Emmitt Smith has run past legends, danced with stars and posed for the sculptor crafting his Hall of Fame bust. He's
built upon his athletic talents by working hard, seizing opportunities and reaching out to others for advice when he needed
“Football was something that was very natural for me,” the former Dallas Cowboy tells SUCCESS. “I
knew that if I did the things that I needed to do, there was a good chance that I could have a long and hopefully prosperous
career on the field. And, fortunately for me, it worked out that way. Still, from Day One in the NFL, I was always preparing
for life after football. I understood that football was just a vehicle to take me to the next part of my life.”
During his 14 NFL seasons, as he was racing past Jim Brown and Walter Payton to become the league’s all-time leading
rusher, Smith began looking for mentors, people who could help him direct his competitive spirit into the world of entrepreneurship.
“I didn’t have to look far,” he says “Right in my own backyard here in Dallas I could learn from
people like [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones or Roger Staubach. It is amazing when you look at what Roger has been able to do with
the Staubach companies.”
Smith also visited Magic Johnson, whose Magic Johnson Enterprises focuses on providing quality entertainment, products and
services to ethnically diverse urban communities. “I thought, ‘OK, I can duplicate what Magic did by taking my
own brand and maximizing it,’ ” Smith says.
He originally built a partnership with Staubach’s very successful property management and real estate firm, but branched
off several years ago to focus, like Johnson, on the urban community. Smith co-founded ESmith Legacy Inc., a Dallas-based
commercial real estate company that targets opportunities in minority markets.
“I know about the things facing urban neighborhoods and what’s happening when businesses are walking away from
them. That’s what makes what we’re doing—buying and renovating property in these neighborhoods—more
than just business to me. I feel like it’s part of doing something bigger.”
Building for the Future
ESmith Legacy projects have included the Zenith, a 21-story luxury residential and retail project in Baltimore; a shopping
center in Phoenix; and 414 Water Street, a 31-story luxury condominium building in Baltimore, according to the company’s
Web site. Smith credits many mentors as positive influences on his life and career. “It’s funny, but one of the
reasons I got into the real estate business is from lessons I learned from my youth football coach back when I was 11 or 12
years old. He taught me how to read floor plans and blueprints because he was involved in the business.”
The Yankees and the Cowboys are two organizations that have shown how not to dilute the brand, but enhance it.
Smith even pursued architecture studies at the University of Florida. His plans changed “when football went so well,”
he says, “but I always had a real desire to be involved in this business.”
Later, “guys like Roger and Magic certainly were trailblazers for me. They showed what athletes are capable of doing
after they transition from the game,” he says.
Grateful for the mentorship he’s had over the years, Smith is happy to do the same for other up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
He’s working with organizers of next year’s North Texas Super Bowl to help female- and minority-owned businesses
become eligible for contracts related to the Super Bowl.
Originally invited to serve in an honorary capacity, Smith said he preferred to roll up his sleeves and get more involved
as co-chair of the Super Bowl Host Committee’s Emerging Business Action Team. “Putting your name to something
is kind of passive work in a lot of ways,” he told reporters. “But when you start talking about emerging businesses,
I have a small company myself that’s trying to emerge and break from the cluster. In that position, you understand some
of the challenges. I bring a different perspective to the table, outside of just being an honorary chairperson.”
Helping others is nothing new for Smith. Through the Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities, he and his wife help provide educational
opportunities for disadvantaged children. In May, Smith hosted the inaugural Emmitt Smith Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament
benefiting these charities.
Pursuing a variety of activities and challenges will always be part of Smith’s DNA, although he acknowledges there
might be a downside. “The difficulty for most athletes is to have businesspeople start to take you seriously,”
he says. “Other businesspeople look at all I have going on, and have a tendency to think that I’m not focused.
One thing about athletes, we’re very diverse in a lot of ways. We’re very much capable of multitasking. As a running
back, I played first, second and third downs. Third down is often a passing situation. So with my third down responsibilities,
and understanding what it takes to block a blitzing linebacker, it was like handling two jobs.”
While running ESmith, he has chased other opportunities, including broadcasting, working for both ESPN and the NFL Network.
Smith also proved his fancy footwork isn’t limited to the football field when he competed in the hit television show
Dancing with the Stars in 2006, winning the competition with dance partner Cheryl Burke.
Recently, he appeared in NBC’s new reality show Who Do You Think You Are? In the emotion-charged episode,
Smith retraced his ancestry through times of segregation, slavery and back to Africa.
He says his TV appearances have played a part in his post-football career by introducing him to people who might have never
seen him play. “So, in some ways, it expanded my brand,” he says.
Protecting the Brand
“I’ve learned a lot about branding over my time in the NFL, much of it from Jerry Jones. He has been a great
example of a man who recognizes how to constantly grow the brand that he owns and controls,” Smith says.
“I’ve not seen too many people outside the Yankees organization that leverage their brand like Jerry Jones has
been able to do it. The Yankees and Cowboys have shown how not to dilute the brand, but to enhance the brand, to keep the
brand going, to keep the brand valuable.”
For Smith, that can mean saying no to certain deals. “If it didn’t fit within my brand, if it wasn’t who
I am as a person, I learned to turn down opportunities.”
“I’ve learned to think of myself like most corporations,” he says. “When you think about long-standing
companies like Proctor & Gamble, like Microsoft, Walmart and Target, these are great branded companies and their products
have stood the test of time. That’s how I want to be.”
It will be a challenge for Smith’s off-field success to mirror what he accomplished on the gridiron. Not only is he
the league’s all-time leading rusher, but his 164 touchdowns are the most ever by a running back. He has three Super
Bowl rings and has been named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
“That is a lot to live up to,” Smith says with a laugh, when the accolades are stacked up before him, “but
I’m up to it.”