Early in the second quarter against the Washington Redskins on Sunday night, Emmitt Smith ran toward history, and this time he did not stumble, did not spin around and go backward. Two minutes and 22 seconds into the period, Smith ran for inches--inches that, finally, did not seem like miles--and set a National Football League record by posting his 124th rushing touchdown. Then, a mere five minutes later, Smith scored one more touchdown, breaking tackles, turning left and right all at once, eluding defenders as though he were smoke.
It was the exclamation mark at the end of a sentence that last season finished with a question mark. Now, no one in the history of the league has run for six points more often than Dallas' running back, who was only a few months ago deemed by the local press corps too old, too slow, too finished.
Only one season ago, Smith was left for dead on the Texas Stadium turf, asked every few minutes by the Valley Ranch locusts whether he was ready to concede that his legs were beginning to betray him. So often he heard the name Earl Campbell--symbolic of historic promise turned to early failure, a legend humbled by his own body--that perhaps Smith began to mistake it for his own. The same questions were often reiterated during training camp in Wichita Falls over the summer. After one practice on the frying-pan field at Midwestern State University, one TV reporter asked Smith, "What makes you think you can still play?" Smith, dripping with sweat as though he had just emerged from a swimming pool, turned to the reporter and said, "Because you think I can't." He flashed a screw-you smile, turned, then walked off.
If nothing else, 1998 proved that Smith and the Dallas Cowboys aren't at their end, at least not yet. The Cowboys finished the regular season accomplishing what no NFC East team has ever done: sweeping the division like a janitor on the last day of school. It is perhaps a meaningless distinction, one that should come with an asterisk next to it. After all, what are the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins, and the New York Giants but punch lines to the joke that has become the NFC Least? But there are still the playoffs to go, at least one more game yet to play on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Texas Stadium against division rivals, the Phoenix Cardinals. And there are those who will pick the Cardinals to win--the 9-7 Cards, who haven't seen a playoff game since 1982 and haven't won one in 50 God-forsaken years, when the Cardinals played in Chicago. Destiny, thy name is Jake Plummer?
The year ends for Dallas in a far different place than it began: with Barry Switzer on his way back to his still in Oklahoma, hat and pistol in hand. It ends with Dallas dreaming of Miami sunshine come late January; it ends with head coach Chan Gailey hailed as a genius, despite his team's tendency to play with the consistency of water. It ends with dreams of Super Bowls dancing in Jerry Jones' toupeed head. It ends with Daryl Johnston a resurrected hero, recovered from the sort of neck surgery that forever sidelines most men. It ends with Michael Irvin an emasculated disappointment. It ends with Patrick Jeffers emerging as the receiver of the future--or at least the Golden Richards of the 1990s. But thank God, it ends.
Against Washington during the first period on Sunday night--and so many other teams during recent weeks--Dallas looked so much like a mediocre team: driving, then stalling like an Edsel, until touchdowns became field goals, and sometimes not even that when Richie Cunningham couldn't convert. Throughout the first half, and so often against such woeful defenses as those fielded by New Orleans and Philadelphia, Dallas' offense was as effective as a castrated sperm donor; they didn't even shoot blanks (but they do shoot hobbled cornerbacks, don't they?). Still, Dallas continues playing after the game clock expired on Sunday night, and most likely Norv Turner will be out of a job come New Year's Day.
Yet in the end, Dallas sports in 1998 has provided nothing but disappointment, disgrace, defeat. The rest of the sporting world experienced unparalleled highs, prompting a breathless Sports Illustrated to insist this year was the Best in History. And indeed, from John Elway's finally-thank-God Super Bowl win to Mark McGwire's 70 historic homers to the Chicago Bulls' sixth NBA title (won on the shoulders of Michael Jordan), there has been much to cheer about, even from the press box, where such things aren't permitted. But in this town, not even the homers can spin 1998 into gold--even if you're sucker enough to believe it's not about winning or losing, but about how you play the game. Tell that nonsense to the ghost of the late, great Doak Walker, whose death hangs over 1998 like thick smog.
The Cowboys began the year going 6-10 under Barry Switzer, who resigned...no, surrendered...no, was fired. It began with Jerry Jones fumbling his way through a coaching hire, misleading the media and his candidates (namely Green Bay Packers assistant Sherman Lewis) until he hired a former offensive coordinator who has appeared in a God-almighty four Super Bowls...oh, and never won one.
In late spring, the Dallas Stars posted the best record in the National Hockey League, bringing to Reunion Arena the vaunted Presidents' Trophy. By June, they filled the trophy with frustration, losing to the Detroit Red Wings in a series that found the boys from Hockeytown shutting out the Stars to begin and end the six-game series that really wasn't much of one.
In September, the Texas Rangers barely won the American League West for the second time in three years, and the baseball world shrugged. Juan Gonzalez would eventually win yet another AL Most Valuable Player award, but it wouldn't mean much after the Rangers were absolutely humiliated by the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. Shut out, blanked, destroyed--as in, Texas scored a single run in three games against the Yanks.
And the Dallas Mavericks...well, they are best left to amnesia, save, perhaps, for that magical March night at Reunion Arena when Michael Jordan came to town and found out his cologne smelled like embarrassment. But the Mavericks' win against the eventual (ho-hum) world champs is such a distant memory, it's like a dream barely remembered months after the fact. It belongs to another time--one that hinted that perhaps the worst was behind us, that eight seasons of shame might lead to a better tomorrow. Wins over the Seattle Supersonics and the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks revealed that beneath the facade of disgrace were some men more talented than their pitiful record revealed.
Michael Finley and Cedric Ceballos (who likely will not even be back in a Mavericks uniform) performed on March 12 against Chicago as though it were Game Seven of the NBA Finals. They dropped shots that children dream about making when they lace up on the blacktop. Imagine taking on the best who ever played and proving that on that night, you were even better. But that moment has long since been lost to one more pitiful record--20 what-the-hell wins, 62 demoralizing losses--and a 1998-'99 season that appears as though it will never materialize. Oh, well.
At least there will be no shame on the Reunion Arena floor till next year...if then. If anything, those who have suffered are the concession stand workers and ushers and ticket-sellers and other little people who find themselves locked out by billionaires to stand with the millionaires out in the cold of winter. For their sakes, and only their sakes, pray the lockout ends sooner rather than later.
Leave Reunion to the Dallas Stars, who close the year as the best team in the NHL: unbeaten in 11 games after Saturday night's win over the Colorado Avalanche. Coach Ken Hitchcock has, once more, proven to be the master of the Team Concept. Not even Brett Hull, a man whose talent is bested only by his mouth, could destroy what Hitchcock so gloriously, so deliberately built the moment he convinced Mike Modano to play defense as well as offense.
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If the Stars don't win the Stanley Cup this season, especially after having beaten the Red Wings three times already this season (and twice at Joe Louis Arena, where Stars wins have been as rare as real strands of hair on Jerry Jones' head), then Tom Hicks will be the proud owner of a car that makes it out of the driveway but never to the highway. Modano insisted last year that the Stars' early exit from the playoffs did not signify "a wasted season." He will not be able to make such a claim should the same thing happen in 1999.
Speaking of which: When Hicks announced on January 7 he was buying the Rangers for $250 million, he spoke often of his desire to go out and sign a premier pitcher who would help get Texas not just to the first round of the playoffs, but beyond. Sitting in his plush office last February, Hicks often mentioned the name Randy Johnson, repeated it as though he could will the ace onto the mound at the Ballpark in Arlington. But Johnson and Roger Clemens and ex-Ranger Kevin Brown and so many other starting pitchers have since come and gone in free agency and draft rumors. So too has Todd Stottlemyre, who joins Johnson on the Arizona Diamondbacks squad. So much for buying the future.
Instead, a ghost of Christmas past returns five years after his agent decided Tom Schieffer wasn't offering his boy enough scratch to stay at home. There is no doubt that Rafael Palmeiro's a good ballplayer, but, uh, how many World Series rings did he win in Baltimore? Same as you did, sport. Perhaps Doug Melvin and Tom Schieffer know something you and I do not, something about fielding--and not pitching--winning baseball games. Tell that to Kevin Elster, who returned to the Rangers last spring an embraced hero and left in the middle of the summer a forgotten, discarded sacrifice. Or newly acquired starter Mark Clark, who comes from the Chicago Cubs bearing a 4.84 ERA. Funny thing: The Rangers' biggest acquisition so far this winter is a Heisman Trophy winner named Ricky Williams, who Hicks purchased for $100,000 from Montreal.
Perhaps 1999 will not be so disappointing. The Cowboys begin the year in the playoffs against a team they should beat; the Stars skate toward another shot at Stanley Cup immortality; the Rangers will do their usual belly flop, finishing second in the AL West; and the Mavs might not ever hit the floor. And Doak Walker can only die once.