The Dallas Cowboys are not America’s team.

Well perhaps they are, but only in the sense that they are the team America loves to hate. Like the New York Yankees in baseball and the L.A. Lakers in basketball, the Cowboys’ winning ways and fervent fans make them a franchise that’s easy to despise. Granted the winning part of that equation has been somewhat lost on the Cowboys in recent years, but the stigma of their audacious claim to represent the entirety of the country remains irritating.

Emmitt Smith, on the other hand, does represent our country. He is America’s running back.

In garnering 109 yards against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, Smith made it official. He eclipsed Walter Payton’s career rushing record of 16,726 yards, establishing himself as football’s most proficient ball carrier. And there never was a more worthy inheritor of such a lofty title than Smith.

In a world where athletes fear the term “role model,” he is pure class. Smith is a soft-spoken and polite man who is courteous to media and fans alike. A family man, he was never embroiled in the various drug problems that scandalized the Dallas championship teams of the 1990s. Even those who hate the Cowboys with intense passion find it hard to dislike Emmitt. After all, who could hate a man who makes hugging his mother his first official act as all-time leading rusher?

On the field, Smith has three Super Bowl rings and MVP awards of various shapes and sizes. But they are not what sets him apart from other running backs. What makes Smith so great is his consistency. Year in and year out, he has produced for the Cowboys, regardless of the circumstances. He has been a constant in a league where reliability is so rare, especially among running backs, churning out more than 1,000 yards in each of the past 11 seasons.

In fact, if not for the relatively small number of carries he received in his rookie season, Smith would have rushed for 1,000 yards in every year of his pro career. The last back to be such an enduring force was the late great Walter Payton, who had 10 seasons with more than 1,000 yards for the Chicago Bears.

Though Payton passed away in 1999, he knew that Smith would break his record because of Barry Sanders’ premature retirement before that season, and had given him his blessing. Smith humbly accepted the endorsement of the Bears’ great and remains publicly touched to have been so honored to this day. In Walter-esque fashion, Smith has kept in touch with the Payton family, and he does not hesitate to sing the praises of his beloved predecessor. Though the upright and punishing running style of Payton shares little with the bursts of the short and shifty Smith, the two men shared a gracious nature that is nearly impossible not to love.

As touching as it was to see him run for the record, Smith should retire at the end of the season. Now that he has the record, there isn’t much left for him to do. The Cowboys are in a rebuilding mode, as evidenced by their loss to the woeful Seahawks, and are trying to build a new foundation of young players for the franchise. All of Smith’s former comrades, Aikman, Irvin, Johnston and Novacek, are well into retirement, waiting for their workhorse to join them in the Cowboys’ ring of honor. And, to be quite honest, it is obvious that Smith has lost a step. His 109 yard effort against the Seahawks was his first time over the century mark in 2002, and it came in large part due to the weakness of Seattle’s run defense. It is time for this Cowboy to walk slowly off into the sunset.

For running your way into our hearts, America thanks you, Emmitt. We were glad to come along for the ride.

Random Thoughts: Week 8

Cleveland 24, NY Jets 21: Whether Pennington or Testaverde, Jets’ choking ability remains intact.

Kansas City 20, Oakland 10: Just Lose Baby? Raider collapse continues.

Tampa Bay 12, Carolina 9: Yawn — And I thought Gruden was supposed to have fixed the offense.

San Francisco 38, Arizona 28: From contenders to pretenders in one week: the Arizona Cardinals’ Story.

Atlanta 37, New Orleans 35: Vick King Cousin, for now.

Seattle 17, Dallas 14: Cowboys celebrate Emmitt, forget to win.

Buffalo 24, Detroit 17: As temperature drops in Buffalo, Bills start to heat up.

Denver 24, New England 16: OK Belichick, time to whip out another 12-game winning streak.

Minnesota 25, Chicago 7: Bad News Bears Revisited. Hey, they’re more lovable as losers, right?

Tennessee 30, Cincinnati 24: Bengals to consider withdrawing from AFC North and joining CFL.

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 18: Vince McMahon: Steelers’ MVP?

Houston 21, Jacksonville 19: No offensive line? No problem!

Monday Night Preview: N.Y. Giants at Philadelphia

Giants need this one if they’re going to stay with Philly down the stretch. Unfortunately for them, there’s no tougher place to play than Veteran’s Stadium on Monday night. Darkness makes Philly fanatics even crazier. Philadelphia 34, N.Y. Giants 17.