Column: Fans Can Determine Real Rushing Champion

If Emmitt Smith is within striking distance of the NFL rushing record entering the November 3 contest between Detroit and Dallas, what emotional chord will be struck within the Motown faithful? Better yet, how will they respond? What reception will they give Smith, and what message will that send to the man that used to electrify their Sunday afternoons?

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Joey Lafferty -

The triumph? Inevitable. How worthy the victor? Well, that depends on who you ask... but to the chagrin of the naysayers, there'll be no popular vote, and no veto power exists. This one's simply a matter of numbers. Better the man on top, and the record is yours.

The reception? Ah, that one's a matter of logistics. Location, location, location. Play it out in the Windy City, and the response is bound to be as cold as a December Chicago night. The scheduling gods, however, made sure the passing of the torch will not take place there.

How about in the home town of the soon-to-be-crowned all time rushing king? This insures a celebration befitting the accomplishment. Marks like this don't fall every day, and there's no surer way of guaranteeing a good time for all than having the moment occur on the man-of-the-moment's home turf.

Eight of the sixteen games will unfold there, within the semi-roofed confines of Texas Stadium, home of some of the finest teams of the past decade. If you were putting money on any NFL stadium, this would be the wise bet.

Still, while there is no chance Emmitt Smith will become the all-time career rushing leader playing the team of the record holder, there exists a real chance he could do so against the team of the man many believe is the honor's most deserving owner.

Emmitt Smith stands a mere 539 yards away from Walter Payton's record of 16,726 career rushing yards, meaning that barring injury, or a surprisingly strong start, Smith will break the record sometime around midseason.

The Cowboys' eighth game of the 2002 season will be played at Ford Field. In 2001, Smith averaged around 72 yards per game. A repeat of this pace would put him less than one-hundred yards away from the record when Dallas travels to Detroit.

Of course, this might not happen. NFL seasons rarely unfold as expected these days, so we're just as likely to see the record fall on another autumn Sunday. In recent years, we all know, "current paces" and preseason expectations now carry about as much weight as a Bud Selig guarantee.

The possibility, nonetheless, is intriguing. If Emmitt Smith is within striking distance of the record entering the November 3 contest, what emotional chord will be struck within the Motown faithful? Better yet, how will they respond? What reception will they give Smith, and what message will that send to the man that used to electrify their Sunday afternoons?

Things weren't supposed to happen this way. Walter Payton toppled Jim Brown from behind a less-than-stellar offense line surrounded by, for the better part of his career, talent more befitting a strike-season roster. Sweetness banged, scraped, and crawled for every yard he got. Payton earned yards.

NFL fans would have been all too happy to see the smiling face from Jackson State forever reign supreme. Yet, at the end of Payton's decade of dominance, another running back entered the fray and proved just as worthy of greatness.

Like Sweetness, Barry Sanders earned every yard. While he didn't endure the pounding assured by Payton's confrontational running style, Sanders too found himself surrounded by multiple defenders very soon after taking the hand-off on most carries.

Walter Payton dared every approaching defender to be the first to deliver (or more accurately, absorb) a blow. Sanders challenged the first man to get a hand of him. However different their styles, however, what these two greats shared was the mediocre talent usually surrounding them.

If any of this generation's running backs was destined to topple Payton, it was Barry Sanders. No other back captured the imagination of America like the "undersized" artist, but as we all know, Sanders decided to call it quits while in him prime and just 1,457 yards away from the record.

In the meantime, another great back entered the league just one year after Sanders. Emmitt Smith, erstwhile Florida Gator, joined a dynasty in the making in 1990. Smith would make his way past Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown, and Barry Sanders behind one of the greatest offensive lines of all time. His skill position teammates were nothing to sneeze at, either, including the likes of perennial Pro Bowlers Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Moose Johnson, and Jay Novacek.

If capturing the career NFL rushing title were analogous to reaching the Super Bowl, Sanders and Payton were dumped outside the stadium, ticketless, their "wanted" mug shots plastered at every entrance. Smith, meanwhile, is receiving a chauffeured limo ride into the building, police escort in tow. Certainly, Smith is an excellent football player. It's his talent and determination, combined with these fortunate circumstances, that have propelled him to the top.

Oh, but here we are again, debating merit when we have no say in the outcome. It's no longer a matter of if, but when will Emmitt Smith lay to waste Payton's record. Those envisioning a different outcome all those years have only one thing left to do... get used to it.

Barry Sanders' abrupt exit left Lions fans begging for answers, and the fact that his departure came on the eve of training camp meant the masses would pile up against him as he, with one little press release, wiped out any chance for success in the upcoming season.

If fans were content with the decade full of memories, they had a funny way of showing it. Daring to reemerge after a brief stint of reclusion, Sanders found himself, image blasting off the JumboTron at The Palace, the subject of overwhelming boos.

Though the novelty of the situation has worn, and the venom of the occasional unforgiving fan has diluted, an official reconciliation has still yet to occur. Not that Barry has begged his way back into the hearts of the city he once ruled. If Sanders had been projecting a Bat Signal from his residence over the past four years, warning all members of management from Bobby Ross to Matt Millen, it would have painted the sky "Keep Away!"

Yup, something isn't right. Yes, Sanders is an oddball of sorts... and yes, unlike most other cult heroes, he failed to deliver his followers to the mountain top. But does this mean the star and the city can't share an everlasting bond? Does it make sense for so many things to be left unspoken that need to be said in one way or another? No!

Of course, Barry Sanders will never be Ozzie Newsome. He'll never call the shots for this or any other NFL franchise, pulling all-nighters trying to land talent while crunching numbers to stay under the cap. That's simply not Barry. Nor will he become the B.J. Armstrong of Bill Ford's empire, meeting-and-greeting visiting free agents, letting them know This is the place to be!

Nevertheless, Barry Sanders is a Detroit Lion. He entered the league a Lion, and he retired wearing the Honolulu Blue and Silver. But again, because of his own stubbornness and quirkiness, he never received the good-bye lavished upon the Elways and Marinos.

Don't hold his reluctance to embrace the past against him, however. After all, the aforementioned Hall of Fame-bound signal callers didn't have to endure the same annual emigration of talent as Sanders, who on several occasions saw management all but push his best blockers out the door.

What Barry deserves is an official sendoff that simultaneously says Welcome Back! If, in fact, Emmitt Smith becomes the all time career rushing leader in front of a stadium full of Lions fans, showering the Cowboy runner with jeers just won't get it done. "Sour grapes!" the announcers will declare.

No, what each and every of the 65,000 should do, if the moment occurs, is shout "Barry...Barry...Barry!" at the top of his or her lungs until the roof of the new stadium damn near blows off the building and the ground quakes as it did on the day Barry broke 2,000.

Rude? Perhaps, but good ole' Emmitt shouldn't take it personal. This isn't about him. This is about the city of Detroit making the best of their only opportunity to say thanks to the greatest player they ever had. Bringing up his name at any other time is rightfully viewed as living in the past, not allowing the new talent to emerge and stake claim to a new franchise identity.

This occasion, on the other hand, would have Barry written all over it. Unavoidable, undeniable. That's his record, even if he said with much authority, "No thanks." If and when the walls of Ford Field battle to retain the deafening chants of the icon's name, a name that, like Michael, Madonna, and Tiger requires no further explanation, the city of Detroit will be sending a signal to America, to the fans back in Dallas, and to the man himself.

To the rest of the NFL-loving country, the city of Detroit will be saying "We once had a superstar too, and you shouldn't soon forget him." To Cowboy fans watching in, hoping to share the glorious moment with their hero, the message will be very clear: Your guy might have brought you ultimate glory, three Super Bowls and now this hard earned achievement, but he never was in the same league as Barry Sanders. You'll forever have the titles and the record to happily reflect upon, but this moment belongs to Barry.

To Barry, the meaning behind the chants of 65,000 Motowners will be twofold: 1) While we'll never embrace the way you left us hanging, we're ready to again embrace the legend and the memories. 2) For better or worse, there's a new era starting here in downtown Detroit... here's a key to the new place, come and go as you please.

As mentioned before, things might not even play out this way. The gods of fate sometimes seem to have a twisted sense of humor, though, now don't they. Just as McGwire blasted the record breaking home run home run past an outfield manned by Sammy Sosa, it almost seems preordained that Emmitt will have to capture glory in front of the one city who knows for a fact he's not the most deserving.

So if the mark is in fact toppled in the city of Detroit, on the newly christened turf of Ford Field, the outpouring of emotion should be unanimous and overwhelming. The longer the in-game ceremonies carry on, the louder the chants should get. The moment should become so momentous that it's the lead story on Sportscenter and local sports newscasts for days, and not because of the magnitude of the accomplishment.

This would be the last real chance for a building full of Lions fans to say thanks to the greatest player in franchise history. If the opportunity presents itself, every last member of the 65,000-strong audience should take full advantage. Players like Barry Sanders don't come around very often.

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