Genealogy takes Smith on an emotional journey

Family has always meant a lot to Emmitt Smith.

But when it comes to tracing his roots, the former Dallas Cowboys star is no Alex Haley. Until recently, Smith admits, he knew his family history no further back than his grandparents.

Then he hooked up with NBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, the American version of a popular British TV show in which celebrities do genealogical searches that yield surprising and provocative results.

"I thought it would be a great way to connect to my family heritage and take a journey that would be very exciting and eye-opening," he says.

Smith got all that and more.

Not only can he now go back six generations to pre-Civil War slave ancestors, but he also unearthed evidence that his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather probably was a white slave owner.

The episode chronicling Smith's journey of self discovery -- which took him all the way to Africa, where, shockingly, he met children who today are destined to be sold into slavery -- airs at 7 p.m. Friday.

We talked with Smith last week about an experience that he will never forget.

What prompted you to get involved in this show and to explore your family history?

Considering that I missed so many family reunions over the years due to football and my commitment to become the best athlete I possibly could become, this provided me an opportunity to stay connected with my family.

Why do you think viewers will find your search for your roots of interest?

I think they will get a sense of some of the hurt and pain I was able to feel, especially when you start thinking about loved ones who were mistreated during the darkest times of American history. I think that in itself is moving. The message for me is that the legacy of Martin Luther King, where he envisioned a world of blacks and whites and Hispanics and all people coming together to work as one, is starting to happen and has happened. We just need to continue to move the ball forward.

One amazing moment during your quest occurred when you were seeking information about your great-great-great-great-grandmother in Mecklenburg County, Va. You found the info in Deed Book 22. That's the number you wore on the football field. What did you think of the coincidence?

I don't believe in things as happening coincidentally. I think that I was handpicked out of my family members to be the one to break that barrier. I think our destinies connected. When I go back and I find my great-great-great-great-grandmother Mariah in Deed Book 22 and the coincidence of me wearing 22 for my whole football career, when you connect all that together, it was meant to be.

How did you react to the revelation that there's a white slave owner in your family tree?

I wasn't completely overwhelmed by the fact that I had a white ancestor. But the thing that really bothered me the most was just the way that my white ancestors treated my people and how they looked upon my family members. They looked upon them as cattle. As a matter of fact, they looked upon them as less than horses. I'm just thankful that my heart has not been affected by that type of evil.

How meaningful was it for you to learn about your slave ancestors?

I just had an emotional connection, like my ancestors were crying out, saying, 'I once was lost, but now I am found.' I felt like I was on a journey to find those people and release their souls so they can go and rest in peace completely. For me, it was an incredible and emotional moment.