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SIX YEARS LATER, EMMITT SMITH FINALLY GETS HIS COLLEGE DIPLOMA

Emmitt Smith made one of the best open-field moves of his life during the weekend. As usual, he wasn't tackled.

The Cowboys tailback, who set an NFL single-season record by scoring 25 touchdowns in 1995, reached another milestone by walking alone across a stage. He scored again - this time on behalf of higher education.Smith graduated from the University of Florida six years after he left college early to turn professional. In a time-frame context, earning an undergraduate degree in Health and Human Performance represents the longest run of his career.

"It was something I had left undone," said Emmitt, shortly before the Saturday morning ceremony.

Emmitt Smith returning to school isn't a big story. But it's a nice story about a celebrity athlete who did something good and decent as opposed to the other things your anointed stars have been doing around town. It contains a change-of-pace theme welcomed by the Cowboys, a team that has brought so much joy to local defense attorneys.

Smith could have decided he didn't need no more learnin' from any book unless it was a playbook. He'd been right in terms of earning power. His present NFL contract as it enters a fourth and final year is worth $13.6 million, which even exceeds the lifetime return on a degree in journalism.

Also consider that going to college takes time. My memory is, students are asked to attend class during their spare moments. So while Smith sat in a classroom, the pool hall was open and the gentlemen's club readied its midday special, fish were biting and the golf course beckoned, and if none of those pursuits appealed, he could've slept 'till noon.

Smith instead completed one semester in the spring of 1992 and another semester a year ago. A correspondence course helped complete 28-30 hours of credits he lacked after leaving Florida as an academic junior. Thus, 11 days in advance of his 27th birthday, Emmitt graduated.

"I made a promise to my mom and myself that I'd get it done, and now it's done," he said.

Classroom work is less strenuous than toting a football 35 times during a game. A further benefit in lecture halls is to meet much smaller people with less violent temperaments more likely to have shaved and used mouthwash that day. Yet education and athletics are alike in that each requires a want-to spirit of its disciples.

"It takes discipline to do anything," Smith agreed. "Like maintaining your weight. Staying in top physical condition. Being a student of the game. Discipline when you go to the line of scrimmage and listen to the cadence.

"If you're dedicated and believe in the cause, it's not a problem."

Smith also felt moved to obtain a college degree for a purpose - as an example that he practiced what he preaches to teenage students. Emmitt has been selling the value of higher education while thinking of himself as a phony prophet. There he stood, without a degree, going on and on about the importance of finishing college.

"This was important to me because I've done speaking to kids around the country trying to give them an insight on life," he said. "I've stressed getting back on top of education if they fall out of line. I've encouraged them not only to stay in school but pursue higher education.

"Here I was, speaking on that level as a three-year college student who didn't get a degree. It was kinda hypocritical. Now I can say, 'I have mine and here's the paper to prove it."

Emmitt spoke with pride and satisfaction. He should. It wasn't a big thing he did. But it was a good thing.

"Doing this was proving to myself that I could," he said. "If you're determined and disciplined and believe in what you're doing, you can get anything done."

Sorry, but that's the story. There's no sex and no scandal. No arrest or grand jury indictment. Smith's tale has been told without mention of alcohol or drugs. It unfolded minus conflict or controversy.

Therein lies the folly of writing about a player for the Cowboys who's done well for himself. Assuming it's fiction, no one will read it.