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Sports

Tony, Emmitt, and the Links

A celebrity golf tournament in Tahoe provided a window into how two very different Cowboys stars are enjoying retirement.
By Mark Dent |
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Tony Romo is taking his time. He’s on the second hole of the second day of the American Century Championship at the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, a tournament better known in South Lake Tahoe as “Celebrity Golf.” The Saturday morning weather is as anti-Texas as it gets: crisp and 60 degrees and no reason to think about ERCOT. Romo uncharacteristically overshot his drive and landed in a patch of rough about 50 yards from the green. He needs to recover. So he paces back and forth to the green, examining the best trajectory. He politely tells a crowd of people to move aside and consults with his caddy, who stands by the green. He asks if there’s a rules official around (there isn’t). He takes three clubs out of his bag before settling on a particular wedge. More than five minutes pass between the time Romo first lines up his shot and when he actually chips it, just short of the green. Later in the day, a fan in the gallery will reflect on Romo’s long approach and say, “I could’ve gone to lunch and come back.” 

A couple of hours later, Emmitt Smith is taking his time, too. He’s strutting to his last hole of the day while smoking a preposterously fat cigar. The wind ripples off Lake Tahoe. Hip-hop music blares from his golf bag. While waiting on the tee box with Jerry Rice and Minnesota Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson, Smith finds out a fan is about to attend the University of Florida, his alma mater, so he invites him inside the rope blocking spectators for a photo. Then, he lets another young fan do the same for no reason at all. When he finally does tee off, he blasts a drive into the middle of the fairway while reciting a rap lyric, then erupts in a loud cheer as the ball soars through the air.

The two former Cowboys stars were having opposite adventures on the golf course, and yet both seemed fulfilled. They were living very different post-football lives in Lake Tahoe, befitting of their personalities and the way they’ve spent their retirements. 

Some 17 years since retiring, after sealing his legacy by breaking Walter Payton’s rushing yards record, Smith has eased somewhere close to Charles Barkley territory: the portrait of a jolly ex-athlete who basks in the devotion of longtime fans. “I was comfortable in retirement from Day 1,” Smith told the Star-Telegram in 2016. He’s been involved in several business ventures, from retail to helping organize a NASCAR Xfinity Series team with stock car driver and Carrollton native Jesse Iwuji. He did have a stint as a pregame analyst for ESPN, but it was short and on the type of show where a bunch of retired athletes laugh at nearly everything and don’t take themselves seriously. When he’s been in public view, it’s usually been for fun. Smith has been on Dancing With the Stars twice, winning once. In 2017, he danced as the rap group Migos performed their song “Emmitt Smith” in Houston. At the Super Bowl a few months ago in Los Angeles, he appeared at a Rob Gronkowski-hosted party with Flo Rida.

Even compared to most of the other celebrities and athletes in South Lake Tahoe, Smith seemed to be living it up, smoking that giant cigar, drinking champagne. After the last hole on Saturday, following many autographs and photographs, two middle-aged women walked up to him with an enormous bull mastiff on a leash. The dog’s name was Emmitt, and he had a Cowboys blue-and-white collar. Smith was happy to take yet another picture.  

Romo had admirers, too, many who have latched onto him for his analysis of NFL games and wizardry on the golf course. He actually won the American Century Championship on Sunday, charging back from an eight-point deficit (the tournament had an unorthodox scoring system) on the last day to win in a playoff on the 18th hole. In a press conference afterward, he talked about getting caught up in the competition, sounding like a quarterback in a postgame interview.

“You really lock in on exactly what you’re doing,” Romo said. “You don’t do a little bit of this or that—you’re like 100 percent, I call it.”

But it was clear he was approaching 100 percent the entire weekend. Standing next to Annika Sorenstam in another press conference on Friday, Romo talked about the nuances of Bermuda grass—“as the ball dies it starts to rip”—and on Thursday, shared how much he had been preparing for that important 18th hole.  

Romo, basically, was geeking out. And that’s a pretty good way of describing his choice retirement activities: he gets to be around golf and football and study both endlessly. I asked him if this was how he had always envisioned life after the Cowboys—still grinding, both as an amateur golfer and one of the most recognizable voices on NFL telecasts. He responded by thanking God for the time he gets with his family and then reflecting on his continued involvement in two sports he cares about. “I feel very fortunate,” he said.

It wasn’t the juiciest of quotes, but it was obviously sincere. And less than 24 hours after wrapping up the American Century Championship, Romo was slated to be back on the fairways, trying to qualify for the U.S. Amateur. Smith, meanwhile, is scheduled to be in Las Vegas for fan events later this week. There are people—and potentially bull mastiffs—to meet.  

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