Their sleigh was a blue shopping cart. Instead of eight tiny reindeer, it was guided by Emmitt Smith. Before sunrise on a mid-December Sunday morning in North Fort Worth, Smith took a modern-day Santa and Mrs. Claus around the sprawling Academy Sports + Outdoors store in north Fort Worth as they stuffed several shopping carts with gifts ranging from traditional sports equipment to apparel to bikes and scooters.
“This is surreal,” said Dana Thomas of Temple, Texas. “It’s a blessing. And it allows us to bless others.”
Dana was the recipient of a $5,000 shopping spree courtesy of Academy Sports + Outdoors after registering to win an online contest at academy.com. She and husband Ed, a private Christian school superintendent, got the royal treatment as they made the two-hour trip to Fort Worth, where they spent Saturday night in a complimentary hotel room and received $650 in spending money.
But the grand prize was a gift card for $5,000 that they were handed by Emmitt. “You’ve given a lot,” Emmitt told the couple. “Now you are on the receiving end.
“You’ll be able to share this with your kids and grandkids and see their faces light up,” he said. “Santa Claus is coming very early this year.”
At 6:45 a.m., when most people are just beginning to stir, Dana and Ed Thomas stood beaming inside the store as Academy Store Director and Associates formed a welcoming committee with Smith. Dana said she was nervous even though there was no time limit on their shopping spree and even though they had spent 90 minutes Saturday on a reconnaissance mission of the store.
“We took pictures of what our grandchildren want with our phone and had our youngest daughter with us to help,” Dana said.
Ed Thomas said he was just “tagging along” although he identified some weight training equipment and other items on Saturday for Christmas gifts to himself. “They’re just going to put it in a truck and deliver it all to us,” he said.
Dana said she received a phone call one evening at 7 p.m. with the good news although the caller apologized for calling after hours. She didn’t mind the intrusion.
“I was napping,” Ed said when Dana excitedly rushed in to tell him the news, shaking him awake.
“The Academy associates told me I had won,” she said. “They said they were prepared to fly the winner to Fort Worth but because we live in Texas, they gave us a $1,000 American Airlines gift card.
“Then they said we would have $650 to spend while we were here,” she said. “I thought that was it until they said I was getting a $5,000 gift card to Academy too.”
Matt Gardiner, a senior regional promotions coordinator for Academy Sports + Outdoors, said the Texas-based company has 140 stores throughout the Southeast. But because consumers anywhere in the country can order merchandise online, the contest is giving the company added exposure national exposure.
“This is the first private shopping spree we offered with Emmitt,” Gardiner said. “We have offered several other unique programs in the past with Emmitt such as a private tailgate party and town hall in-store event prior to the Florida-Georgia game in our Jacksonville market.” Emmitt was born in Pensacola, Fla., and attended the University of Florida.
And while he is accustomed to winning football games and Super Bowl rings, Emmitt said he also knows what it’s like to win a contest like Dana and Ed Thomas.
“I was named the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year and won a trip to the 1987 Super Bowl in Pasadena,” he said. “I received two tickets and shared the trip with my best friend.” He saw the New York Giants defeat the Denver Broncos 39-20 at the Rose Bowl.
He led the Thomases around the store for an hour, helping them pick out items on their wish list. There were two swing sets earmarked for grandchildren, as well as a boxing heavy bag for a grandson.
Dana picked out two lounge chairs, “the leopard and the brown one,” she said, as an Academy employee added items to the list, checking it twice.
Ed Thomas lingered in the aisle stocked with golf balls and Emmitt asked, “How often do you play?”
Only occasionally, Ed said, who decided he needed mid-range golf balls. “How about these here,” Emmitt asked. “How many boxes”?
The Thomases chose gifts as small as a mouth guard and as big as a bicycle. “Pointing to a high shelf she identified a Mongoose Domain bike in silver.
“Is it for your grandkid,” Emmitt asked.
“No, my 50-year-old brother,” Dana said.
Around the store they went, picking out an iron skillet, sleeping bag, bicycle helmet, motorized scooter, electric heater, luggage, fishing gear and more. They even stopped to choose a few items from the aisle with Cowboys merchandise.
After an hour, Dana and Ed took a break and went to have breakfast with Emmitt. They would return afterward to continue their shopping spree. Even Santa and Mrs. Claus have to eat.