Emmitt Smith can only remember being nervous a handful of times during his 15 NFL seasons. There were butterflies before the three Super Bowls, of course, and before the October 2002 game in which he became the NFL's all-time leading rusher. But none of those experiences compare to how anxious he got this fall when he watched high school football on Friday nights.
Although Emmitt remains a fan of the Florida Gators and the Dallas Cowboys, the teams on which he excelled, the squad he follows most closely now is Jesuit Dallas. And the reason the Rangers make him so nervous is not their record, but the fact their star sophomore running back is Emmitt James "EJ" Smith IV, Emmitt's eldest son.
"I'm nervous as all get-out," Emmitt tells Bleacher Report. "Watching him run is like I'm running. I'm analyzing, seeing if he's missing cuts. I'm on the edge of my seat. I'm tense. My nerves are shot until the game is over and he walks off the field."
This season, EJ gave his father—and the rest of the Rangers faithful—far more reasons to cheer than to fear. After spending last season on the freshman team due to Dallas University Interscholastic League (UIL) rules, EJ debuted on varsity this season as a running back and wide receiver. In 12 games, he amassed nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 35 touchdowns. The Rangers went 7-5 and reached the second round of the UIL 6A State Championships. It seems perfectly fitting that EJ, who wears his father's No. 22 jersey, has ended up here as a rising recruit, but it wasn't always clear that football would be in his future.
EJ is Emmitt's second child but his first with his wife, Patricia. After the couple married in 2000, they welcomed EJ into the world in 2002. Some of their son's earliest memories are of watching his father's final season of professional football, with the Arizona Cardinals in 2004. EJ was an infant at the time, and what he remembers most is the way the crowd cheered and the fireworks burst when his dad was announced before each game. "I could sense he was special," EJ says now, "because of the way people treated him."
Around that same time, EJ displayed some preternatural athletic skills. He could imitate adults' golf swings and throw and catch footballs and baseballs with ease. But he encountered two problems as he started getting more serious about competing on the gridiron: First, he had trouble telling left from right. And second, he couldn't stand getting tackled.
But football was his family heritage, and he fell in love with the game quickly. His half sister, Rheagen Smith, now a freshman soccer player for Texas A&M, helped increase his speed by constantly challenging him to footraces. His cousin Grant Finney, now a senior wide receiver at Sam Houston State, helped toughen him up by playing sandlot-style games with him. And his uncles Emory and Erick Smith, both of whom played college football, helped his father teach him fundamental techniques. But Emmitt insisted that neither he nor his brothers ever taught EJ how to be a running back—they only taught him how to understand the game.
"I never taught him how to run the football," Emmitt says. "Everything you're seeing as far as him running the ball and seeing the field, that's his gift from God above."
EJ first played organized football as part of Deion Sanders' Truth Sports Texas Select Youth Football League. But after two years, he quit so he could try baseball and basketball. By the time he reached junior high, he realized he wasn't as fulfilled playing any sport besides football. Emmitt worried about the long-term effects on his son from playing football, particularly running back, but he decided it would be best if he didn't push him one way or the other.
"I never pushed him into football," Emmitt says. "But he had a passion, and he found his way back to it ... As a parent and as a person, I've learned it's hard to take another person's passion away from them. If he didn't love the game, I would encourage him not to do it. But people become who they are by doing what they love."
After accidentally missing the football sign-up deadline in sixth grade, EJ enrolled again in seventh grade and decided to try a new position—wide receiver. He started training with former BYU receiver Margin Hooks and soon enough was a two-position star. "Being a running back came naturally to me," EJ says. "Being a receiver, I had to learn how to do it. I liked it a lot because it was so new to me."
To an outsider, it could seem like the move was in part a way for him to step out of his father's shadow. But Emmitt encouraged EJ to develop his pass-catching abilities. He recognizes there's little room in the modern NFL for the type of ball-carrier he was and that the stars in the making are players like the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell and the Panthers' Christian McCaffrey, who are known for their soft hands.
Emmitt does everything he can to cede the spotlight to his son. He fends off autograph- and selfie-seeking fans in the stands (mostly at away games) when EJ is on the field, and he doesn't offer advice to his son's coaches unless they ask.
In May, EJ received his first college offer, from Jackson State. He got the news when he was at an annual gala for the Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities. For Emmitt, it was a sweet reminder of the first college offer he received, from the University of Florida—and a sign of many more letters to come. Since then, EJ has rushed for 1,301 yards and 26 touchdowns and caught 42 passes for 617 yards and six scores. And he has received offers from Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio State and SMU.
EJ grew up a Gators fan, but he insists he's open to other universities. He sleeps next to a Gators bust on his nightstand, a gift from a former assistant coach. But as he waits for what seems like an inevitable offer from Florida, he is eager to explore his growing list of options. "I'm very excited to start my official visits," he says. "Florida is the only school that I've seen behind the scenes. I want to learn and see a lot more."
For EJ, college is still a long way away. A member of the Class of 2020, he still has countless camps and clinics to attend, as well as two more years of high school football. And those two seasons should be a lot of fun for Dallas Jesuit fans—even for the nervous father, the NFL legend who almost never misses a game.
"People are sitting on the edge of their seat every time EJ touches the ball," Emmitt says. "There are certain players who make you feel that way. They're bound for great things. My son is one of them. He's about to break out."