Emmitt Smith represents something much more powerful than gridiron greatness in the eyes of Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson.
Growing up fatherless in a neighborhood of Pensacola, Fla., plagued by crime and poverty, Richardson viewed Smith as a symbol of hope. Long before Richardson starred at Escambia High School, Smith set the bar there. Since his days as a Pee Wee football prodigy, Richardson has dreamed of following in the footsteps of his hometown hero.
“You can always look at Emmitt and say, ‘Emmitt made it, I know I can do it,’ ” Richardson said. “He comes from the same streets I came from.”
Smith graduated from Escambia in 1987 and went on to establish his hall of fame career as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. He is the NFL’s career rushing leader with 18,355 yards and a three-time Super Bowl champion.
Richardson is aiming to make his own mark, and his quest will continue when the Browns (2-7) face the Cowboys (4-5) at 1 p.m. today. Richardson hopes Smith can take a break from his busy schedule — he’s in the midst of competing on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars: All Stars — to attend the game at Cowboys Stadium.
“For him to build his legacy as a Cowboy and me to be playing there, that’s a cool thing for me,” said Richardson, who has 152 carries for 575 yards and five touchdowns this season. “That’s just a lot of inspiration when it comes down to it, being a guy from Pensacola.”
Richardson, though, isn’t the only son of Pensacola on the Browns’ roster. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin also graduated from Escambia and felt the influence Smith had on the community.
“You’ve got a lot of people who really love him,” said Rubin, who’s expected to return to the starting lineup today after missing three of the past four games with an injured calf. “He did a lot for that high school, bought them a weight room, came and talked to the kids when he broke his records in the NFL. He had a couple speeches, did a lot in the community and everybody thinks a lot of him. He’s a big icon there in Pensacola.
“[He showed us] you don’t have to do bad stuff. You can also go to school and be proactive in sports and get somewhere that you want to go, move out of town and get away from all the negativity. So just seeing NFL players from our hometown leave and make an impact in other places, that gave us a lot of hope.”
Richardson said he was still in youth football when he met Smith for the first time. The two keep in touch and talk a couple of times a month on the phone. After the Browns traded up and used the third overall pick in this year’s draft to select Richardson out of the University of Alabama, Smith told him to represent Pensacola well, be himself and learn how to say no.
“You can say no to partying, no to people coming off on you the wrong way, people who want to get in your face or people who want to borrow stuff that’s never gonna give stuff back that you haven’t heard from in how many years,” Richardson said. “That’s just great advice for somebody that’s young and that’s immature with money. I’m young. I’m not the most mature guy there is when it comes to having money ’cause I never had it before. For him to be a businessman like he is now and be successful, that’s good advice coming from him.”
Rubin thinks it’s fitting that Richardson and Smith have formed a bond. He believes Richardson, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the past two games, can be his generation’s version of Smith.
“You see a lot of similarities,” Rubin said. “They’re definitely motivated. They’re driven by something. I don’t know what it is, but those guys seem to run with their hair on fire.”
Richardson has tried to emulate Smith since he started playing football at age 6.
“When I was a kid, I always used to say, ‘I’m Emmitt, I’m Warrick Dunn, I’m Fred Taylor,’ ” Richardson said. “But Emmitt always popped into my mind first. He’s somebody I idolized, and being from my hometown, that’s big.
“I can’t name one kid that I used to be around that didn’t have an Emmitt jersey. I bet they still got their Emmitt jerseys, and I know I still got mine. That’s gonna be a part of me always. It’s gonna keep me fighting, keep me driving.”
All promising running backs who play for Escambia live in Smith’s shadow to some extent. When Richardson was in high school, his older brothers tried to motivate him by littering his bedroom wall with photographs of NFL greats, including Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk. Of course, a picture of Smith was prominently displayed, too.
“[My brothers] asked me, ‘What do you want to be? Do you want to be one of these guys over here, or do you want to be one of the guys that never makes it to the wall?’ ” Richardson said. “That just inspired me.”
Richardson said Jimmy Nichols, his football coach at Escambia, would make highlight tapes featuring Smith and other standout running backs, so he could study their styles. Even though Smith retired from the NFL in 2005, Richardson still watches him on TV, this time dancing on stage instead of around defenders.
“I watched him on Dancing With the Stars,” Richardson said. “He got moves, man. He’s a champion in all phases, and you can’t take nothing from him.”
Richardson is still motivated by the thought of experiencing success on par with Smith. But he knows it must be earned.
“Emmitt, he’s the leading rusher,” Richardson said. “I feel like later on in my career, I can be the guy to try to go get his records. I want to be that guy.”
A dominant performance today against Smith’s former team certainly wouldn’t hurt Richardson’s cause.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.