Emmitt Smith’s next chapter is as big as his record-breaking football career
The former NFL running back on his real estate business and seizing opportunities like ‘Dancing with the Stars’
The Dallas Cowboys gave their fans a sense of pride in the 1990s. Wide receiver Michael Irvin and quarterback Troy Aikman were in their primes. There was one other big playmaker on the field: running back Emmitt Smith.
Smith was a record-holding machine, known for his footwork and his winning attitude. He helped lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins over four seasons (1992-93 to 1995-96 seasons) and was named first-team All-Pro during that four-year period. He was league MVP in 1993 and followed that by earning MVP honors in the Cowboys’ 30-13 win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII. He retired with a career total of 18,355 rushing yards and 164 rushing touchdowns, both NFL records. He’s also the all-time leader in rushing attempts with 4,409 and the only player to post three seasons with 19 or more touchdowns.
After football, Smith wanted to focus on business and his family, including his wife, Pat, and their children. In preparing for this time, he knew he needed a plan. He once wanted to be an architect, but he switched gears and is now a commercial real estate developer.
“I was preparing for life after football before I even got to become a Dallas Cowboy,” said Smith, 49 after speaking to parents and children at the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy in early March. “Then when I became one, it became more apparent that I need to be prepared for it because the NFL is a league that stands for Not For Long, whether they fire you or whether you get hurt. My coach told me, ‘Diversify yourself. Learn new things. And be open to understanding what goes on.’”
Smith was the 17th pick of the 1990 NFL draft, going to the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he spent 13 seasons. The final two NFL seasons of his 226-game career were spent with the Arizona Cardinals.
He later returned to the University of Florida to complete his bachelor’s degree in public relations, graduating in 1996. “I promised my mom if I left school early, I’d come back and get my degree,” Smith told the University of Florida alumni magazine. “I wanted to get that done.”
Smith began working in real estate more than a decade ago. In 2013, he founded Emmitt Smith Enterprises, an umbrella company that includes his real estate firm and a commercial construction company. He’s also co-founder and Chairman of E Smith Legacy, a Baltimore-based company that specializes in commercial real estate development and investment management as well as Chairman of E Smith Advisors, a global commercial real estate solutions and services provider in partnership with Newmark Knight Frank.
“When you get to the National Football League level, you are around so many billionaires and you’re seeing how they operate and what they’re doing. It becomes very intriguing,” Smith said. “I’ve always been a kid to say, ‘If they can do it, I can do it too. What do they know that I don’t know?’ Obviously they knew a lot, they prepared a lot. And they studied in these areas, whether it’s oil and gas, whether it’s real estate, whether it’s mergers and acquisitions, but whatever it may be, those skill sets can be learned.”
He also teamed up with his wife and family in their reality show Mrs. & Mr. Smith on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Pat Smith, a former Miss Virginia USA, is the founder and spokesperson of Treasure You, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting women in financial, emotional or spiritual need. The two also run the Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities, which creates educational experiences and enrichment opportunities for underserved children.
Smith believes in putting in the time to master one’s next step.
“Put in your 10,000 hours there, as much as you put your 10,000 hours in sports, to master that craft,” he said. “And even when you master it, there’s always something to learn. And so just trying to become the best that you can at whatever it is, is just part of the process. … Outside of that, you’re just standing on the sideline watching ships go by.”
Sports helped him get ready for a business career, he said. “That’s the good thing about sports, in my opinion. It prepares you for life if you look at it as a life lesson. Whether it’s pregame adjustments, in-game adjustments, halftime adjustments, postgame adjustments, life is full of adjustments. Life is not a straight road, it’s a winding curve. And behind every curve, there’s something else behind it you need to learn or need to overcome. And that’s not going to change for my life, or yours.”
In a recent interview with Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes for The Players’ Tribune, Smith said he’s interested in owning an NFL team. “I think the biggest challenge for achieving more diversity is that not enough African-Americans have the capital to own a team,” he told Barnes. “I think that some African-Americans obviously have knowledge about playing the game of football. Most NFL owners today have never really played the sport. They’ve done great in business; they know how to run a company. So maybe more athletes have to go out and show the world that we know how to run a company too.”
Smith says life is all about opportunities.
He served as a judge at the Miss Universe pageant in 2006. He surprised the world by taking home the Mirror Ball trophy for winning season three of Dancing with the Stars.
“You can be the smartest person, you can be the most gifted person, but if you’re never given the opportunity to get in the game to showcase your talent the way that it should be showcased … equal opportunity, that is … then you’re going to be discouraged. And you’re going to keep butting your head up against a wall that’s not ready to move.”