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American Football: How on earth can the Bills bring down Emmitt Smith?: One man looks irresistible in Sunday's Super Bowl. Matt Tench reports from Atlanta

WHEN Emmitt Smith was a high- school running back in Pensacola, a small town in Florida, his coach, Dwight Thomas, pursued a simple tactical plan. 'Hand the ball to Emmitt, pitch the ball to Emmitt, throw the ball to Emmitt.' In Smith's four years, Escambia High won two state championships.

A decade later Smith played for the Dallas Cowboys and victory in Sunday's Super Bowl would bring the same ratio of success, two championships in four years. The achievement with the Cowboys will naturally be more substantial, but the plan remains the same.

Jimmy Johnson, the Dallas head coach, has not been foolish enough to reveal his game plan for Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills. He doesn't need to. The Cowboys will be giving the ball to Smith early, and often. As the underdogs, the Bills are looking for ways to win their first Super Bowl in four appearancesOne requirement dwarfs the rest - how do they stop Smith?

Watching Smith deal with the media here this week, there has been little to encourage the Bills. Faced with incessant questioning, he has remained calm and cheerful. He knows he is expected to be a match-winner, a role he appears to relish.

Smith's match-winning yardage in school and college put him into the 1990 NFL draft with a considerable following. There were also many doubters. They said he was too slow, and, at 5ft 9in, too small. But the Cowboys were always keen. Johnson had tried to recruit Smith to Miami when he was head coach there and Joe Brodsky, the Cowboys' running backs' coach, was assigned to assess whether Smith could take them to the next level - though with a 1-15 team, there was little danger of vertigo. Brodsky came back convinced. When Johnson questioned his speed, Brodsky replied: 'He'll take your breath away and you won't get it back till he scores.'

The Cowboys took Smith with the 17th pick of the first round and as soon as he appeared in training camp his new team-mates realised it was an inspired choice. 'We knew on day one,' Mark Tuinei, the Cowboys offensive lineman, said. 'As soon as he got into the flow of things he was real special to watch.'

By the second game of the season Smith was a starter, quickly establishing himself as a key figure for the rejuvenated Cowboys. In his second season he won the NFL rushing title, a feat he has repeated in the last two years. What makes him so good? Part of the answer lies in his physique. To look at his torso, which is not as beefy as many of his contemporaries', it is difficult to believe he weighs 15st. The bulk is to be found in his extraordinary legs which are sculpted on to his body like a couple of tree trunks. They are the source of his immense strength when breaking tackles and give him a dangerously low centre of gravity, allowing him to regain balance after taking a ferocious hit. 'You don't realise how many hands and arms he runs through,' Johnson said.

Smith disdains the flamboyant jinks, preferring to dash straight ahead - north to south as it is called - whenever possible. 'A lot of running backs try to use a whole bunch of moves, but when they make them they are running (sideways) instead of up field,' Johnson said. 'That allows defensive players to catch up with the play. Emmitt doesn't go sideways very often. He's always heading for the goal-line.'

Nor will Smith be deterred if the intended route forward is blocked. He will simply find another one. 'He has real good vision to get into the holes, into the creases. And he has the power to get through them, to stay between the tackles and make guys miss,' Tuinei said.

Smith was a key performer in the Cowboys' Super Bowl triumph 12 months ago, but a period of almost uninterrupted achievement and celebration came to a close last summer when negotiations began for a new contract.

Smith was expecting the big bucks to which his performances appeared to entitle him, but Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner, refused to meet his valuation. With Smith holding out for a better offer, the Cowboys were beaten in their first two regular-season games, in the second by the Bills. Jones saw sense and Smith agreed to a dollars 14m ( pounds 9.4m) deal over four years. Even at that price he looks a bargain.

Smith's value to the team was vividly illustrated in their regular- season victory at the New York Giants. He was in sublime form as the Cowboys dominated the first two quarters, but partially dislocated his shoulder as the half drew to a close. His frequent absences after the break allowed the momentum to shift and the Giants drew level to send the game into overtime.

With the divisional title and home-field advantage throughout the play-offs on the line, Johnson turned to his wounded warrior. Smith, in great pain, responded with as heroic a contribution as the sport has seen in recent memory. He was involved nine times on the Cowboys' 12-play drive (six runs, three receptions) which culminated in the winning field goal. By the end of that game, all America realised the secret of the Cowboys' success. Johnson is the brains of the team, Troy Aikman the eyes, but Emmitt Smith is the heart.

(Photograph omitted)