually receives one last chance, and his came from the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and wide receivers coach Pete Carmichael, who took a scrapbook compiled by Smith's mother to head coach Tom Coughlin. As absurd as the idea sounds, it worked. Coughlin agreed to give Smith a chance. He made the team, and the following season Smith tallied 1,244 receiving yards as the Jaguars stunned one and all by playing in the AFC Championship Game in their second year of existence.
When his playing career ended, Smith ran into some difficulties: five arrests, drugs, addiction. He hit whatever is lower than bottom when he spent three months in a Mississippi jail in early 2013. He's been clean since, though, and has established his own foundation, dedicating his free time to helping those who have faced some of his own demons. Last December, he was inducted into the Pride of the Jaguars, their version of the Ring of Honor.
As for what would have happened if not for the broken leg and the almost deadly appendectomy? Well, Smith doesn't pause a nanosecond before answering.
"Dallas would have been guaranteed to win six straight Super Bowls. Imagine Michael and me with Troy Aikman throwing us the football. We would have been blowing up everyone's Super Bowl plans for a long time.
"Know what, though? I wouldn't change a thing. It's an incredible story, and I have a lot of people to be thankful for. I've also disappointed a lot of people – my family, my friends, my fans. I'm proud of how I'm doing, though. You never beat addiction. You just keep grinding, you just keep battling. I have a good support structure around me now, and I'm living in Dallas again. Today is a good day."
Asked why, Smith replied, "Everyone forgets that I was drafted by the Cowboys. Everyone forgets that I was on the field for that Super Bowl win at the Rose Bowl. And now you're going to write this story and that's going to change."
For the Cowboys, the 1992 draft, combined with their trade for Charles Haley four months later, were the final pieces to their championship dynasty, to becoming the Team of the Decade for the 1990s. For Jimmy Smith, success would take a little bit longer.
Looking back, though, it was one of the most impressive drafts in franchise history.