It already had been a grand trip by the time Emmitt Smith and his best friend reached the Rose Bowl on that January afternoon 22 years ago, just a couple of high school buddies loose in the big city.
Gatorade had chosen Smith as its National Prep Player of the Year, and the reward was an expenses-paid trip to Pasadena, Calif., and tickets to the Super Bowl. Smith was allowed to bring a friend, so he invited Johnny Nichols, his quarterback on the Escambia High Gators.
"We had five days at the Biltmore Hotel," Nichols said. "We really thought we were something else. But then we got to the game, and, you know, I'm just, like, 'Wow, I'm at the Super Bowl.' But Emmitt just looked out at the field and goes, 'Man, one day I want to be playing in this game.'"
He was back at the Rose Bowl six years later, playing as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. It was the first of three times he played in pro football's championship game, and the Cowboys won them all. Smith had 70 combined carries for 289 yards and five touchdowns in those games, but he was never better than in Super Bowl XXVIII at the Georgia Dome in 1994.
The Cowboys were tied in the third quarter with Buffalo and were having all kinds of trouble getting their offense going, but this was the time for big-time players - and none was bigger that day than Johnny Nichols' best friend.
The Cowboys were 64 yards away from the end zone when they got the ball after a Buffalo punt. Smith personally covered 61 of those yards, culminating in a 15-yard scoring run. Dallas took the lead and never gave it up, winning 30-13.
"We had been struggling so much on offense in the first half," Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said. "After the end of the half we just started feeding him the ball. It was really a signature drive for him."
Smith, the undersized, too-slow back from Pensacola, finished with 132 yards and two second-half touchdowns. He was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
Johnny Nichols was at that game, too. He was in the stadium for all of Smith's Super Bowl appearances.
"He brought us all out there, me and my family, and paid the way for all of us," Nichols said. "He told me, 'When I'm there, I want you with me.' That's the kind of guy he is."
Linebacker Darryl Talley was on the field that day for Buffalo, and Smith left a lasting impression
"After contact, Emmitt was a different person altogether," Talley said. "Once he got away from the initial shock, instinct took over. He'd hit the hole and he just knew whether to duck, slide, curl, whatever it took.
"Emmitt is a class act all the way. Not only was he a very tough competitor, but at a time when you'd see guys hanging around with their posses, Emmitt would walk by himself."
Smith broke Walter Payton's career rushing record in 2002 and will be an easy pick for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2010.
"He had a real great career," said another Hall of Fame back, former Chicago Bears great Gale Sayers. "He was a tremendous athlete and he had great teammates around him. I'd see him get 5 yards downfield and nobody had touched him. It seemed like he never got hurt."
Indeed, durability was one of Smith's trademarks. Smith carried more than 300 times in seven of his 15 seasons. He missed only six games during 13 seasons with the Cowboys before closing out his career with two seasons in Arizona. He had an NFL-record 11 consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing and fell only 25 yards short in the 12th.
His 164 rushing touchdowns are a league record by far.
"The yardage totals and all that don't tell the whole story. The numbers don't mean a lot to me," Aikman said. "What's important is that to achieve that, you have to play at a high level for a long time. Emmitt did that, so it's hard for me to distinguish what he did in the Super Bowl from what he did his whole career. He stayed healthy and he had great determination. When he came into the league, I think he told himself that he wanted to be great."