Emmitt Smith recalls facing Cowboys as opponent: ‘I broke down in tears’

There’s a wardrobe change coming for a new batch of NFL players as the annual roster churn of free agency will once again send longtime stars to new teams to either continue or close out their pro careers in unfamiliar uniforms.

It’s hit the Cowboys both coming and going over the years. It was certainly strange for die-hard fans to see the likes of onetime foes Eddie George, Randall Cunningham, and Terrell Owens don the star. It was even more painful when hometown heroes like Tony Dorsett, DeMarcus Ware, and Jason Witten sought greener pastures in colors other than silver and blue.

It creates awkward visuals and often uncomfortable feelings for everyone involved. Even the player in question can find himself in serious conflict, according to one Cowboys legend who lived it.

On a recent episode of The Pivot Podcast, Emmitt Smith shared what it was like to play briefly for the Cardinals. That, of course, came after 13 seasons with the Cowboys that saw him help build a dynasty, win three Super Bowls, become the sport’s all-time leading rusher, and cement his place as one of the franchise’s most beloved personalities.

“I gave it everything I had,” Smith said of his two-year stint with Arizona that started in 2003.

The Cardinals had just drafted wideout Anquan Boldin. Marcel Shipp, Damien Anderson, and Josh Scobey were in the team’s backfield. Adrian Wilson, Leonard Davis, and Josh McCown were there. Larry Fitzgerald would join them the next season.

They all made an impression on Smith, but it was the seasoned superstar Smith who left a bigger mark.

“What I appreciated about them,” Smith continued, “they were great teammates. They soaked it up like a sponge. They wanted to know what it was like. They’d see me show up at five o’clock in the morning to go work out. I’d been there by myself, and they come in about 6:30 or 7, like, ‘Dude, why are you here so early?’ ‘This is what I do.’ They’d see me in practice running 40, 50 yards down the field and jogging back: ‘Dude, why are you running so far?’ ‘I’m preparing myself for the game. [When] I get in the open, I want to take it to the house. This is the way we work.’ And they started doing it. And that part was awesome.”

Returning to face his old squad, however, was decidedly less so, the Hall of Famer admits.

The Cowboys hosted the Cardinals in Week 5 of Smith’s first season with Arizona. Smith would return to the very field where he broke Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, less than 12 months after the fact.

Even almost 30 years later, Smith’s voice took on a very different tone as he told the story to podcast hosts Channing Crowder, Ryan Clark, and Fred Taylor.

“We rode down on that bus,” Smith, now 52, recalled. “First time I went into Texas Stadium in a bus. On a visiting bus. Got off the bus, walked into the visitors locker room, saw my Cardinals uniform. And I looked around. I felt out of place. For the first time ever, felt out of place. I sat down at my locker, looked at that uniform again. I stood up, and I’d come to realize. I said this out loud: ‘I’m not supposed to be here. This is not my room.’ I broke down in tears and cried for 45 minutes before we played that game. I mean, boo-hooed. Cried like a sobbing baby. And my teammates didn’t know what to do. I had to get myself together and go on a football field and play a game.”

Whether it was Smith’s emotions or a fired-up Cowboys defense or a combination of the two, Smith’s homecoming did not last long. Smith was swarmed early and often by Dallas defenders- led by La’Roi Glover, Dat Nguyen, Ebenezer Ekuban, and Dexter Coakley.

Smith had minus-one yard on six carries, leaving the game early in the second quarter after suffering a sprained shoulder on a big hit from a certain ascending Cowboys safety.

“Roy Williams knocked the living crap out of me; I’m going to slap him the next time I see him,” Smith remembered with a laugh.

The Cardinals lost 24-7 that day. For Smith, it marked the first time in his illustrious NFL career that he ended a game with negative yardage. Smith would go on to play 20 more games wearing Cardinal red, despite it never feeling quite right.

“We go through stuff,” he explained. “And I went through a heartbreaking moment, knowing that this is not where I’m supposed to be. This is not where God placed me. This is not what he wanted for me. He wanted me to be with the ‘Boys and do what I do with the ‘Boys. But he also had a different plan, and I had to accept that plan. That plan was to transition out and help others as I leave the game and leave them with something that they can go with.”

The lessons Smith helped impart did stick with his Cardinals teammates, even after he went unsigned by the club following the 2004 season.

Five years later, Arizona made it to their only Super Bowl. Many of the young Cardinals players that Smith had mentored in 2002 and 2003 credited him with helping them get there.

Smith eventually signed a one-day contract with the Cowboys before announcing his retirement from the game, but there was nothing quite like seeing Smith at Texas Stadium that one time in enemy colors.

“Having that moment gave me a chance to have closure,” he said.

With free agency about to kick off once again, that moment will come for a new group of players this season.


Emmitt Smith nearly left Cowboys after first Super Bowl to play for Dolphins

How Cowboys greats delivered Hall of Fame news to Chuck Howley

Cowboys' Darren Woodson on wait for Hall of Fame: 'At some point, it's going to happen'

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire