Emmitt Smith is one of the greatest players in NFL history. He helped the Dallas Cowboys win three Super Bowls and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But no NFL team would pay him to play football today. Age, injuries and wear and tear catch up with even the finest athletes.
Smith realized this very early on. So he leveraged the sport to help prepare him for his post-football life.
“Football for me was the vehicle to get me to the place where I [could] get the education and the exposure that I needed,” Smith said. “Not knowing how long football would ever last, I was always preparing for what was next. So fortunately for me, God blessed me with a long career.
“And within that long career, I had established tremendous relationships along the way.”
Smith, who retired from the NFL in 2005, is president and CEO of Emmitt Smith Enterprises. The Dallas-based company includes, among others, a construction firm and a commercial real estate company. His wife, Pat, also has a business under the ESE umbrella. Their philanthropic arm is Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities.
Smith was the featured speaker at the 2016 IEEE Power & Energy Society Transmission & Distribution Conference & Exposition in Dallas. Before the show officially opened, he had a private tour of the showroom floor. He had also recently visited the Oncor Microgrid and Technology Demonstration and Education Center.
Smith didn’t just attend T&D to regale attendees with tales of his football exploits and 2006 victory on Dancing With the Stars. He said his company, EJ Smith Supply, “is evaluating how we can get into the electrical energy business.”
Learning Lessons On & Off the Field
Smith knew from age 7 that he wanted to be a pro football player. He even knew he wanted to play for the Cowboys. After all, his favorite players (Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett) played in Big D.
What he didn’t know was that his youth football coach would open his eyes to the business world.
Before Smith gained fame at Escambia High School in Pensacola, Fla., he played on a Mini-Mite football team. Charlie Edgar was his coach. Edgar’s son Jody was the quarterback. Smith would stay overnight at his coach’s house the night before games and they’d attend the contest together the next morning.
Edgar asked Smith to spend those nights with his family because he wanted to monitor Smith’s food intake. The youngster had grown so big that by the time he was 11, he had to play football with older boys.
Football wasn’t Smith’s only passion. He also thought a lot about building things and eventually owning a construction company. One day in the Edgar’s home, Smith caught a glimpse of blueprints and construction plans belonging to Charlie.
He was intrigued.
“He just basically showed a kid that didn’t have a clue of what business was really all about or really what opportunities were out there from a standpoint of just, “here’s something that I do, and this is how I live,” Smith said. “So [I made the] correlation to this is where it can lead to.”
Edgar taught Smith how to be a better football player. More importantly, he instructed him to consider life away from football and to be a good person.
“He taught me how to read blueprints and floor plans,” Smith said. “And [that was] before he even emphasized the line of work that he was actually in, which was the construction business itself, which was very interesting. So when I saw the lifestyle that he was living, and at the time I thought it was much better than the one I’m living, I enjoyed visiting [him].
“So I’m like, “this is something that I may want to do.'”
Matt Christopher, in his 1997 book, On the Field with “¦ Emmitt Smith, said the Edgars treated Smith like he was one of their own. This left a strong impression upon the young football star.
“Emmitt didn’t think about it much then, but the Edgars were the first white family he had ever known,” Christopher writes in chapter one. “He later realized that on those Friday-night sleepovers, he learned that prejudice has no place and that all people deserve to be judged individually. Without even trying, Emmitt learned a valuable lesson.
“He could get along with anyone.”
Smith years later sought out Staubach for business advice. The two-time Super Bowl champion had for years owned a highly successful commercial real estate company.
Doing Things the Right Way
Smith, his wife and employees believe in sharing their good fortune with those not so blessed. They operate by the slogan, “Building Bridges to Open Doors.”
“Everything we do gives us a chance to build a bridge to open doors for others who are coming behind us,” Smith said. “Whether it’s young people that need to be exposed to what real business is like [or] what people are doing on a daily basis. It’s part of our charitable mantra in terms of giving back to our community.”
Smith’s construction company specializes in services such as concrete foundations, retaining walls, elevated decks, heavy highways, parking garages and airport runways. The projects often put him in touch with engineers. The public relations graduate has a good grasp of the engineering design process.
“Sometimes you make mistakes doing it the right way,” Smith said. “Or you make a mistake by estimating what you try to get done, or you underestimate what it would cost and it cost you a little bit more. But the bottom line is completing the task.
“You complete the task, you learn from it, you learn through the process and you continue to move forward. But doing it the right way affords you the opportunity to maintain it and keep it, and keep doing it the right way.”
Smith’s parents, Emmitt Jr. and Mary, were the first to teach him and his five siblings about taking the high road. They also instilled in them a strong work ethic and the discipline necessary to succeed.
“Without a doubt. They laid a foundation,” Smith said. “They always told me if I worked hard and earned my way, I would be OK. My brothers and sisters and I truly believe in earning our way.”
Ascending to the Top
After starring at the University of Florida, the Cowboys selected Smith in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft. Dallas was 1-15 the year before in quarterback Troy Aikman and Head Coach Jimmy Johnson’s first season. The Cowboys progressed from 7-9 in Smith’s rookie year to 11-5 in 1991. They won the next two Super Bowls and added a third in 1995. They are the only team in history to win three NFL championships in four seasons.
Beginning in 1991, the 5-foot-9, 221-pound Smith became the first NFL player to rush for more than 1,000 yards 11 straight years. The 1995 season was arguably his finest. He ran for 1,773 yards, caught 62 passes and scored 25 touchdowns ” all career highs. He was league MVP in 1993 and punctuated the season with Super Bowl MVP honors. He is the only player in league history to win those two awards and the Super Bowl in the same season.
Smith’s 18,355 career rushing yards and 164 rushing touchdowns are tops in NFL history. In 2006 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Four years later the Pro Football Hall of Fame followed suit.
Smith was asked if anything he’s accomplished in business approaches the thrills he enjoyed playing pro football.
“Not yet,” he said. “Those were some significant highs.”
No matter how good a sports team becomes, it has to keep proving itself. There’s always a next play, a next game, a next season. In business, you have to prove yourself to your next customer.
“How do you service the next client and are we servicing every client the same way?” Smith said. “Are they walking away saying this has been a great experience working with any of EJ Smith companies?
“If we can do that, I think that is the ultimate satisfaction.”
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager and an award-winning sports writer. He has conducted exclusive interviews with many top sports personalities, including NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans and NBA greats Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.