SALT LAKE CITY — For former NFL star Emmitt Smith, the experience of discovering one of his ancestors was unlike any touchdown or victory he ever experienced on the football field.
Her name was Mariah. She was a young girl when she was taken from West Africa and transported across the ocean on a slave ship to Virginia. From there she ended up in Alabama.
The Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame running back connected with Mariah as he stood in the remains of slave quarters on property where she once lived. Reading through documents found in the attic by previous owners, something profound happened when Smith read her name, the ex-Dallas Cowboy told the RootsTech audience at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
“At that time it started to rain and I felt this sense of spirituality start to come over me, like my ancestry and my ancestors was lost to me and my family. Now they’ve been revealed through this whole process of going back through time and finding them,” Smith said. “I had this sense that they was once lost, but now they are now found. And not only are they found, but I felt like their souls were released to heaven because their great-grandson, who’d never knew who they was, has actually taken a trip to go back and find him.”
Smith encouraged those listening to seek the same experience.
“Find out who you are, where you come from,” the retired NFL legend said. “Find out what makes you different than 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 is all about.”
The personal experience was one of many Smith shared during his hourlong keynote address at the 10th annual RootsTech Conference Saturday.
Elder Gary E. Stevenson, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson, were also featured speakers as part of the conference’s Family Discovery Day activities Saturday.
Knowing your roots and recognizing the Lord’s hand in your life were main themes in Smith’s remarks.
“Find out what makes you different than 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 is all about.” — Emmitt Smith
Smith, born and raised in Pensacola, Florida, recalled sitting on the floor as his father and friends watched a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints. Seeing how excited and fascinated they were with this game called football, Smith vowed to one day play for the Cowboys.
“You should have seen the look on my father’s face. I didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or cry,” Smith said. “But he told me something profound — ‘Son, life is going to give you some things that you are going to have to learn to overcome.’”
It was hard to understand as a 7-year-old, he said. But it was the first of many valuable lessons Smith learned over the years from influential people in his life.
“It’s amazing how people come into your life to give you direction and guidance,” he said. “God has a way of showing you your future, even when you’re not prepared to see it, and even when you’re not ready for it. He gives you a glimpse.”
Humility and forgiveness were among the lessons Smith picked up along his journey, he said.
Smith learned humility after giving his first media interview following a high school game. His comments to reporters focused mostly on himself. The next day in practice the coach told the offensive line not to block for Smith and he was creamed in the backfield. Lesson learned, Smith quickly told his coach.
Forgiveness came as he became aware of what his ancestors endured from their slave owners.
“I have forgiven people for some of the wrong they have done. ... Now I’m moving forward,” Smith said. “I would love to meet some of the folks on the other side of my family history tree, just to shake their hands and say, ‘Hello. I know who you are. I know what happened back then, but we all are moving forward now.’”
Smith told stories about playing college football and being drafted by the one team he told his father he wanted play for as a child. He talked about meeting people such as former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson and former Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, long before they played a role in his life.
He emphasized the importance setting goals. As a rookie he wrote down that he wanted to win a Super Bowl, be named an All-Pro and eventually surpass Walter Payton as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, he said.
“I was focused, I was committed, I was dedicated to the mission. I wanted to do something special and set myself apart,” Smith said. “And I did everything in my power to do such.”
Smith’s drive to succeed even carried over to winning season three of “Dancing With the Stars,” he said.
“We are all clothed with a measure of talent,” he said. “It is up to us to dig deep and find out who we are, to tap into those things and became passionate about whatever it is that you are passionate about. Then life itself is always fun.”
Elder and Sister Stevenson
Drawing upon Nephite war strategies in the Book of Mormon, Elder and Sister Stevenson instructed Latter-day Saints about the need to protect homes and families through temple and family history work.
“As the Nephite cities of old, we can fortify our homes and establish a defense and a refuge,” Elder Stevenson said. “Whatever your family looks like, it needs to be protected. What we observed time and time again is that the home is the most powerful defense and refuge for our families.”
The Stevensons offered a list of ideas for individuals and families to invite the spirit of Elijah into their lives:
- Discovering, sharing, recording and preserving stories.
- Recording and sharing personal testimonies.
- Passing down family names.
- Family history activities.
- Connect with and getting to know your family members.
- Fill out the “My Family” booklet.
- Establish meaningful traditions.
- Use technology to do good.
- Finding ancestral names and serving with your family in the temple.
While talking about the power of discovering stories, Elder and Sister Stevenson shared the stage with three young granddaughters and related the story of an ancestor named Mary Elizabeth Rollins, an early member of the church who gained a testimony by reading the Book of Mormon at a young age.
Elder Stevenson surprised his granddaughters and the audience by showing them the copy of the Book of Mormon given by Joseph Smith to Mary Elizabeth in Nauvoo, which contains a lock of the prophet’s hair and is now owned by the church.
It was early church member Isaac Morley who let Mary Elizabeth borrow a copy of the Book of Mormon. Elder Stevenson recently met Kayle Morley, a descendant of Isaac, at a stake conference in Moroni in Sanpete County. Kayle Morley and some of his family attended the Stevensons’ keynote Saturday.
“The paths that first crossed 190 years ago have now crossed again. This is the spirit of Elijah,” Sister Stevenson said. “There was no coincidence that the descendants of Mary Elizabeth and Isaac Morley were brought back together that day. It brought tears to all of our eyes.”
The next RootsTech conference will be in London Nov. 5-7. Register at rootstech.org.