Ageless Smith is still running on passion

I’ll give you five seconds to come up with the most passionate player in the NFL. Forget debating between the Michael Vicks and Willie McGinests. Forget the Priest Holmeses and Peyton Mannings who play because they’re talented or because their team has legitimate playoff chances. Forget the Brett Favres and Drew Bledsoes, taking snaps against an ever-imposing Father Time.

Forget Deion Sanders and his efforts to resurrect a career that flopped after “Prime Time” went prime-time with CBS. Forget five seconds; I’ll take less than two to come up with the man whose name takes approximately 1.02 seconds to say: Emmitt Smith.

Granted, over the last two or so years, it’s probably been easier to catch the NFL’s all-time leading rusher than it has been to find much press on him. Playing for the Arizona Cardinals, the team which ESPN recently argued is the worst team in the league, has certainly not brought Emmitt much fame or glory.

Unlike Deion, who’s hoping to milk the 2-2 Baltimore Ravens for a trip to the Super Bowl, it’s never really been about championships for Emmitt. For him, it’s been about the personal satisfaction he gets from playing the game at the highest level he can muster, which was pretty high this past Sunday.

After 12 championship-filled years with the Dallas Cowboys — the last in which he cemented his place in history as the all-time leading rusher — it would have been easy for Emmitt to bow out gracefully.

Cowboys management looked at him in 2002 and saw an aging superstar who was ready to go out to pasture. Many fans (including this one) anticipated the retirement that would soon follow his 11-yard carry against Seattle in October 2002, which enabled him to pass Walter Payton as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.

But it didn’t. Emmitt was not finished with the game, ignoring both the signs his own body was showing and the naysaying Cowboys management. How does a franchise athlete of such caliber make the decision to continue playing long after his glory days are over? MJ made his un-triumphant return to the Washington Wizards, but only because he had a vested front-office interest in the team’s success. Also, let’s not forget that MJ still made the All-Star team in his post-second-retirement playing days.

For Emmitt, there is no financial stake in playing for the Cardinals, only, one can imagine, embarrassment in facing the Parcells-powered Cowboys. But in the way Emmitt plays, with the same heart as a Pop Warner rookie, statistics and win-loss columns have nothing to do with it.

For him, it’s the simple joy of playing that revs him up each game and allows him to play as he did when his fledgling Cardinals decisively beat the stunned New Orleans Saints Sunday.

A prolific record-setter, Emmitt continued to rewrite NFL standards when he stormed past the Saints in his 77th career 100-yard rushing game. But there was more to his game than regaining old form. Any superstar can set records, but it takes a true warrior to help a team turn around a three-game losing streak that is considered par for most Cardinals fans.

For an example of Emmitt’s off-field influences, look no farther than Cardinals backup running back Troy Hambrick, who was also Emmitt’s backup in Dallas. Hambrick ran for 79 yards on 16 carries and added six points of his own with an 11-yard touchdown run Sunday.

Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown is also under the impression that sharing the field with Emmitt improves the level of play for everyone else on the team. “Growing up in Texas and watching the guy my whole life, just to hand the ball to him was awesome,” McCown said.

As for Emmitt, the low expectations others have set for him and his team have certainly brought out his sense of humor. When asked by reporters after the game about his 29-yard touchdown, Emmitt reasoned, “I just picked up my wheelchair and pushed myself on into the end zone.”

The thing that makes Emmitt football’s golden (age) boy right now is that he’s not letting any of the doubters or the stats he struggles to put up bother him.

In his final contract year with Arizona, this will probably be his last season, and Sunday may have been his last 100-yard game.

Either way, Emmitt keeps on playing hard and doesn’t complain during the downswings (which have been plentiful with the Cardinals).

As for those around Emmitt, the benefits of this season will be enormous. The 25-year-old McCown summed it up best when he said during a post-game press conference Sunday, “It was an honor [playing with Emmitt], and hopefully there’s more of that to come.”

While the clock is winding down on Emmitt’s career, Sunday showed he is still enjoying every second of it.

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