Briana Taylor | Feb 29, 2020

RootsTech 2020: Emmitt Smith Inspires with Stories of Family History

In the last keynote session for RootsTech 2020, hundreds of hearts were touched by Emmitt Smith’s powerful stories—football stories, childhood stories, and also stories of his ancestors. Read these highlights to find inspiration for building your own story, past and present.

Emmitt Smith is NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Although famous for his football career with both the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals, he has also made an appearance on Dancing with the Stars.

In 2010, Emmitt’s family history story was featured in the NBC reality series, Who Do You Think You Are? With the help of a team of genealogists, he was able to trace his roots back to his enslaved ancestors in the South and then all the way back to Africa. Emmitt shared today how tracing his ancestor’s story gave him more of an understanding of where his drive and core characteristics have come from.

When Emmitt’s ancestors came to the United States, they came by way of slave ship. Along that route, he says, “[many of those slaves] died in the journey and were tossed overboard…My folk happened to make it all the way to Mecklinburgh, Virginia.”

While visiting Mecklinburgh himself, Emmitt learned of one of his family’s early leaders, Mariah. A slave at 13 years of age, Mariah walked from Mecklinburgh to Burnt Corn, Alabama. Her life’s mission, Emmitt shares, was to “keep her family together.”

Emmitt remembers finding a stack of books in a county office and unexpectedly finding Mariah in one of those books. It was the book labeled with “D-Book 22,” and Emmitt—whose jersey number is 22—felt inspired by this connection. He says that it was “confirmation…that I was predestined to…do the things that I was able to do, but…it all began with this young woman with the strength of a thousand people—holding her family together and not wanting them to be apart.”

Later, while reading more documents and sitting in the remnant of actual slave quarters in Cleveland, Alabama, Emmitt shared this thought: “I’m finding them right now…they were once lost, but they are now found. Not only are they found, but I felt like their souls were released to heaven—because their great-grandson who never knew who they were, has actually taken the trip to go back and find them.

Emmitt encouraged everyone to “do the same thing. Find out who you are and where you come from…Find out what makes you different from anyone else. Find out what’s inside of you that will give you the strength to not only go forward but also embrace what your past was all about.”

Moving to another ancestor, Emmitt shared the story of Frank Watson, who had seven kids and determinedly put them all through college. Emmitt feels he inherited his entrepreneurial tendencies from Frank and is following in this ancestor’s footsteps. Frank had a farm, and later started one of the first taxi businesses in the Cleveland area, and had a bus route as well.

Emmitt, after retiring from his football career, has built a prosperous real estate business and construction company. He is also striving to help all of his children lead successful lives—of his three children who are not at home, all are starting or finishing their secondary education, two with sports scholarships and one pursuing a career as an actor. Emmitt says that his kids are completely understanding of what their heritage and lineage are.

Remembering his childhood, Emmitt shared several stories from when playing football for the NFL was still a far-off dream—but one he was driven to fulfill. At age 7, Emmitt watched football with his father and said he would one day play for the Dallas Cowboys. Emmett’s father said, “Son, you’re going to have a lot of challenges.”

At age 8, Emmett was determined to play quarterback, but his plan was changed by a coach who saw his true potential as a rusher. At age 10, yet another football experience taught him the process of overcoming intimidation and brought out once again his drive for success. “Where does…that drive come from?” Emmitt asked.

Feeling like he “stands on the shoulders of giants,” Emmitt expressed his gratitude for his coaches, childhood heroes, and his ancestors, all of whom helped give him this drive and shaped his story.

Another young football experience taught Emmitt the importance of teamwork. “Listen, son,” one coach told him, “Learn to share the spotlight with those 5 guys up front.” Emmitt shared in his keynote that, “It took a team of people for me to do the research…for me to find Mariah and go to Mecklinburgh.”

Emmitt spoke of healing and forgiveness while at RootsTech as well, “I would love to see some of the people on the other side of my family tree…to shake their hand, to say it’s okay, we’re all moving forward now…” He further stated that, “We may have come from different parts of the world, different parts of the country…[but] we all have a lot in common. We are all human beings. We are people first, and nations and cities, and state second.”

Emmitt concluded his keynote by expressing, “We all are cloved with a measure of talent. It’s up to us to dig deep and find out who we are, and to tap into those things.” He also encouraged his listeners to find out what they are passionate about, and then life itself will be fun. “I love life,” he said. “I love people. And I love living my best life for Christ.”

Briana Taylor

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