He ignored the pain, but it was gaining on Emmitt Smith Sunday.
He separated his shoulder weeks ago, but instead of allowing it to heal, the NFL’s most valuable player and rushing champion had chosen to play on against New York, Green Bay, San Francisco and finally Buffalo.
Hit after hit, and as he had to admit after Sunday’s 30-13 victory in Super Bowl XXVIII, the pain had become too much to bear.
“There is a possibility I have worsened the injury,” said Smith, who was selected the game’s most valuable player after running 30 times for 132 yards.
Smith ran for 108 yards in 22 carries in last year’s Super Bowl victory, and became the first running back since Larry Csonka in Super Bowls VII and VIII to run for more than 100 yards in consecutive Super Bowls.
“I thought (safety) James Washington had the MVP sewed up,” Smith said. “I mean he had a great game. I wish it could have been co-MVPs.”
Washington had a brilliant game, but Smith’s heroics have almost become superhuman during postseason play.
Smith was forced from Super Bowl XXVIII because of the pain, but then it became apparent--as it has all season--that the Cowboys needed him.
Dallas opened the season without the unsigned Smith and fell twice. Smith signed, and the Cowboys went on a winning binge.
At halftime Sunday, while the Bills enjoyed a 13-6 advantage, the Cowboys adjourned to their locker room and talked about running the ball more in the third quarter.
“We had gotten away from it,” quarterback Troy Aikman said. “We had become too one-dimensional. We were throwing the ball, and they were getting to us.”
While the Cowboys’ offense waited to take the field in the third quarter, Washington turned the momentum in Dallas’ direction with a 46-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.
“That was the turning point,” said Cowboy tight end Jay Novacek.
What came next--after a Buffalo punt--was the punishment:
--Smith right for nine.
--Smith right for three.
--Smith right for nine.
--Smith left for seven.
--Smith right for 14.
--Smith right for four,
--Aikman three-yard pass to Daryl Johnston.
--Smith right for 15 and a touchdown.
Smith, who announced after the game that he will skip the Pro Bowl next week because of his sore shoulder, gave way to Lincoln Coleman late in the third quarter.
“I had taken some shots and I wasn’t sure I could even get up,” Smith said. “I have taken a couple of shots over the past few weeks, and it hasn’t been pleasant.”
The outcome, however, remained in doubt at the start of the fourth quarter. Washington intercepted a pass by Jim Kelly at the Buffalo 46-yard line and returned it into Smith territory at the Buffalo 34.
“I talked to (offensive coordinator) Norv Turner,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Coach, get me the ball, get me the ball.’ He said, ‘How do you want it?’ I said, ‘it don’t make no difference; get me the ball.’ ”
The Cowboys got Smith the ball seven times on a nine-play scoring drive to finish off the Bills. Smith ran left for the final yard and a touchdown on fourth and goal from the one.
“After we scored, I said, ‘Coach, Coach, you’ve got to find someone else to get the ball to.’ ”
The decision to go for it on fourth down turned out to be an easy one with Smith ready to strike.
“I told Emmitt when we went for it on fourth down, ‘I believe in you and you’re going to put it in the end zone,’ ” Coach Jimmy Johnson said. “That was big.”
Smith’s reputation continues to grow. He has won three consecutive rushing titles, two straight Super Bowls, has been selected the league’s MVP, and now on the same weekend in which former Cowboy running back Tony Dorsett earned entry to pro football’s Hall of Fame, Smith has been selected Super Bowl MVP.
“I had a dream trying to be the best I could possibly be, and when you’re chasing after legends like Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson, if you can accomplish anything close to what they have accomplished, you’ve been successful.”
Smith is still waiting for birthday No. 25, and yet he already has a place in NFL history.
“To win the Super Bowl two times in a row and be the only running back to win rushing titles and win the Super Bowl is something very very special to me,” Smith said. “But as for history, I don’t think about that. The only thing I’m concerned about is winning games and winning championships.
“Maybe one day I’ll look back and say, ‘I did all this, wow.’ But I won’t give it a thought until it’s all over.”
The Hall of Fame also awaits that day.