• Sal Maiorana

Happy birthday Emmitt Smith: The NFL's all-time leading rusher

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (Jan. 2, 1994) – Of all the 226 regular-season games Emmitt Smith played, the result of which was an NFL record 18,355 rushing yards, his performance on Jan. 2, 1994 against the Giants at the Meadowlands may have been his best ever.

As Smith today celebrates his 51st birthday, here’s a look back at that game which Dallas won 16-13 in overtime, a game that became a cornerstone in the building of Smith’s Pro Football Hall of Fame career.

Forget for the moment that his 168 yards rushing were the sixth-highest of his career, that his 10 pass receptions were the second-highest total of his career, and his 42 total touches were a Cowboys record.

The numbers were spectacular, but they gain more weight when you factor in the circumstances of the day.

Smith did all this in the biggest game of the season with both the NFC East division title and homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs at stake, and he did it while playing the second half and overtime with a separated left shoulder that was so painful, it was difficult for Smith to breathe let alone play football.

“Emmitt was hurting real bad,” Cowboys guard Nate Newton said. “Most guys at any position would have come out for good after that. Not Emmitt. And the thing was, he came to us and told us that he wasn’t coming out. No way. Emmitt has great vision and balance and intelligence and all of those things, but most of all, Emmitt has great will.”

The defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys had started the 1993 season 0-2 while Smith was holding out for a new contract. He returned in time for Week 3 and the Cowboys proceeded to win 12 of their final 14 games with Smith rushing for 1,486 yards to claim his third straight NFL rushing title.

The Giants were having a great season as well in Dan Reeves’ first year as head coach, but a disastrous 17-6 loss at Phoenix the week before had dropped them into a tie with the Cowboys, so this showdown in the Jersey swamp was, in effect, a playoff game, and it drew a record crowd of 77,536 on a surprisingly mild and sunny day.

For all Troy Aikman’s greatness, Michael Irvin’s big-play flash, and Jimmy Johnson’s coaching genius, Smith was the single-most important cog in the Dallas machine, and when the Cowboys needed him to carry them in an old-fashioned defensive slugfest, he did it.

Smith piled up 109 yards in the first two quarters alone, the big run a 46-yarder which set up Eddie Murray’s 38-yard field goal on the final play of the half that gave the Cowboys a 13-0 lead. That was the play when Smith separated his shoulder as he landed hard after being tackled by Greg Jackson.

“I came in with the intention of doing whatever it took to win,” said Smith, who caught a six-yard TD pass from Aikman that had put Dallas up 10-0. “At halftime the injury was pretty rough. I had to make a decision. I wanted to keep playing. When I first hurt the shoulder they told me it was a sprain. It felt a whole lot worse than a sprain, I thought I’d dislocated it or something. I really didn’t know what I could do or couldn’t do. But I knew I wasn’t coming out.”

The Giants regrouped and dominated the second half and when Phil Simms put together a 13-play, 69-yard drive that ended with David Treadwell’s game-tying 31-yard field goal with 10 seconds remaining, the game went to overtime.

New York won the coin toss, went nowhere on its possession, and with Smith carrying six times for 18 yards, catching three passes for 24 yards, and converting two third downs, the Cowboys were set up for Murray to kick a game-winning field goal from 41 yards out.

“How about Emmitt? Wasn’t he something today?” Johnson said. “He told me, ‘Keep playing me until I can’t play anymore.’ It was a heavyweight fight, and it was one hell of a heavyweight fight.”

The Cowboys would go on to defeat the Packers in the divisional round, the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and then wiped out the Bills for the second season in a row in the Super Bowl, Smith rushing for 132 yards and two touchdowns to earn the MVP award.