There are two Emmitt Smiths. There’s the record-breaking running back who played for fifteen seasons in the NFL and won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys during the 1990s. And then there’s the other Emmitt Smith, the dancing champion who goes by the nickname “Twinkle Toes.” That Emmitt Smith won Dancing with the Stars in 2006 and is currently a leading contender for a two-peat in the show’s “All-Star” edition, which continues Monday night on ABC. If you’re familiar with Emmitt Smith the football player, it can be confusing to watch Emmitt Smith the dancing machine, especially when he wears a leopard-skin cummerbund, as he did last week. (If you missed the episode because you were watching Tony Romo get his ass handed to him by the Chicago Bears instead, well, it’s hard to say if you made the better choice.) We can only guess what Smith will be wearing tonight, but we hope it won’t look so much like a prom tuxedo from 1986.
I called Twinkle Toes late last week to talk about dancing injuries, trash-talking, and Dancing with the Stars judge Bruno Tonioli. If nothing else, Smith’s almost constant laugh made it pretty clear that he finds his second career as weirdly unexpected as we do.
Eric Spitznagel: Let’s call this thing right now. Are you going to win Dancing with the Stars again?
Emmit Smith: [Laughs] No. Not even close.
You’re going to lose?
I don’t know about that. I have no idea. It’s kind of hard to call anything. One week you’re at the top, and the next week you’re in the back. One week you think somebody’s going home, and then all of a sudden they’re saved and somebody else is gone. This show is very fluid that way. You just got to take it one week at a time, like you’re playing a football game. And you cannot underestimate your opponents.
Who’s your biggest competition?
That’s hard to say. This is a dance contest, but a lot of it’s based on fans and who calls in. Nobody really has any idea how big somebody’s fan base is.
You could ballpark it.
Yeah, but that doesn’t mean they’re picking up the phone. And it changes and grows from week to week.
Have you seen the Vegas odds for Dancing with the Stars this season?
I haven’t, no.
Do you want to know?
You’re in the lead with a 3/2 chance of winning. Apolo [Anton Ohno] is a close second with 7/2 odds.
That’s okay, I guess. But I also saw the Vegas odds before the Packers-Seahawks game. They didn’t predict that referee was going to make a bad call.
So you’re saying don’t trust early predictions?
Exactly. At the end of the day, all of that stuff is up in the air. Anything can happen. I just have to learn my dances and try to perfect my craft as much as possible. And then let the chips fall where they may.
You talked some smack last week.
The stuff about not being intimidated by an actor or Indy racer or speed skater?
Yeah, that. Do you regret having said it?
First of all, the show’s producers cut it to make it look like I was going after those guys. If you know anything about me, I’ve never been a trash-talker. That’s not even part of my DNA. I have a great deal of respect for their dancing as well as their athleticism and acting abilities. And they didn’t even show the entire clip. That’s the power of cutting and editing.
You said more?
They said more. The question proposed to me was, “Are you intimidated by Apolo and Hélio [Castroneves] and Gilles [Marini]?” They only mentioned those three people. They didn’t pick any of the other contestants, like Sabrina [Bryan] or Shawn [Johnson] or anybody else. Just those three guys for some reason. And I was like, “Come on, I’ve been hit by 300-pound linemen.”
You don’t intimidate easily.
I really don’t. But I don’t think they should be intimidated by me either. Apolo understands that, and so does Hélio. They have no reason to be intimidated by me. These are pretty good-looking guys. Why would they be intimidated by me?
I don’t think the question was about who has better cheekbones or looks better in jeans. They were probably talking about dancing.
It’s the same thing, no matter what you’re doing. In my sport, intimidation isn’t a part of the vocabulary. You have to want to win as bad as the other guy does. So just go out there and do your best. I can only control what I do. I can’t control what other folks do.
What’s the mood like backstage? Is everybody friendly, or is it cutthroat?
It’s very friendly. Everybody’s having a good time and enjoying each other’s company. I’ve never seen something adversarial.
Is there any spontaneous dancing, like the “Hot Lunch” scene in Fame?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
It’s more casual dancing. You’re all waiting to go on, so there are people practicing their routines, going over their steps, myself included. It’s just a part of dealing with the tension before a show.
What’s your Achilles’ heel? Is there a dance genre you’re not looking forward to?
Maybe the tango. I got my worse score during season three for a tango. But you can blow it for anything. If you caught the judge’s comments last Monday night, they were talking about my posture and all kinds of things. You have to understand, my physical body is a lot different than Apolo’s or Hélio’s. I have muscles in areas that some of them may not have muscles in.
Like where, for instance?
You can just see it in our bodies. I’m not as long or lean as some of them. I don’t have the body for ballroom. So I work with what I have.
How much convincing did it take for you to do this show?
I was a little hesitant the first time because the show was fairly new, and I didn’t know how it’d be accepted by viewers. And I didn’t want to be a guinea pig.
It was a risk.
It was a huge risk. Especially for somebody in my line of work.
Except for Lynn Swann, we don’t usually think of football players as dancers.
Well, that depends on the style of dancing we’re talking about. There’s a lot of dancing in football. You can see Victor Cruz doing a little bit of a cha-cha or samba move in the end zone. You can see Terrell Owens getting his popcorn ready. You can see Ochocinco doing the Riverdance. But not so much when it comes to ballroom. You rarely see athletes do anything that sophisticated or elegant on a football field.
Did you have dancing experience prior to Dancing with the Stars?
This is my first experience with ballroom as part of my dancing repertoire. I never thought I’d really enjoy it, or have an opportunity to use it.
Do you ever say to your wife, “Let’s hit the clubs tonight and do some dancing?”
Some ballroom dancing?
Most clubs don’t have ballroom dancing. You’ve got to go somewhere specific.
Well, how about that?
No, that doesn’t happen. That’s not even a topic of conversation.
Are there other football players with dancing potential? Who could feasibly follow in your Dancing with the Stars twinkle-toe steps?
It’s hard to say. I never would’ve thought Donald Driver would be interested in the show. I never thought Hines Ward would be a guy who would be doing ballroom. And these are former athletes who have actually taken it to the dance floor and become champions at it. So it’s kind of hard to predict.
What about Tony Romo?
As a dancer?
Yeah. Would he make a better dancer than a quarterback?
I don’t know. I truly don’t know.
Have you been watching the Cowboys lately?
Well, fortunately for me, I did not see the debacle last Monday night. We were performing while the game was happening.
You didn’t miss anything.
That’s what everybody in the Twitter nation told me. I was trying to figure out what happened, what I missed, and they were like, “Don’t ask.”
So what’s the prize for winning Dancing with the Stars? It’s like a mirror-ball trophy or something?
That’s it exactly. A trophy with a mirror ball on it.
Do you still have the season-three trophy? Is it in your house?
It’s in my house right now. That’s always the first thing people want to see when they come over.
Really? They don’t ask about the Super Bowl rings?
No, no. It’s the mirror-ball trophy. That’s the famous one.
That blows my mind.
It’s not like people come over just to see the trophy. But whenever my wife and I are hosting a charitable event at our house, someone usually asks about the trophy. And the moment it gets mentioned, the whole room changes. People stop talking, they all stare at me, and they ask to see it. They want to take pictures with the trophy or hold it, things like that.
Most novices wouldn’t know it, but dancing is dangerous, right?
It definitely is.
Apolo had a close call last week after a head-butting mishap in rehearsal. Were you surprised at how many ways you can get hurt on the dance floor?
I was. First of all, getting adjusted to dancing in three-inch heels is a danger all in itself. You can twist an ankle or twist a knee. And the knee performances, whether you’re going down on one knee or sliding across the floor — all of those have potential dangers. It’s one of those things where, if it’s not respected in the right way, it can actually come up and bite you.
Have you ever been injured from dancing?
Oh, yeah, lots of times. I tweaked a groin muscle last week.
You mean pulled?
No, I just tweaked it.
How does that happen? Is it from being 43 years old, or just not stretching enough before a dance?
It’s a combination of both things. It’s not being limber enough beforehand, and just being old and having brittle bones.
Can dancing be just as dangerous as football?
Well. Yes. I would say yes.
I would not have guessed that.
Here’s the thing. As a former football player who has carried a football more than 4,000 times, trust me, I did not go into ballroom dancing with my body being 100 percent, with no aches or pains or ailments coming with me. When you’re dancing, you’re doing stuff that your body’s not used to, and so you start to aggravate those old injuries. Let’s not be naive about it.
On last Monday’s show, am I mistaken or did [judge] Bruno [Tonioli] meow at you?
Yeah, he did meow at me. Because we danced to “Cool Cat in Town,” and we had leopard prints on our outfits. It was an appropriate meow.
Are you surprised sometimes by what comes out of Bruno’s mouth?
Always. Every show, I expect something great and surprising to come out of his mouth.
We put together a little test for you.
I’ll give you a quote, and you tell me if it was said by Bruno or your former employer, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones.
Okay, cool. I can do that.
Who said this? “You cheeky bugger. Why did you put your pants on?”
Yes. How about this one? “He’s got one of those nice bubble butts.”
No, sorry. That’s Jerry.
Are you kidding me?
I’m not kidding you.
“Good bum action. You learn how to use it, and there’s no stopping you.”
Oh, that’s got to be Bruno.
Yeah? I think I’m sure, but now you’ve got me nervous.
You’re right. It’s Bruno.
Oh, thank God.
You’ve got two out of three. Here’s another: “All I can say right now is that he looks good in the shower.”
Okay, I don’t want to be wrong about this. That’s… Jerry?
Perfect. “You’ve got thighs that could crack a walnut.”
Wow. Thighs that could crack a walnut? That’s a tough one.
You could go either way with that.
Yes, you could. You really could. But I’m going to say it’s Bruno?
You’re right. Last one, for the money: “I’ve been here when it was glory-hole days and when it wasn’t. I want me some glory hole.”
[Laughs] That’s definitely Jerry Jones.
Your lack of hesitation is disturbing.
No comment. [Laughs.]
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)