IRVING, Texas -- Emmitt Smith's right arm was dangling. The thigh pad wrapped under his shoulder pads for extra cushioning wasn't helping and the painkiller he'd taken at halftime couldn't relieve the agony of a separated shoulder.
''I'm fine,'' he lied to teammates, coaches and trainers.
''Get out,'' he told the backup who tried replacing him.
And to his offensive line, he made one request: Somebody run behind me so you can pick me up.
On Jan. 2, 1994, in a game that meant everything, Smith proved he can carry a team when it matters most.
His performance: 229 total yards and a touchdown on 32 carries and 10 receptions, the heaviest workload in team history, leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 16-13 overtime victory over the New York Giants and propelling them to a second straight Super Bowl title.
Nine seasons later, that game remains the defining moment of his career. It cemented his status as an elite player, a reputation that will be enhanced when he gains 93 more yards and becomes the leading rusher in NFL history.
''I don't know if it was my greatest game,'' Smith said recently, ''but it was one of the most important and one of the best because of what I did under those circumstances.''
The Cowboys and Giants were both 11-4. The winner got the NFC East title, home-field advantage in the playoffs and a first-round bye. The loser got a wild-card game the following week.
The Cowboys started the season 0-2 while Smith and team owner Jerry Jones squabbled over a contract. Then Smith signed a $13.6 million, four-year deal and Dallas won seven straight.
He ran for a career-best 237 yards against Philadelphia and went into the Giants game nearing a third straight rushing title, a feat matched only by Earl Campbell, Jim Brown and Steve Van Buren. Nobody had ever won a rushing title after missing two games.
Smith knew the stakes.
''He had fire in his eyes in warmups,'' the late Mark Tuinei, a starting lineman, said after the game.
Smith caught a 5-yard TD pass in the second quarter to put Dallas ahead 10-0. On the next possession, the Cowboys faced third-and-2 from their 18 just before the two-minute warning.
Smith ran around right end and kept going for 46 yards until safety Greg Jackson pulled him down. Smith landed on his right shoulder and stayed on the turf for several minutes.
While he went to the locker room for X-rays, Eddie Murray kicked another field goal to make it 13-0.
Smith had a Grade 1 separation, the lowest degree. More pounding could've worsened it, possibly requiring surgery.
He didn't care. He had trainers concoct extra protection and went back out because, as he said later: ''I've heard about guys playing hurt. I wanted to play hurt and be effective.''
To help Smith endure the stabbing pain, Troy Aikman lowered handoffs and passes. Lincoln Coleman tried replacing him once, but Smith sent him away.
''He was real stubborn,'' former fullback Daryl Johnston said. ''I don't think anybody was going to be able to make a point that would get him off the field at that time.''
Smith remained Dallas' first option. He got the ball on eight of 16 snaps over the third and fourth quarters.
''We couldn't believe he was playing,'' said then-Giants coach Dan Reeves. ''A lot of people can play with an injured shoulder, but a running back is unbelievable.''
Smith wasn't as productive, and New York rallied with 10 points in the third quarter, then kicked a field goal with 14 seconds left to force overtime. New York won the coin toss, but the Cowboys held.
Again, Dallas turned to Smith -- nine times in 11 plays.
He caught three passes and ran six times, raising his aching shoulder to stiff-arm Lawrence Taylor on his final carry, leading to Murray's game-winning field goal.
''After the game, I remember Emmitt was bent over in the training room,'' former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin said. ''I was just thanking him for the game. We were both crying.''
Trainers helped Smith dress and he spoke to reporters with his arm in a sling and sunglasses masking the pain in his eyes. John Madden stopped by to offer his admiration.
Smith spent the night at a Dallas hospital with an IV in his arm and painkillers flooding his system.
Had the Cowboys lost and faced a game the next week, Smith probably wouldn't have played. Given an extra week, Smith helped Dallas return to the Super Bowl and became the game's MVP. He also won MVP of the regular season.
''I was an Emmitt Smith fan way before then,'' Reeves said. ''All that did was just solidify everything I thought about him.''
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