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Sunday, October 29, 2000

Jimmy Smith says problems with Cowboys are behind him

By Bill Nichols
The Dallas Morning News (KRT)

IRVING, Texas — Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith said he has no hard feelings. Of course, that's much easier to say now that he's one of the NFL's best receivers.

It was a much different scenario in 1993, when complications from an emergency appendectomy left him fighting for his life and complications with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones left him fighting for his salary.

“All that stuff in Dallas is behind me now,” Smith said. “If all that didn't go down, I wouldn't be in the situation I'm in today, and that's being one of the best receivers in the game.”

Since 1996, Smith has caught more passes (408) for more yards (6,043) than any NFL player.

But it took a lot of setbacks for Smith to reach his current status. After his injury-plagued stay with the Cowboys, who took him in the second round of the 1992 draft, Smith was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles, sat out the 1994 season, then started only four games in his first year with the expansion Jaguars.

In Dallas, Smith played behind Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper and Kelvin Martin. Although the Cowboys saw much potential in Smith, he broke his leg in training camp as a rookie, returned to play in seven games on special teams, then had the appendectomy the next year.

The Cowboys placed him on the non-football-illness list, which gave the club the option not to pay Smith his $350,000 in salary. That move also would have cost Smith a year's service toward pension, benefits and free agency.

Smith fought the Cowboys, saying their medical team was slow to diagnose his illness, which eventually caused the complications. Jones said he did not want to pay somebody for not playing if they did not suffer a football-related injury. An arbitrator sided with Smith, ordered the Cowboys to pay him $350,000 in salary for that season and reinstated the other benefits.

“The first issue was whether appendicitis is a football-related injury,” Jones said. “We didn't think so then, and we don't think so now. That's still a very questionable decision. When there were complications, all of that gave rise to how it was handled medically. That impacted the economics and the relationship with the team.

“It was an awkward situation. Our relationship with Jimmy was so strained that he couldn't see it through to the end. I knew that left a bad taste in Jimmy's mouth, and I regret the way the situation evolved. We still felt that Jimmy Smith had the chance to be an outstanding receiver.”

Smith said he learned a lot from Irvin and Harper. But the biggest thing that his short stay in Dallas, and his getting cut by the Eagles, did for him was serve as motivation.

“It was a business decision he had to make,” Smith said of Jones. “At the time, I didn't like it. But it made me grow up faster. I channeled all that negativity and turned it into positives. I was considered a second-round bust, but I knew I wasn't a bust. I wanted to prove to the world that I wasn't. When I came down here, I was on fire.”

When Smith signed with the Jaguars as a free agent, he worried about being on an expansion team. But he credits coach Tom Coughlin with providing him with the confidence he needed.

After catching only 22 passes his first season, Smith had 83 receptions in 1996, 82 in 1997, 78 in 1998, then 116 last season.

“Jimmy Smith never had a chance here,” Cowboys coach Dave Campo said. “He never really had the opportunity to show what he could do. He never did in Philadelphia, either. All of a sudden he lands in Jacksonville, and he is one of the best receivers in the league, period.”

All of Smith's memories of Dallas are not bad. That's where he met his wife, Sandra, and where many of his relatives live. He said he just recently sold his home in Plano.

“I won two Super Bowl rings in Dallas,” Smith said. “That got me the taste of it. Now I want another.”

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