Halfway through Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta, it actually looked like the Buffalo Bills might win a damn Super Bowl. This was their fourth straight trip and—after losing the previous three times (yes, that really happened)—they led the defending champion Dallas Cowboys 13-6. But then the Cowboys tied it up on a fumble recovery and return. And then the Bills went three and out.
And then Emmitt Smith effectively closed the door on the Bills’ chances by executing perhaps the most impressive series of running plays in Super Bowl history. Out of the eight plays on the drive, Smith rushed seven times, accounting for 61 of the 65 yards. The Bills never scored again—you could argue the franchise has never been the same since, actually—and the Cowboys cruised to a 30-13 win.
For Smith, it was the culmination of an incredibly successful ’93-’94 season. He became the first running back in history to win the Super Bowl, the league MVP, the league rushing title and the Super Bowl MVP in the same year. No one has done it since, either. (How he didn’t spend the next six months in a haze of nightclubs, strippers and cocaine is a testament to his discipline as an athlete and a human being. Seriously, would you be up for doing wind sprints after a year like that?)
“That drive was our way of saying, ‘Not today. We’re going to take control and we’re going to do it right now.’ ”
With the new NFL season soon to kick off—in an era where the running game feels like an afterthought—we caught up with Smith in New York to get the story behind that famous drive 20 years ago. And, believe it or not, gout.
So how would you sum up that drive in general?
To me that drive set the entire tempo for the second half of that Super Bowl. We ran eight straight plays, and seven of those plays were run plays. The same run play. It changed the whole entire energy of the stadium, the game itself, and it put us in control.
It seemed like it just broke their backs and broke their will. Both Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley were injured on the drive.
Yeah. And I think that’s the importance of having a running game. We get a chance to set the tempo and impose our will, as a running back and as an offensive unit. There comes a point in time when finesse is OK, but there’s also that point in time when you absolutely have to be extremely physical.
Was that the plan coming out of the second half? That when you got the ball back you were just going to run the same play over and over and just drive it down their throats?
No. Well, when we went in at halftime down 13-6, there was talk about getting back to the running game. Because I remember Jimmy [Johnson, the Cowboys’ head coach at the time] coming up to me and saying, “We’re going to run the football in the second half.” Norv [Turner, the offensive coordinator] came up to me and said, “We’re going to run the football in the second half.
Little did I know that Buffalo was going to fumble the ball in their first possession and James Washington was going to return it for a touchdown and tie the game up. And then in our first possession, little did I know that Norv was going to call six straight running plays. The very first time he called the power play to the right, I picked up almost ten yards. Then he called it again, and I picked up another five. So he called it again, and we just kept getting large chunks of yardage on that play, so he kept calling it all the way down. He called it six straight times.
Finishing the drive with a bruising 15-yard TD run, Smith psyched up the ’Boys, psyched out the Bills and made SI’s cover—as he did eight other times in the ’90s.
It was incredible. Can you describe the touchdown run?
The touchdown run, I actually got hit in the backfield by one of the defensive linemen for the Bills. He tried to tackle me with an arm tackle or trip me and I sidestepped it and kept my balance, and once I kept my balance the lanes were so big, I saw a clear pathway to the end zone and just made a couple of moves here and there and got down to the one, and it was over with from that point on.
What was your mindset on that drive? Were you determined, were you angry, or what?
Pure determination. Pure will. Just knowing that this game was important. We’re driving on them and they don’t know what has hit them. It was just pure emotion. And I was so excited because they gave me a chance to run the football.
It looked like you were jawing a little bit after a couple of those runs, too.
Well, I wasn’t jawing. Once we scored the touchdown, the intensity and the emotions of the game came out of me, because I knew what was at stake, and I knew what we needed to do, and it was our way of just saying: “Not today. We’re going to take control and we’re going to do it right now.” We hit them so hard with the run game that we felt like it was over. We felt like we were in control. And that’s what we wanted. From that point on the game was not the same. And I think Buffalo felt it too.
They never scored again.
Never recovered. And you hear teams talk about [when] momentum leaves the team and goes to the other side, you can see it happen in the course of the game? That’s exactly what happened. They lost the momentum, we regained it, and we never relinquished it. It was sheer dominance from that point on, offensively and defensively.
Anything but a bust: Super Bowl heroics—plus 21,579 all-purpose yards, 175 TDs and general awesomeness—earned Smith a Hall of Fame place in 2010.
Was there any thought at halftime that you guys might lose this game?
No. No. That never entered our minds. We came in and said we’ve got to play better in the second half because we didn’t play our best football. Also, once my offensive linemen knew that we were going to run the football, mentally, emotionally and physically, they took it to a whole other level. And I did the same exact thing. That’s the trust that we had in our coaches, that’s the trust that they had in our running game, and I think that’s what’s missing in today’s football game.
Would you consider that the greatest moment of your football career?
I wouldn’t say that was the greatest moment in my football career. There have been so many moments. One of the greatest experiences I’ve had was witnessing the soul of the game come out in the NFC Championship Game against San Fran when we lost it in ’94. Every man fighting, blood sweat and tears, trying to get back, trying to regain control of the game because we had turned the football over in the first three possessions, fell down to the 49ers 21-nothing. Every man on that football field and every man on that team would not quit. It was one of those things where we were going to fight to the death, and unfortunately for us time ran out. One play changed the entire game, and that’s the referees not calling pass interference on Deion [Sanders]. But it didn’t work out that day, bottom line.
Hey, switching gears in a major way here, I heard you have gout. What’s that?
Gout is a serious, painful form of arthritis, and I’ve had gout for four years now. My first gout flare-up occurred about four years ago, and it occurred in my right big toe, and it was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had since I retired from the game. It’s just something that no one really has to suffer through entire days the way I did. Once I got to the doctor they ran tests on me and X-rayed my toe and the blood tests came back showing I had high levels of uric acid in my blood, which meant that I was suffering from a gout attack. So they prescribed some medication, and I’m pleased to say I haven’t had a flare-up in almost a year now and I feel pretty good.
Do you think it was it caused from playing football?
I don’t think it has anything to do with football. I think it affects all of us.
Is it just a toe thing?
No, gout will attack just about any joint. Not necessarily a big toe. It attacked me in my big toe and it also attacked me in my pointer finger, my right pointer finger. Someone else it may attack them in the knee, it could attack them in the ankle, it could attack them anywhere. Bottom line is, when you are having that type of sharp pain and inflammation, it could be anything. You should get to your local doctor and have them test your uric acid levels and see where you are.
How are you feeling these days? Are you able to exercise?
I’m doing fine. I’m riding my bike. I’m playing golf. I’m walking, and I’m doing good. I don’t run anymore. There’s no need.
You did enough of that.
Yes I did.