A Tribute to My Idol, Emmitt Smith


I was in the fifth grade when I first tried to be Emmitt Smith on the football field.

And, let me tell you, it was pretty ridiculous.

I took a handoff in the backfield, surveyed the defense, and noticed that I had a shot for a big run if I played my cards right. As I got closer to the line, I knew exactly what I had to do.


It was like something straight out of Madden. I may have even spun twice.

And then … I was gone.

Untouched. Straight to the end zone.

The funny thing about it was that this was during a game being played by 10- and 11-year-olds. No one knows how to tackle at that age, and I’m pretty sure the hole on that play was about 10-feet wide.

There was no need for a spin. None. And there’s no way Emmitt would’ve busted out a spin move under those circumstances. But I was a kid, and a fan, and I’d seen Emmitt spin like that a thousand times on highlight videos. So, you know, I had to give it a shot, and I spun through that hole like nobody’s business.

When I got back to the sideline, I remember a friend of mine coming up to me and being like, “Hey, what was that about? Why did you spin around like that out there just now?”

I chuckled.

“Emmitt Smith,” I told him. “That was an Emmitt Smith spin move.”

When I was growing up, back in Clinton, Iowa, most of my friends were big fans of Priest Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis. This was the late 1990s and early 2000s, and those were the young guys who were on TV every Sunday making big runs.

I liked those backs, too. But I was always an Emmitt Smith guy. Old-school.

Even though Emmitt was near the end of his career by the time I made that spin move in the fifth grade, it made no difference to me. I idolized him. Period.

And it all began on a Thanksgiving afternoon when I was seven or so. I didn’t even really understand the game of football back then, and I was super young at the time, so I don’t remember anything about the actual game that was on TV that day. I just recall hearing my brother, and my brother-in-law, and other members of my family, shouting Emmitt’s name over and over again. It just kept coming up. And every time it did, my relatives would be talking about his moves, or his ability to punish tacklers, or how he had just made a defender look silly. When he got the ball, they’d be doing a play-by-play, like “There goes 22 … look out!” Or just saying things like, “Come on, are you kidding me? Did he really just do that?”

David Johnson

I was this skinny little kid, so I couldn’t be pummeling guys and breaking tackles like Emmitt. The only things I could really imitate were his crazy jukes and spins.

David Johnson

So that’s where it started for me.

All I kept hearing about was this number 22. And I never forgot it.

Soon after, I remember being in art class and drawing a star with a 22 in the middle as part of a project. I didn’t really get what made Emmitt so great at that point, but I knew, just from the way my relatives talked about him, that he had to be something special. As I got a bit older, I began to understand what all the raves were about. A few years before that middle school spin move, I went out of my way to watch clips of his best runs, or to track down DVDs of big games he had played in back in the day. And I could tell Emmitt was different.

I didn’t know much about technique, so a lot of what stood out to me was his physicality — Emmitt breaking tackles and just punishing guys. Any time he was close to the goal line, he just couldn’t be stopped. He’d break free from four or five tacklers and score. I’d never seen anything like it.

And, of course, I remember him doing all those moves. Not just the spins, either. I saw him hurdling dudes, and all the jump cuts, the stiff-arming, the jukes, his feet, his balance. The whole package.

I was like, Man, I want to be like that guy!

When my coaches asked me in fifth grade what position I wanted to play, I told them, without any hesitation, that I wanted to be a running back.

But what I really wanted to be was Emmitt Smith.

So, you know, after that first one, the spin moves just kept on coming.

I was this skinny little kid at the time, so I couldn’t be pummeling guys and breaking tackles like Emmitt. The only things I could really imitate were his crazy jukes and spins.

There was a loooot of juking on my part when I was younger. I can admit that.

I’m pretty sure people watching those games were probably like, What’s with this kid who spins all the time? But, I have to say, it was a blast.

Then, after a while, when I put on some weight, I worked my way up to some Emmitt Smith–style stiff-arms. And by the time I got to high school, I was starting to put it all together.

This was just in time for the start of YouTube.

Thanks to YouTube, I could watch as many Emmitt runs as I wanted, at any time, day or night. I gained unlimited access to things like this:

I mean, as a running back who wants to be great, how do you not idolize that type of player? Seven guys around him, and he gets through like it’s nothing. Nothing. And then he has the burst and ability to outrun guys.

As I watched more and more video, I started to notice that as games went on, guys didn’t want to tackle Emmitt. By the fourth quarter, guys were just kind of giving up. That was something I hadn’t recognized while watching football in the past, and it helped me to understand why it was so important to always try and get better.

If I could mold myself into an Emmitt Smith–type runner, it would mean that any team I played on would benefit from defenses checking out at the end of games, which would surely mean a better chance of winning more games. So ever since high school, that’s been my goal. And now that I’m in the league, I try my best to do most of the things that Emmitt excelled at as a runner — the things that impressed me so much as a little kid.

I’d say the one Emmitt Smith specialty that has been most effective for me, and that I’ve been able to utilize most often, is the jump cut.

When a hole closes up quick, being able to jump cut like two feet sideways and then get through another hole without losing too much momentum is an invaluable skill for a running back. And Emmitt was one of the best of all time at doing it.

I’m not at that level yet — probably not even close — but I’m working hard to get there.

In those situations, some guys will just try to run through the pile and get two yards, but being able to jump cut into a different hole and get six yards, or eight yards, or 10 yards is huge. That’s something that I try to do all the time, and after watching hundreds of Emmitt’s jump cuts over the years, I’ve come to realize the importance of timing. You need to have the athletic ability to make the cut, of course, but a jump cut’s success depends most on when you make your move.

Emmitt always seemed to make a cut at precisely the right moment. He’d be running at someone, and he wouldn’t make a move until the very last second.

That’s something I try to put into practice now when I’m running the ball.

Growing up as an Emmitt Smith fan meant that I was also, by default, a Cowboys fan.

And there weren’t a ton of Cowboys fans in Clinton, Iowa, when I was a kid. So sporting goods stores weren’t overflowing with Cowboys gear or Emmitt Smith stuff.

I never had an Emmitt jersey — never even had a Cowboys baseball cap. I sort of had to show my fandom in other ways.

You know, SPIN MOOOOOOOVE and all that.

It’s pretty great that Emmitt finished up his career as an Arizona Cardinal, and that I’m now wearing the same uniform he once wore. That makes it easier for me to pay tribute to him without getting anyone too upset.

Most recently, Emmitt helped my wife and I out with a problem we were having. Back in June we got our first dog together, a black lab puppy, and after we got him home we ended up really struggling to come up with a good name for him. We wanted something that sounded cool, something that had a nice ring to it, but every idea we came up with was just terrible.

It seemed like each new name we thought of got worse and worse.

Then, out of nowhere, my wife turned to me and said: “Oh wait, you love Emmitt Smith. Why don’t we just name him Emmitt?”

David Johnson

It was perfect.

So now we have a beautiful black lab named Emmitt.

And get this: He runs around like a champ! It’s the best.

When I’m taking him for a walk, or we go to the dog park, everyone I meet always asks what his name is. They see that I’m a bit bigger than your average dog walker, so when I tell them, they usually pick up on it pretty quick.

They’re like, “Emmitt Smith, huh?”

At that point, I just nod and smile.

When people find out that my favorite football player of all time is Emmitt Smith, there’s almost always a follow-up question that they ask.

Have you ever met him?

I have to say, one of the coolest things about being a professional athlete is that you get to meet a ton of interesting and sometimes famous people — oftentimes people you admire or look up to. I’ve met LaDainian Tomlinson and Eric Dickerson and Warrick Dunn.

But Emmitt Smith? My idol.


Never met him.

Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

I’ve somehow never met Emmitt Smith.

I’ve almost met him a few times — got close to meeting him — but it hasn’t happened yet.

If I did meet Mr. Smith, I’d probably talk about that fifth grade spin move, and laugh, and make a joke about all the YouTube highlights of his that I’ve watched over the years.

Emmitt Smith is pretty much why I am a football player. And I’m hoping that someday soon I’ll be able to tell him that in person.

In the meantime, you can find me over here practicing my Emmitt Smith spin moves on the field.