TEMPE, Ariz. — What is it with all these little men? First Barry Sanders, who makes gigantic moves on the field yet, at 5-feet-8, is actually shorter than some of the cheerleaders. And now Emmitt Smith, who is walking up the steps of Sun Devil Stadium, ready for his media duty at Super Bowl XXX. As he approaches, his blue No. 22 seems to grow larger. But Emmitt does not.

Wait. Isn’t he taller than that? Isn’t he bigger than that? Surely the way he runs, plowing through linemen, then linebackers, then safeties — the front door, lobby and rear exit of a defense — he must be bigger than that, no?

No. When Emmitt Smith shakes your hand, unless you are under 69 inches tall, you are looking down.

But only in height.

Every other way, Emmitt is large. So large, he needs only one name. So large, he gets to call Texas Stadium — in his latest commercial — “my ranch, no matter whose brand is on the front.”

So large, a TV reporter from Sweden asks him to say something into the camera, “for all the girls in Sweden who have your poster on their wall.”

“Women in Sweden have my poster on their wall?”

“Yah. They do.”

“Well! Hey! I gotta get me over to Sweden!”

Who’s gonna stop him? He can go anywhere he wants. Barry Sanders may have the moves, and Thurman Thomas may have the longevity, but Emmitt gets to ride the big pony. Year after year, he is the last running back in the picture. Three of the last four seasons, he has been at the Super Bowl. Four of the last five years, he has taken home the rushing title. Who’s gonna stop him?

The others come and go, the quick flashes, the one-good- season-and-it-goes-to-their-head runners. When they realize they can’t keep up with Emmitt, maybe they secretly pray for his body to betray him — and Lord knows, it has tried. The separated shoulder that hung limply through the second half of that famous game against the New York Giants — when he single- handedly clinched the NFC East title for Dallas in 1993. Or, more recently, the hamstrings that kept pulling and snapping like violin strings. Doctors cluck their tongues when they watch him. They think Emmitt should run with an ice pack, just so he’s ready for the next rip.

Yet he keeps going.

Who’s gonna stop him? Power to drag the pile

I ask Emmitt if there is one running back in football from whom he would like to borrow something — and what it would be.

“Barry Sanders,” he says quickly. “I’d like his quickness. The way he gets away from people.”

“What would you be if you had that talent plus the skills you already have?”

He grins. “I don’t think anyone in the secondary would be touching me.”

They already don’t touch him at the line of scrimmage. He is as sure a bet as sunshine in Arizona. Hand off. Count your change. Emmitt Smith could pick up four yards in a nuclear explosion.

Of course, some of that is the Cowboys’ mammoth offensive line, the best in football. But not all of it. How many times have you seen defenders piling on Smith as he churns, carrying them, tossing them, steamrollering them? Consider that he is 5- feet-9 — only one inch taller than Barry — and you see the amazing strength this takes. Sanders can sometime out-juke defenders, but if they smother him, he goes down.

Smith carries the whole pile with him.

Which leads to my next question. Which is more valuable, the ability to run away from defenders for big gains — or the ability to get through them on every third-and-two situation?

“Well, I already have the ability to do one,” says Smith, “so why would I say the other?”

Fair enough. Allow me. As much as I love Barry Sanders, and as much as his moves leave me — and the rest of us — breathless, in the trenches, in the must-have game, in the game that determines whether you live or die, I don’t think you can argue. You take Emmitt Smith. He is the most valuable man carrying a football today. The reason is simple.

Who’s gonna stop him? Much success at a young age

“Emmitt,” someone asks. “Why are the Cowboys so high- profile?”

He surveys the mob and laughs. “You seem to enjoy talking to us more than we enjoy talking to you!”

That is not true. But in Emmitt’s case, it is simply irresponsible to stay away. He is a compelling athlete. Only 26, with nearly 9,000 career rushing yards, he could well end up the all-time rushing leader in the NFL.

By the way, did you know that Smith keeps the football every time he scores? He has nearly all of the touchdown balls in his career — and there are more than 100. The reason, he says, “is because, outside of the sentimental value, they’ll make a good investment one day.”

Always trust a man willing to bet on himself.

So maybe age will stop him. Or maybe injury. But so far, nothing else has done it. And it’s unlikely the Pittsburgh Steelers will, either. We are witnessing something special here. You realize that when you see how small a package it comes in.

What was it Abe Lincoln said? A man’s legs should only be long enough to reach the ground? Let’s face it. If they made Emmitt Smith any bigger, we’d all have to run for cover.

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