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 it.
“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.”
Emmitt Smith on preparing for life after football
During his 15 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 “[increasing] the quality of life for ethnically diverse, urban communities by providing quality entertainment products and services,” according to the website.
“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 affiliate company, Cypress Equities, but branched off in 2009 to strike out on his own. In 2013, he co-founded E Smith Realty Partners, a Dallas-based commercial real estate company that targets opportunities in minority markets. After its rebranding following Smith’s departure in 2017, E Smith Realty Partners became independent of its parent company, E Smith Legacy Holdings, which Smith is still chairman of.
“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,” Smith says.
Building for the future
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,” Smith says.
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. In 2010, he worked with the organizers of the 2011 North Texas Superbowl to spread the word regarding their “emerging business program,” which was “designed to assist minority- or women-owned companies, as well as those certified as ‘disadvantaged,’ in procuring Super Bowl contracts,” according to an article in D magazine.
Seizing new opportunities
Helping others is nothing new for Smith. Through the Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities, he and his ex-wife helped provide educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, though their charities closed in 2020.
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.”
Smith has chased other opportunities alongside E Smith Legacy Holdings—including broadcasting, having worked 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. And in 2010, he appeared in NBC’s reality show Who Do You Think You Are? Over the course of the emotion-charged episode, Smith retraced his ancestry through times of segregation and slavery.
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.
Emmitt Smith on the importance of protecting his 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,” he continues.
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 Procter & 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, he also has three Super Bowl rings and has won the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
“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.”
This article was updated April 2023. Photo by Debby Wong/Shutterstock