JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Feb. 3 -- Emmitt Smith tearfully ended his 15-year NFL playing career Thursday, exiting the sport as its career rushing leader and one of its most respected players.
"It's been a tremendous ride," the running back said at a packed news conference at the convention center serving as the media headquarters for Sunday's Super Bowl. "It's one that I've been proud of and one that I've been happy about. It's been one where I've given all I've had to give, on and off the field."
NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith, who starred for the Dallas Cowboys for 13 seasons and spent the past two years with Arizona, announced his retirement Thursday.
Smith, 35, paused several times to wipe tears from his eyes as he read a lengthy list of names of the people that he wanted to thank, beginning with his pee-wee football coach and including many of his teammates and coaches on the Dallas Cowboys clubs that won three Super Bowl titles in four years in the 1990s. "I thought I could make it," said Smith, who became particularly emotional when talking about Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his former Dallas fullback, Daryl Johnston.
Smith spent the past two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals after 13 seasons with the Cowboys. He said he had not yet completed arrangements to sign with the Cowboys so that he could retire as a member of the club, but he would do so in the coming weeks. Jones joined Smith on the podium, and Smith addressed Jones directly and said: "You took a chance on me, and I appreciate that. You gave me a chance to have a life that I could have never imagined."
Jones replied: "Emmitt has never forgotten he was a part of the team, and what the team meant. . . . You were always a Dallas Cowboy."
Smith finishes with 18,355 career rushing yards -- 1,629 more than the late Walter Payton, who is second on the NFL's all-time list. Smith predicated his record eventually will be broken.
"I broke it," he said. "What makes me think that someone can't come behind me and break it?"
He might not be remembered as the most electrifying runner in league history, but he will go down as one of the most durable, consistent and reliable ones.
"He was tough to tackle," former Denver Broncos tailback Terrell Davis said. "He had good balance and great hands. He could block. He's so consistent. I know how it is to stay at a level day in and day out, and he did it. I've never heard anyone say anything bad about Emmitt Smith. When it came to staying healthy, he was one of the lucky ones."
Said former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, "The game is losing one of its greatest players and one of its classiest people."
Smith's contract with the Cardinals was expiring, and he was eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. He said he decided to retire after the Cardinals declined to re-sign him, not wanting to move his family to another city. As recently as Tuesday, when news of his decision became public, he received calls from other teams expressing interest in him, he said.
"I gave the Cardinals the first opportunity to sign me back," Smith said, "and they chose not to. . . . That in itself made my decision a whole lot easier. . . . I didn't want to bounce myself around the country, looking for a job. I have a home in Arizona, and they need me there."
Smith said he is interested in returning to the league in some capacity, perhaps as an owner, but denied a report he is joining an investment group headed by Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler that is attempting to purchase the Minnesota Vikings. He said he had "no regrets whatsoever" about his two seasons with the Cardinals to end his career.
"There is no need," Smith said. "There is no room for regrets. The Cardinals gave me an opportunity to extend my career, and I am grateful for that."