After Emmitt Smith carried the Dallas Cowboys to a division title Sunday on a shoulder that belonged in a sling, he offered disbelievers a reminder.
Only the shoulder had been separated.
Not the heart.
“My heart,” Smith said, “is as big as the world.”
At least , the amazed New York Giants responded after watching a one-armed man lead the Cowboys to a 16-13 overtime victory before a Giants Stadium record crowd of 77,356.
“We see him walk off the field holding his arm, and we think he is hurt,” Giant linebacker Michael Brooks said. “But he still ran through us.”
And now the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl runs through Dallas, where the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys (12-4) will remain throughout the playoffs after taking next week off as a reward for their NFC East championship.
“This is a whole new era, hoss,” crowed Nate Newton, Cowboy guard. “We’re like Jack Nicklaus when he’s got his swing. There’s nothing nobody can do.”
The Giants (11-5), finishing second in a division they led during all but the last day of the season, were granted a home playoff game next Sunday against wild-card entrant Minnesota.
The Cowboys’ second consecutive East title was officially won when Eddie Murray kicked a 41-yard field goal with 6:43 remaining in overtime.
But the game was really decided when Smith, after separating his shoulder with 1:58 left in the first half on a crushing tackle by Greg Jackson, answered a halftime question from trainer Kevin O’Neill.
“The pain was so bad, I couldn’t even describe it,” Smith said. “But when Kevin asked me if I wanted to come out, I told him, ‘I’m not coming out. I’ve got to play.’ ”
“I’m thinking, ‘Man, now that my shoulder is hurt, we really got to win so I can get that week off.’ ”
And so he played, finishing with 229 yards rushing and receiving while doing most of the work on the Cowboys game-winning drive.
Smith gained 59 of those yards and made four of his 10 catches after the injury.
This is even though he couldn’t carry the ball in his right hand.
Or stretch out to catch a high pass. Or even pick himself up off the ground.
“He came into the huddle and said, ‘Guys, whenever I get tackled, somebody has to help me get up,’ ” Newton said. “The man is like a mule. As long as he’s standing, he’s working.”
The pain was so much, it appeared that his right arm was taped to his body throughout the second half. He was afraid to move it unless forced.
But by the game’s end, Smith’s 168 rushing yards had cemented his third consecutive NFL rushing title, giving him 1,486 yards even though he did not play in two games and had only one carry in another.
“I doubt I can come up with an adjective to describe him that has not already been used before,” Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman said.
Smith’s inability to go full speed allowed to Giants to turn a 13-0 deficit into a 13-13 tie in the second half.
After the Cowboys held on the first possession of the overtime, they begged Smith for his last ounce of strength.
With a knee pad taped to his shoulder for extra protection, he gave it to them.
On their game-winning 52-yard drive, Smith touched the ball on nine of the 12 plays, including the final five plays before the field goal.
On a darting 10-yard run one play before Murray’s field goal, he even stiff-armed a defender with his right arm.
“Every time I touched the ball, I hurt,” Smith said. “Every time somebody would come to pick me up after I was tackled, I would tell them I was OK. But I was lying.”
The Cowboys did not apologize for using Smith, even though they could not guarantee that he caused further damage to the shoulder, which will be re-examined today.
“If Emmitt can hold the ball, even hold it with his face mask, we want him out there,” Aikman said.
The game raised the first questions here about Coach Dan Reeves’ conservative style of play. It was those questions that ultimately caused him to be fired last year in Denver.
The Giants appeared to settle for a tying field goal in the final minute of regulation instead of going for a touchdown.
The Giants, outgained 238-68 during the first half while Smith was sound, pushed back into the game with an 11-play touchdown drive early in the third quarter after Kevin Williams dropped a punt for the Cowboys.
They added a field goal by David Treadwell later in the quarter, and then mounted a 69-yard drive late in the game. During that drive, an 11-yard run by Rodney Hampton gave them the ball at the Cowboy 22-yard line with 1:09 remaining.
But then it appeared Reeves settled for the tie. Hampton ran around end for three yards on first down, then off tackle for four yards on second down, then Phil Simms threw a one-yard pass to Aaron Pierce on third down.
Treadwell’s 31-yard field goal tied the game with 10 seconds remaining but what if . . . ?
“If I could see what you guys see now, that the score was 16-13, yeah, I would have taken a shot at trying to score with a pass,” Reeves said sarcastically during a sometimes bitter postgame press conference.
"(The media) is unbelievable. You all are the best second-guessers I have ever seen.”