Teeing it up with Emmitt

The NFL’s all-time leading rusher talks about helping kids, what he learned from Payne Stewart and his thoughts upon first seeing the Dallas skyline

By Steve Pate

It’s not really the golf that fuels the fourth annual Emmitt Smith Celebrity Invitational. Or even the camaraderie, as celebrities and sports fans of all varieties converge for the gala dinner May 10, at the Omni Dallas Hotel and, a day later, enjoy 18 holes of golf at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney.

What the weekend is really all about are the underserved kids and families of North Texas who benefit from Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities.

While Emmitt was growing up in Pensacola, Fla., the closest golf course was 10 miles from his doorstep but may as well have been on the other side of the moon. His chances of getting to the first tee, from his neighborhood, were that slim. These days, Emmitt is just trying to shorten that walk for others.   

“If kids can’t see it, they can’t dream it,” Emmitt says. “Our charity tries to give kids opportunities to discover a passion they might not have ever realized is available to them. That includes educational opportunities, as well as many other opportunities that can open the eyes of a child.”

We sat down with Emmitt to get his thoughts on this year’s events. 

Q: In just three tournaments, you’ve raised more than $1 million for charities. How does that make you feel?

Emmitt: To achieve a milestone in our young tournament’s history is a wonderful thing. Is that enough? I don’t think so. Can we do more? I think we can. Can we do better? Yes, I think we can. That’s just a philosophy that I have as a human being and that I had on the football field as well — always trying to find ways to improve as a football player and also as a person. Pat and I take a lot of pride in not only trying to strive for excellence but also in striving to continue to help more people. A million dollars is a great number, but we’re trying to get more.”

Q: How special were last year’s events when you hosted the 20-year anniversary of the 1992 Super Bowl champs as a part of the festivities?

Emmitt: You know what? It worked out perfectly. It was awesome to see so many teammates. At the same time, it was hard not to think about the two “fallen soldiers” who were not there, Frank Cornish and Mark Tuinei. But seeing so many — Troy and Daryl and Deion, Larry Brown, Tony Tolbert, Charles Haley, just a list of guys who showed up — all were great. 

Q: This year’s added ingredient is a Dancing with the Stars theme, known as “Dancing with the Smiths.” What can people expect?

Emmitt: We’re planning on having some celebrities from this season’s Dancing with the Stars, performers and contestants. We have some local folks who’ll be putting on a show as well. We anticipate it’ll be a great way to bring L.A.’s Dancing with the Stars to Dallas’ “Dancing with the Smiths,” so people can see up close and personal how some of these dancers move so gracefully.

Q: Pat says she’s going to participate. What kind of dancer is she?

Emmitt: Man, that’s a good question; she better get in the studio because time is running out. She’ll do great, I think. People think it’s easy just to get out there and float around. It’s not as easy as most folks think, especially when you’re dancing to a routine. You really have to put in some time to learn that routine and master the technique of the specific dance that you’re doing. It’s not easy. The reason it looks easy? Because people put in that kind of work, to make it look easy. You can’t just roll out of bed and say, “I’m going to do ballroom dancing today and look like a professional.”

Q: What long-term goals do you have for the tournament?

Emmitt: We want to continue to grow it in the pro-growth manner we have, and to expand it even more, to where we can invite the general public to come out and enjoy the entire weekend. We might grow it to a point where it’s more than a Friday night gala, and maybe a two-day tournament (instead of 18 holes) with some television coverage. Something like you might see in Tahoe, but on a localized basis. 

Q: Do you have a favorite golf memory?

Emmitt: I’ve played golf with Arnie Palmer, John Daley, Greg Norman, Lee Trevino, David Graham, David Duval, Justin Leonard, Lee Janzen. I’ve played 18 holes with Michael Jordan and a lot of celebs. But Payne Stewart might be my favorite
memory. The year that he passed was the first time I played golf at the Bob Hope (Invitational). We were in the final round. I started out like gangbusters and went to Yogi-the-Bear. I finally got hold of a drive on the 18th hole, and I landed down the middle of the fairway on a Par 5. Payne came up to me and grabbed me on the shoulder and patted me on the back and said, “E., don’t mess this one up.” I busted out laughing, and he said, “Concentrate on putting this ball on the green, get your putt, and let’s go out of here with an eagle.” I hit an 8-iron over the water onto the green and one-putted for the eagle, and Payne jumped all over my back.

But most importantly, I remember watching Payne and his grace, how he dealt with people for 18 holes. It was amazing. On a Par 5 when Payne was getting ready to chip, this kid was rattling around and fooling around nearby and his mom was telling him to be quiet. Payne stepped away and told the kid to come over, sit right by the ball and be still. Payne chipped the ball up on the green close enough to get the birdie, tapped it in, signed the ball, gave it to the kid, and walked on about his business. And I thought, “Now that is a class act.” That’s why Payne Stewart is my strongest golf memory.

Q: You’re 43 now and have lived in Dallas almost a quarter-century. You were 20 when you first drove from Florida to Dallas to join the Cowboys. And you’re still here. What is it about Dallas and having your tournament here?

Emmitt: My life so far has been like a storybook. As a young man, I always wanted to play football for the Dallas Cowboys. When I got drafted, it was like a childhood dream that came true. But the thing that solidified my heart to this city, besides the Dallas Cowboys, was driving in that first night, coming down Interstate 30 and seeing the skyline of Dallas. I’d never seen a beautiful skyline like that in my life. I thought, “Wow, the world is totally bigger than my ghetto.” Understanding what laid ahead for me, all I could think was, “Yeah, I can live here for the rest of my life.” Playing 15 years in the NFL, and 13 in Dallas, there was no other city for me. I’d seen myself grow from a young boy to a young man, and from a young man to a family man. All of that happened right here in this city. This city is my home, my family’s home, and this is probably the city that I want to die in. At the end of the day, that’s just the way it is with me.