Arizona coach Dave McGinnis was once a member of the Chicago Bears and saw what veteran stars and future hall-of-famers like Walter Payton, Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton brought to a locker room.
So when the Dallas Cowboys cut loose the NFL's all-time rushing leader, Emmitt Smith, at the end of last season, McGinnis was the first guy to take a ticket and get in line.
He negotiated with both money and the one thing Smith most wanted to hear about - a starting job - and certainly hasn't been disappointed.
“As soon as Emmitt became available I made a big push to get him,” said McGinnis, who takes his Cardinals to Ford Field for today's regular-season opener against the Detroit Lions. “From day one, since he decided to be on our football team, he has been nothing but superlative. Everything he does, there is an aura that surrounds him. He just emanates positive energy and it has been so good for this team.
“He was the first person in the building during the off-season program. He's the first one in the weight room. He's the first one in the meeting room. The things that he has done are not done with any kind of flash. He doesn't want any star recognition. Emmitt Smith is not a prima donna.
“There is a huge difference between a prima donna and a superstar. He is a superstar.”
The Cowboys thought Smith was a superstar whose time, and legs, had passed.
He has been given this chance to prove them wrong, but the motivation does not solely lie in bumping up his NFL-best rushing total of 17,162 yards, some 5,500 yards more than any other active back.
“My motivation and my goal is to help this team get back to the playoffs and hopefully have a chance to compete in a championship game,” said Smith, whose first carry today will be the 4,053rd of what will officially become a 14-year career. “That's my major focus and that has been my approach to any season.
“In going through the season, if I'm able to be healthy and able to do my job the best I can, records and yardage will all stack up at the end. I'm not concerning myself with furthering or distancing this record because it will occur naturally.”
It should do just that considering the strength of the Cardinals' offense is a huge and experienced offensive line - better than the one Smith had in recent years as his production tailed off in Dallas - and a superb lead-blocking fullback in 270-pound James Hodgins.
McGinnis will have to deal with splitting playing time between Smith and the promising Marcel Shipp, who rushed for 834 yards and nine touchdowns last year as an undrafted free agent.
“Emmitt Smith is our starter,” McGinnis said. “He is in tremendous condition and all I know is that he has looked great running the football. I am looking forward to seeing how it works out on Sunday.”
New Lions coach Steve Mariucci, as appreciate of Smith as anyone, knows his team has more than one famous back to contend with today.
“Shipp is a good back, too,” Mariucci said. “They have a big offensive line, big and physical. They are going to want to run the football. That has been their thing and it's why they were 4-0 in the preseason. They've been rushing for 180 yards a game and they like to play smash-mouth. Emmitt Smith is as good as they come, so we have to stop the run.”
Smith says he has no problem in splitting time with Shipp.
“I think Marcel is a great back and can carry the load if need be,” Smith said. “But I think the ball is going to be handed to me to start the game and we'll see how everything works out from that point on.”
How everything works out may depend on how effective the Cardinals' new quarterback, Jeff Blake, is with an untested stable of receivers. It will be up to the passing game to keep eight or nine defenders out of the box keying on Smith.
“He's a spectacular football player, we all know that,” Mariucci said of Smith. “He's a heck of an individual, a very talented man. I'm happy to see him continue his career even though it's with a different team. He's good for the NFL.”