A legend in the running

Phoenix are steeling themselves for a Cowboy whose stardom has no end zone.
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FOR the last game of the 1993 regular season the Dallas Cowboys travelled to New York to play the Giants. Contests between these divisional rivals are always intense, but the Cowboys had additional reasons for giving their all, with victory guaranteeing them home advantage in the play-offs.

Emmitt Smith, who will lead the line when the Cowboys take on Pittsburgh Steelers in tonight's Super Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona, began the Giants game in prime form, claiming huge chunks from a sadistic defense. Then, with the Cowboys ahead and the second quarter coming to a close, Smith's right shoulder was dislocated in a brutal collision. Watching from the sidelines in the second half Smith saw the Giants rally, and told his head coach Jimmy Johnson to put him back in. And give him the ball.

The match went into overtime, and in a compelling final drive the Cowboys advanced 51 yards before kicking the winning field goal. Of the 11 plays in that series Smith was involved in nine, including one where he stiff- armed Lawrence Taylor. With his bad arm.

Even by the stoic standards of the NFL, where playing with injury is legitimate working practice, it was a remarkable effort, the more so when his team-mates saw Smith suffer horribly on the flight home. "You can write about what he did against the Giants, but it would never equal what we felt that day for Emmitt," said Nate Newton, one of the linemen who blocked for Smith. "It was an intense moment, a touching moment for us all. He set the standard for every play on this team. He went beyond what I had seen. Emmitt, man, is the man."

Smith's effort did not just impress his colleagues. Though he was already a household name, it took his superstardom to a new level, an alteration in status that he viewed with mixed emotions.

"I find it ironic that people use that particular game to associate me with the word 'great' or 'unbelievable', despite all I have accomplished. It took me to be hurt and to continue to play for people to say, 'This guy is in a class by himself'."

The Cowboys went on to win the Super Bowl, with Smith's routine brilliance netting him Most Valuable Player award. They return to the big game today with a new head coach and different opponents, but once again Smith will be at the heart of their operation.

The Cowboys' path to this year's Super Bowl has hardly been smooth, but for Smith it has been considerably less painful than that of two years ago. Indeed it has been one of relentless achievement, even by his own other-worldly standards.

Just before the campaign began, Michael Irvin, the Cowboys wide receiver, confided in Smith that he was concerned that the San Francisco 49ers, who took the Cowboys' Super Bowl title last year, might have the edge in terms of talent. Smith told him not to worry. "You haven't seen me run yet," he said. "This season I'll run like I need to run."

Smith was as good as his word. On his first play of the season (against the Giants) he rushed for 60 yards, finishing the game with 163 yards and four touchdowns. Then it was Denver's turn, Smith chalking up another 114. "He's a warrior. If he isn't the best running back in the league, I don't want to face the guy who is," a dazed Mike Shanahan, the Broncos head coach, said.

By the end of the regular season he had gained 1,773 yards, his highest return after six years as a pro, and scored 25 touchdowns, establishing a new single-season record for the NFL. In the NFC Championship game a fortnight ago again Smith did the damage, his 150 yards and two scores ending the resistance of the Green Bay Packers. The Pittsburgh Steelers know that to win they must stop him.

The question is not so much whether he is the best running back of his generation - only Detroit's Barry Sanders comes close - as whether he is the best of any generation. Jim Brown and Walter Payton are widely regarded as the greatest the sport has produced, but Smith may be about to join them in an elite trio. Arguments about their relative gifts will never be resolved but injuries permitting, Smith, who is only 26, will almost certainly surpass the 12,312 yards Brown accumulated in nine years. So far he has 6,956 in six. Payton's NFL record of 16,726 represents a more distant horizon, but one Smith has in his sights.

His detractors point out that by playing behind the best amalgamation of prime beef this side of the Pampas, he has enjoyed advantages denied many running backs. There is no doubt the Cowboys' offensive line has been impressive in Smith's time - with the current vintage the best of the lot - but the truth is that the fortunes of just about every great running back have depended on the men in the trenches. For Newton, the appreciation is mutual: "Before Emmitt came, I was just a normal fat guy. Now I'm a fat guy who goes to the Pro Bowl."

Comparisons with the past are fitting in a way because Smith is seen as a throwback to a simpler time, before multi-million dollar contracts and endorsements. There is something in his appetite for the contest, and his ability to produce, that strikes a chord in the way Mike Tyson did when he appeared in the ring in his black boots and a towel over his head. (Not that we should get too sentimental. Smith also has an agent, a financial adviser, corporate lawyer, his own marketing team and his own company, Emmitt Inc.)

Smith credits the change in perception to the Giants game two years ago. "I'd like to think it showed my love for the game and desire to win," he said. "So many athletes today are associated with the game for money and not for the love. I'm not going to kid you; we play for the money. But once the game starts, all you think about is winning."

The Steelers have been warned.

Five ways for Pittsburgh to steal the glory

1 Shut down Emmitt Smith. Easier said than done, but the Steelers should take risks in attempting to stuff the run, especially down the middle.

2 Put two men on Michael Irvin. The big playmaker of the Dallas passing game can be frustrated by an abundance of attention.

3 Blitz Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd early and often. If the two Steeler outside linebackers can introduce themselves to the injured and injury- prone quarterback Troy Aikman they may just knock him from the game.

4 Go after defensive back Larry Brown. Plays on the other side from Deion Sanders but is pedestrian by NFL standards. Can be beaten deep.

5 Don't turn the ball over.

6 Get Kordell Stewart into the game. The Steeler quarterback/runner/receiver/boywonder is the one player on the Pittsburgh offense capable of producing the unexpected. The Dallas D can be fooled, so fool them.