When a celebrity's name appears in the title of an event, expectations run high. Such was the case with Communities in Schools of Tarrant County, which boldly called its new benefit Behind the Mask Featuring Emmitt Smith.
It was a risky event-switch for the organization that had been known for its sold-out, girlfriend-fueled "Wine, Women & Shoes" for several years. But, like the legendary Cowboys running back, the new event did not drop the ball.
About 400 people — many donning fun masquerade-style masks — gathered at Ridglea Country Club the evening of October 4 for the fundraiser chaired by Teresa and Clay Paslay and Karen and Bob Pence.
Guests, supporters, and committee members — including Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and husband Tom, Emily McLaughlin, Jeff Knepper, Azilee Stephenson, Lisa Mangels, Jeff Mangels, Danica Panosh, Ryan Akins, Kurt Schaal, and Holly Schaal — began mingling, sipping, and perusing an impressive array of silent auction items.
A wine pull "wall" was a whimsical touch: For a small contribution, a guest could ring a doorbell, and a hand would deliver a bottle through one of the windows surrounding it.
But the real action was at an exclusive reception, where VIP patrons got to greet Smith and pose for photos with him at a step-and-repeat. He kindly shook hands and chatted with each guest before the next one stepped up for a turn.
When everyone sat down to dinner, a quick video introduced the mission and impact of Communities in Schools, the nation's leading dropout prevention organization.
Then it was time for the main event. Smith took the stage and delivered an enthralling keynote address that, remarkably, lasted nearly an hour. He started by acknowledging Mayor Price, with whom he'd recently ridden in a charity bike ride.
"This guy's a heck of a bike rider; he beat me in the ground two weeks ago," Price told the crowd affectionately after they hugged.
Walking around the stage, Smith inspired the audience with anecdotes from his life and career, many of which were not short on humor about coach Jimmy Johnson's "perfect hair" and former teammate Michael Irvin's University of Miami "thug nation." He threw in some teaching and preaching, too.
A few highlights from his talk:
On friends: "Friends come into your life for a reason, a season, or a treason."
On people put on your life's path (in his case, NFL quarterback Jim Kelly): "It's amazing how God just put us in different positions, in different places, and put people in your life to help steer you along the way and to give you pointers and insights to help you continue this journey of life. And how, after that, we then have the ability to help others along the way."
On his decision to leave college at 20 years old to join the NFL: "As you grow up, you learn that in order to truly become your own man or woman, you have to truly learn how to trust the decisions that you make and be responsible for the decisions that you make. ... I called my parents and we all agreed that [joining the NFL] would be the right thing for me to do, but I had to make one promise to my mother: that I would go back and get my college degree."
On his faith in God's guidance: "To this day, I walk in confidence knowing that He has my back and He's opening up doors for me every day of my life. I don't take it for granted. I love every moment, I live every moment, and I live for the moment ... I had planned everything in my life, and I didn't know if it was going to turn out the way I'd planned it. But it turned out. And I'm so grateful. The one thing I never really, truly planned for was going on Dancing with the Stars."
On his biggest lesson from Dancing with the Stars: "I learned a very valuable lesson: Do not take yourself so seriously. Enjoy the moment and enjoy the process along the way because there are so many great lessons there. See, I had to learn how to let myself go because football had me in control of everything. Now, I'm in this totally different world, in this totally different space, I have to let myself go and let it go and start to release certain things into the atmosphere so I can be free — free of mind, free of thought, free of action, and yet still be responsible for what I'm supposed to do."
When Smith wrapped up to a rousing standing ovation, guests got a workout, raising paddles enthusiastically in a live auction for fabulous experiences and trips to faraway places like Nashville, Santa Fe, and Pebble Beach. A "live give" portion then allowed patrons to donate directly to the organization.
The dance floor filled quickly when Trey & the Tritones hit the stage for party tunes that kept the room moving and grooving. Then patrons picked up their photos with Smith at the door and began sharing them with all their jealous friends.
All told, Behind the Mask raised $215,000 for Communities in Schools, and organizers are already hard at work planning another highly anticipated event next year. During the 2018-19 school year, CIS served about 5,000 students with intensive case-management inside 53 Tarrant County schools. Of the students who received assistance, most improved their grades, attendance, behavior, and graduation rate.
Spotted throughout the night, having a great time, were Alison Peters, Elizabeth Peters, Randall Peters, Rachel Kreidler, Stefani Roberts, Michelle Barton, Amy Teague, Cameron Teague, Brian McConn, Sarah McConn, Sara Metzinger, John Metzinger, Sarah Wagle, Rebecca Petrovich, Robin Somers, Garrett Somers, Devin McChristian, Alisa McChrsitian, Jennifer Smith, Ricky Smith, , Cameron Vernier, Mallory Scott, Benjamin Sherman, Lauren Brown, Gabriella Torres, Roy Ibarra, Chelsea Magby, Veronica Watkins, Catherine Davenport, and Todd Davenport.