Basketball is my first love, but it’s not my only one. From the small town in Iowa where I grew up, to Chapel Hill for college, to the Bay Area and now to Dallas, I’ve been lucky in my life to get to meet a wide variety of people, each with their own beliefs, dreams, habits, and outlooks on the world. Interacting with different people with different stories sparked my curiosity about what makes people not only good at what they do, but good, period. I am drawn to leaders who set out to make positive change in their communities.
In that spirit, I’m doing a series of interviews this season with people who I admire from afar. I want to get to know them better and share our conversations here.
My latest interview is with someone who needs little introduction — Emmitt Smith. Emmitt was one of the first people I met when I moved to Dallas.
Harrison Barnes Emmitt, thanks for taking the time. Let’s start out with one of my favorite things to ask. What is something that you believed in your 20s that you still believe in today? Emmitt Smith That’s a great question. One thing that I definitely believed in my 20s that I still think is true today is that I needed to prepare myself for life beyond the game. In my early 20s, I knew I wanted to do something after football, but I didn’t know what it was. But as I got to my late 20s, things started to crystallize for me. I also believed in family then and now, too, but I just didn’t know in my 20s when that was going to happen. Something I believed in my 20s that I have a different view of today? I thought I would play a lot more golf than I do now! Golf is cool, but not that cool. Man, you know, I love what I do. I love business, I love strategizing, I love developing a plan of attack, and I enjoy watching that plan come to fruition. Golf is secondary. Harrison I can’t find much time for golf either. So, let’s talk about your work in Dallas. The last time we met, you told me a bit about it. What’re you up to these days? Emmitt I have developed a multi-tiered and multi-faceted enterprise. It originated with my construction company, which has been in business for seven years now and has expanded to include subsequent enterprises. Overall, we have grown in the last two years and will continue to expand into new ventures. Those are the things that are keeping me busy from a for-profit standpoint. Then our nonprofit, Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities, keeps me extremely busy. Its mission is to provide educational opportunities for underserved children. Not to mention, we have five kids. Two are in college, one’s in high school, one’s getting ready to go to high school, and the other one is just seven years old. Harrison Is there any one person who bridged both sports and business as a mentor for you? Emmitt Yes, that person for me as a kid was Charlie Edgar, one of my Pop Warner coaches. He taught me how to read blueprints and floor plans for everything from residential properties to commercial office space when I was just a kid. That has been a motivating factor for me ever since. He was a guy who owned his own construction company and he coached little league football on the side due to his love and passion for sports. Harrison And now you’re a father of some pretty athletic kids…. Emmitt Oh yeah, all of my kids have a sports gene. I just happen to have one in college right now playing college soccer for Texas A&M, and my son EJ, who is a sophomore in high school, is playing football for Jesuit Preparatory School in Dallas. But all five of my kids are hard workers. They’re good kids and good people and trying to be the best that they can possibly be. And I honestly believe that they are all smarter than I am and obviously have more opportunities to become whoever they want to be in this world. I want them to be safe, successful, and most importantly, to be happy. Harrison You’ve been successful in business after your career. But come on .. you must’ve made a few “youthful” financial decisions? If you don’t mind telling…. Emmitt No, I don’t mind telling! I bought a $100,000 car when I was 20 years old. I wanted to treat myself to a convertible Mercedes Benz, the SL. It was burgundy. Funny story, though. Before I actually bought the car, the car dealers treated me like I couldn’t afford the car. I walked onto the lot and I was looking at brand new cars and the sales guy took one look at me — a young African American guy — and he walked me to the used car section. He said, “Uh, let’s try to get you into something that you can afford.” He didn’t have a clue that I was on the Cowboys. So I looked at what he wanted me to look at, and then I said, “No, I’ll go with the SL. But I’m not gonna buy it from you.” And I went to another dealer and got it there. Harrison A lot of athletes try to get into business during or after their careers. What do you think are the parallels between pro sports and business? Emmitt To make it in professional sports, you have to be willing to work hard, to prepare yourself mentally and physically every day, have dedication and surround yourself with talented teammates and be a team player. All that is true for business as well. I always knew I needed to prepare myself for life beyond the game, and I’m doing so every day. Learning new things is probably the biggest part: learning the real estate business, learning the development business, understanding the construction business. I’m continuing to push the envelope of knowledge for myself, continuing to feed my brain to learn more. I’m thirsty for more knowledge so that I can become better every day of my life and, most importantly, make a significant impact in society. Harrison I’m always thinking about goals and habits. So … do you have any tips for me? Emmitt If you want to grow at any point in your life, you need to know where you want to go and what it will take to get there, then make a plan to do that. I decided that I wanted to play professional football. I had challenges, but my desire to play and succeed was greater than the obstacles I faced. What I could change, I did. What I couldn’t change, I overcame. It’s the same now for my career in real estate. I started from the ground up, learning about the industry and what made people successful in it. I have goals, I have a plan and I have the determination to succeed in this industry, the same way I succeeded in the NFL. I also have surrounded myself with a strong team, just like I had as a Cowboy. A team can accomplish much more than any individual, and we have tremendous goals to grow our company and continue our contributions to society.
We all know the Emmitt Smith we see in public, but what’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Probably that I’m a homebody. I love being at home with my family. As much as I travel, people think I enjoy being out there all the time. But I love being home. I love me some grits and eggs and bacon. I still hold onto my roots, and I just love being home, man.
I’m always thinking of the next person I could interview. So if you could have dinner with and interview any person currently living, who would you choose?
Wow. Hmm … I probably would say Warren Buffett. I would love to know how he juggles everything because he owns multiple companies. I’d like to understand how he views the landscape of America and the landscape of the world.
Diversity is an issue that many Americans, especially young people, care deeply about. There’s a lack of diversity right now in the NFL in terms of owners and coaches versus players. How do you think we approach that lack of diversity, starting from a sports perspective?
I think that lack of diversity itself has created this financial divide between players and owners. But there are really some owners who have great admiration for, and a great affiliation and connection with, their players. And you want to see more of that and hope it will translate into the way the team is run.
I think the biggest challenge for achieving more diversity is that not enough African-Americans have the capital to own a team. I think that some African-Americans obviously have knowledge about playing the game of football. Most NFL owners today have never really played the sport. They’ve done great in business; they know how to run a company. So maybe more athletes have to go out and show the world that we know how to run a company, too. I think that’s where we’re at. Someday I hope to go in as a true owner. I want to be like Mark Cuban. I want to buy my own team, run my own thing down the road.
That’s really interesting. I think you should … and also give me a call when you do.
Well, that’s a good place to stop for now. I really appreciate this conversation. Thank you.
This was great. Keep up the good work, on and off the court.