Emmitt Smith is best known as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Pro Football Hall of Famer, and Dancing with the Stars champion. But he’s also a respected entrepreneur, sought-after speaker, bestselling author, and one of the most valuable personal brands in the sports-entertainment field. As chairman of E. Smith Legacy Holdings, a successful real estate development firm that is recognized as a leading bridge builder in Texas, he oversees real estate, construction, development, and investments. He also leads a team of talented individuals who oversee other ventures including authentication technology (Prova), a marketing firm, a non-profit, and an entertainment platform.
The world-famous NFL Hall of Fame running back and serial entrepreneur was a guest speaker at the 2022 IT Sales And Marketing Bootcamp. Emmitt spoke with the audience and did a Q & A with Robin Robins about his football and entrepreneurial journey and everything he’s done to achieve success.
Read on to discover the principles Emmitt revealed, the secrets he attributes to his success, and what drives him as an entrepreneur and a human being.
1. Dare to dream and turn those dreams into goals.
When Emmitt was just seven years old, he watched a Dallas Cowboys football game with his father. That day, he turned to his father and said, “Pop, one day I’m going to play professional football and I’m going to play for the Dallas Cowboys.” He also dreamed of one day living in a home very different from where he grew up and building homes for people so they could have nice homes, too. Those early visions were the catalysts that fueled his dreams. But Emmitt stressed, “A dream is only a dream until you write it down. Then it’s a goal. Goal setting is important because it helps you map out your life.”
2. Don’t let fear cripple you.
As entrepreneurs, we all experience fear, especially the first time something happens. Don’t let it paralyze you. Get back up IMMEDIATELY, be courageous and meet your fear head-on. Emmitt recalled when he was ten, his first day of practice, playing up with kids who were two years older than him. The kids were bigger, faster, stronger, and hit a lot harder. During his first drill, he was hit so hard by a kid named Billy that he was in pain and afraid to continue. He said to his coach, “No, Coach. I don’t want to do it again. I’m thinking about quitting.” But his coach wouldn’t allow him to sit in fear, telling him to do it again.
By immediately getting back in the saddle, he was able to make a course correction, which allowed him to have a better experience the next time and avoid getting hit. “I reluctantly got back in line and over there, Billy is smiling at me,” Emmitt recalled. “My lips started to quiver a little bit. Fear overcame me for the first time in my life. I’d never been hit that hard before. As young entrepreneurs, sometimes we step into things that we’ve never experienced before and if we don’t have that type of experience or know someone that has that experience, guess what? We’re still on the sideline.
We find ourselves at the back of the line trying to avoid Billy because he hits very hard instead of facing Billy and facing your fears. Don’t ever let fear paralyze you. The beautiful thing about getting back up and getting back in line right then and there, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it and so I was able to learn a valuable lesson—to avoid all contact.”
3. Adapt and change.
During his career, he had to overcome adversity and learn to adapt. As a kid, everything he saw on television was about the quarterback, so he wanted to be a quarterback, but his coaches thought differently. “I went out for football when I turned eight years old, my very first day of practice. I come out, and the coach says, ‘What position do you want to play?’ I said, ‘I want to play quarterback.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I want to be just like Roger Staubach. I want to wear number 12. A quarterback touches the ball more than everybody on the football field. He gets paid more than everybody on the football field and all the ladies love the quarterback.’
The next year, another coach asked me the same question. I answered it the same way. He asked me this one thing. He said, ‘Have you ever thought about playing another position?’ I said, ‘No, why would I even think about playing another position? Did you not see me play quarterback last year?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s the reason why I want to put you back here and let you run the football because you cannot throw.’ I learned the word change. Change is going to happen in everybody’s life. That was my first time being introduced to change. I could have resisted the change, but I was focused on just playing the game. I had my whole life ahead of me, so my mind was open to the possibility of something else.”
4. Build a team of role models, mentors, and coaches.
Never be afraid to seek guidance. Find people that are a level up from where you are now to help you through challenges. And seek out coaches to help you see what you can’t see yourself. One of Emmitt’s mentors is Roger Staubach, former quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, who started a real estate company during the off-season. Emmitt received guidance from Staubach about starting a business. “We want things to be natural and as easy as possible, but when faced with a challenge head-on, surround yourself with people that have experience of where you want to go,” he said. Emmitt credits his little league coach for helping him realize he was better suited to play running back. “I absolutely love coaches,” Emmitt said. “They see the best in all of us, even when we don’t see it in ourselves. When you have great coaches, they bring out the best in you.”
5. Seize opportunities that line up with your passions and principles.
When it comes to deciding which new business challenges to put his energy into, Emmitt said his main criteria are whether he’s passionate about it and whether there is an opportunity for him to affect change in the most positive way. “For me, it’s about what I’ve been called to do,” Emmitt said. “If there’s an opportunity to affect change in an area that’s lacking, that I’m passionate about, I absolutely go all-in on it. Because when you go all-in on something that you’re passionate about, that means you go at it relentlessly and at the first bit of challenge, you’re not going to let it push you down, you’re going to keep fighting. If I have the resources around me to address it, then I would attack it. If I don’t, then I’m going to wait and be patient until I do run across the resources. That’s why I say you just keep moving instead of being on the sideline. You keep doing what you’re doing and keep your eyes open and ears open to those types of opportunities.”
6. Take responsibility and stay sharp.
To manage the intense pressure of having people depending on him, Emmitt focuses on creating quality habits. “To earn the trust of your teammates and your peers, that’s when it’s truly rewarding,” Emmitt said. “And the work that you’re putting in pays off. You don’t stay out all night knowing that others are counting on you. You make those personal sacrifices of yourself for the benefit of the entire team. That’s why the quarterbacks get the credit. When they win games, they get the credit. The bad part of it is when they don’t win, they also get the credit. Quarterbacks take on that responsibility. It is my job to do the same thing as a player and as a leader to make sure that I’m doing my part and trying to help others do their part as well.”
7. Don’t become complacent, stay committed to your goals.
To maximize his potential, Smith never lets himself be satisfied. He stays focused on constantly improving himself and his performance. It’s this whole-hearted commitment to his goals and performance consistently day after day that has made it possible for him to turn his dreams into reality. “When you win and you are successful at whatever it is that you’re trying to do, you want to be selfish about it because you want to stay at the pinnacle,” Emmitt said. “You want to remain hungry because Dwight Thomas (his high school football coach) told us, ‘Never become satisfied with anything. Because the day that you do, the growing stops.’ And that’s been my philosophy ever since. People asked me, ‘How did you become an all-time leading rusher?’ Well, you’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to be available. You can’t be missing work. You can’t be cutting things and taking shortcuts. There aren’t any shortcuts in life. Either you’re going to get on the grind or you’re not. And before you know it, it’s no longer a grind. It becomes fun because you’re building things that are sustainable. The things that I’m talking about right now were the building blocks to where my life was taking me without me even knowing it. They talk about 10,000 hours. Well, I have 10,000 hours in sports and I’m working on another 20,000 hours in business. And I’m going to do it until I go into the grave because I’m going to maximize every ounce of talent I have to be the very best version of myself.”
8. Give freely to others.
As you grow more successful, share your success and knowledge with others. After being named the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year his senior year in high school, Emmitt was awarded an all-expense-paid trip and two tickets to watch his first Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl in California. He took his best friend, Johnny Nichols. While at the game, he told Johnny that one day he was going to play at the Rose Bowl. Six years later, he played his first Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl, and his friend Johnny was in the stands watching him. “Success is there to be shared, not to be reserved for just you,” Emmitt said.
“It’s enjoyable when you have others to share it with. Knowledge is to be shared, not just remain in your head, but to be taken out and given to others freely. The reason why is because what you know, the nuances, others might not get it. And what’s for you is for you. And what’s for someone else to do with that information is for them. They’ll figure it out. But to help another one move along their path is all that we’ve been called to do.”
9. Maintain an attitude of humility.
Remember your humble beginnings and, despite your success, never see yourself as better than others. Also, command attention and respect, not by demanding it, but by earning it. “My mother always told me, ‘Son, treat people with respect and command respect at the same time,’” Emmitt said. “Humility is one thing that I’ve been able to home in on throughout the entire process. I try not to project myself upon others and try to carry myself as a normal approachable person versus walking around with this halo. I allow people to treat me the way they want to treat me or the way that they believe I should be treated. I don’t walk around with this expectation that someone is going to treat me special because of what I’ve done.”
10. Never forget it takes a team to be successful.
No one becomes successful alone. Never forget the importance of recognizing your team. After a game in his freshman year in high school in which Emmitt had eight carries, rushed for 245 yards, and scored two touchdowns–all in the first half–his coach allowed him to speak to the press. As Emmitt answered the press’s questions about the game, his answers were all focused on what he had contributed to the game without mentioning his teammates. “Afterwards, the coach put his arm around me, walked me back into the locker room and he said, ‘Listen, son, every chance you get, you share the spotlight with those five guys up front. You didn’t block for yourself. You didn’t hand the ball to yourself. And you definitely didn’t throw the ball to yourself.’”
The next practice, when Emmitt took off running to the line of scrimmage his entire offensive line laid down and he got hit by the entire defensive line. “I got up saying, ‘Coach, I got it, I got it, I got it,’” Emmitt said. “It was a lesson in humility. No one, I repeat, no one becomes successful by themselves. It takes everybody to be successful in every organization. Even at home, nobody can shoulder all this weight by themselves. I could not have become the all-time leader in rushing without the great wall of Dallas in front of me… I don’t care what anybody says, no one is successful by themselves. The people who are not the most recognizable in the organization are the ones who are doing a lot of the grunt work behind the scenes to make you and I look good. Our marketing teams are taking the skill sets that we offer and the service that we offer and making it and propping it up and selling it to the community.”
11. Engage in self-reflection to get better.
To get to the level of success you want to get to, take time to analyze everything after losses, setbacks, or mistakes. Look at what is working and what isn’t working. Ask hard questions such as if you executed your game plan and whether your competition is in better shape than your organization. When Emmitt was a freshman in high school, he was one of two freshmen that were allowed to play varsity. On his first day of practice, when they handed him the ball, he fumbled three straight times in a row. The offense coordinator grabbed him by the face mask, shook his mask, and told him he would never amount to anything if he couldn’t take care of the football because the football was the most important thing on the field.
“He made me feel small,” Emmitt said. “I was so mad and hot the next time I ran through the cornerback so bad I think I broke his collarbone. I was mad, but I was challenged to a level that made me start to focus on the things that were most important… If you want to become better at whatever it is that you’re trying to do as an organization, you must do self-reflection. You have to be able to analyze not only the good but also the bad. As a team, as football players, and as business owners, when we win, everybody is excited, and everybody is giving high-fives. But when we lose, everybody’s disappointed. Are you taking time to analyze the things that cost the game?”
12. Design your environment to dissuade negativity.
Pessimists are all around you. Protect your environment from negativity by hanging around positive people. Avoid people who have not experienced the success you’re looking to achieve and don’t understand your journey. While everybody has an opinion, they don’t necessarily have a clue about what you’re experiencing in your business. Emmitt likened it to asking a high school coach that doesn’t have any experience with pro football. Instead, find someone who has achieved what you want to achieve and is willing to share their knowledge with you.
“You are a product of your environment,” Emmitt said. “You absolutely must set up boundaries in every aspect of life. Positive-thinking people inspire others to be positive-thinking people, too. That’s not to say that we all have to think the same, but if you challenge me on a thought so I can find revelation within that thought and it works both ways, we are going to be cool all day, every day, because you have something to give me and I have something to give you instead of someone just sucking all the energy out of you.
Also, find people that have gone places that you have not gone and speak to those folks who understand what it’s like to go through that process. Naysayers are everywhere…Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have naysayers all over them. If you really want someone that’s been there, done it, and got a T-shirt for it, you find that person and then you ask all the questions you want to ask. If they’re willing to share it, they’re willing to share. If they’re not, find somebody else who’s been there because there’s someone on this planet that has been where you are trying to go.”
These principles are something that Emmitt lives day in and day out. He says when you are doing things on a repetitive basis, it becomes ingrained in you. “Make whatever it is that you’re doing become your lifestyle. Make your habits, quality habits, not just any habit. And at the end of the day, when you get done, you will look up and you will look back on your journey and you will see the process and the things that you put into becoming successful. As legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant said, “If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride, you will be a winner.’ The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards.”