How to run down your dreams and win like Emmitt Smith

Emmitt Smith and Paul Feldma
InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman and NFL legend Emmitt Smith hold an INN promotional football.

I had the opportunity recently to meet the Hall of Famer, Dancing with the Stars Champion, philanthropist and entrepreneur Emmitt Smith and hear him talk about his lessons in life.

Although Emmitt Smith is best known for his football career with the Dallas Cowboys, his accomplishments off the field impress me the most. Not only is he a successful real estate mogul, his construction company is also recognized as the largest minority-owned bridge builder in Texas. I found this appropriate in another way, because I see him as someone throughout his life who built bridges to overcome adversity to succeed.

It’s easy to look at this man, see his success and forget that it wasn’t always this way. As he described it during Dan Kennedy’s SuperConference a couple of weeks ago, he came from very humble beginnings as one of six children. He didn’t grow up with much and had to earn every ounce of what he accomplished.

When he was 7 and watching a Cowboys game, he turned to his father and said that one day he was going to become a Dallas Cowboy. His father said, son, that’s a great goal to have, but you will need to be strong enough to overcome the adversity that life will throw at you. You will need a strong enough mind to “will” yourself through it.

Throughout his early days, Emmitt worked harder than most. He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest, but his work effort in high school led him to rush for over 106 touchdowns and over 8,800 yards. This effort also earned him the USA Today and Parade High School Player of the Year and put him on the radar to be recruited by many of the top football colleges in America.

It was during his high school days that he was taught by his coach about being humble. After one of his wins, his coach let him speak to the media. During the interview he had high praise for himself yet neglected to give his teammates the credit for his success. As he walked away from the interview, feeling proud, his coach shared his wisdom on being humble and to recognize everyone that helped him run for 200 yards and score some during the game. While you might have been doing the running, but you didn’t hand the ball to yourself, did you?

Being humble is easy — when you aren’t successful. But as you grow in life and success comes your way, it’s easy to let your ego go wild. And I truly believe that every person who is successful had someone to support them along the way. It takes a team to succeed, whether you are Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban or Emmitt Smith. You can’t go big in life without some help.

Emmitt’s success continued when he entered college, playing for the University of Florida Gators. As a college star, he had the opportunity to enter the NFL draft following his junior year. Knowing that his career could end at any moment, he leapt at the chance and entered the draft with high expectations.

Despite his collegiate success, some NFL teams felt that Smith was too small and slow for the pro game. He fell to the 17th pick in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft, when he was chosen by the Dallas Cowboys, who traded up to draft him. Jerry Jones obviously chose right, because Emmitt was a big winner on the field and in the locker room. Rushing for 18,355 yards, Emmitt to this day is still the all-time leading rusher in the NFL. He humbly says that wouldn’t have ever happened if Barry Sanders hadn’t retired early from the game.

But even though he had a great NFL career, he was looking beyond the game: “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 days with the Cowboys, while other players were hanging out in the locker room, Smith would often slip away to the owner’s office. He would sit on the couch and listen to Jones conduct business by phone or meet with associates. Emmitt also reached out to his childhood idol, Cowboy legend Roger Staubach to show him how to succeed.

Roger put him to work over one summer and was impressed with his work ethic and commitment to learning the business. The two became partners, funding one of Emmitt’s first real estate ventures (a $45 million project).

In 2006, when Emmitt went on Dancing with the Stars, which many told him not to do (including his wife). When he first met his coach/partner Cheryl Burke he set up some ground rules (key when starting a new relationship or partnership) that under no circumstances would either of them disrespect each other. He also told her that he was going to work harder than anyone.

The month leading up to the premiere, they worked four hours a day together and he was feeling pretty good — that is until Jerry Springer beat him on the first episode. Being extraordinarily competitive, there was no way he could let Jerry Springer beat him. So he doubled down on his practice and moved to eight hours a day and toward the finale, he upped his practice to 12 hours a day, which paid off handsomely as he ultimately became the first NFL player to win the competition.

Being an athlete might have made it easier to train like he did, but he still put in the work. Because in order to succeed at anything in life, you have to do the work. There are no shortcuts in life and Emmitt’s incredible work ethic is what got him to where he is today.

So my big takeaways were:

  • Be humble. No matter how successful you are, no one succeeds on their own.
  • Do the work regardless of how hard it is.
  • Have a great attitude, because your attitude during adversity and success will determine your altitude.
  • Be passionate about whatever you do, because that is what will carry you through the challenges that you are guaranteed to experience.

Little if anything is handed to you in life. We all get opportunities in life, but it is what we do with them that separates the winners from the losers.


Paul Feldman is the president and publisher of InsuranceNewsNet, which he founded in 1999. He started with a small website, which grew into the top insurance news source on Google. He has since added AnnuityNews and HealthInsuranceNewsNet. He started InsuranceNewsNet Magazine in 2008, which thrives as an award-winning monthly print publication. Connect with Paul →

  • Doug

    Paul, a good article on a great guy. However, Emmitt played for the University of Florida Gators, not Florida State. I enjoy your articles nonetheless.

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