Cowboys ready to tackle Emmitt

Updated: October 1, 2003, 6:58 PM ET

IRVING, Texas -- After years of only tapping Emmitt Smith in practice, some Dallas Cowboys defenders are ready to take him down for real.

And if there's a little extra oomph on their hits, well, Smith will only have himself to blame.

The feelings surrounding Smith's return to Texas Stadium on Sunday turned from nostalgic to nasty after he told Sports Illustrated that during his last season in Dallas he "felt like a diamond surrounded by trash."

Most players sullied by that statement held their tongues at first. Now that Smith and his new team, the Arizona Cardinals, are coming to town, the Cowboys are using the line to get them fired up.

"Whatever I need to use to motivate me to have a good game, I'm going to use -- and I'm definitely going to use that," said defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban.

Ekuban is among those who initially ignored the comment, saying, "I just blew it off as Emmitt being Emmitt." Even safety Roy Williams, a rookie last season during Smith's 13th and final year in Dallas, knew enough not to be offended by the now-infamous line.

"Man, Emmitt pops off all the time," Williams said.

Linebacker Dexter Coakley called the statement "very painful," but added that Smith was just frustrated with how far the team had fallen -- from three Super Bowls in four years during the mid-1990s to three straight five-win seasons.

"Anyone who is a competitor, who has any love and drive for the game, that's very disappointing," Coakley said. "You don't want to go out like that, especially if you're the caliber of player he is."

Defensive end Greg Ellis gave Smith the benefit of the doubt, figuring his point just came out wrong.

"Maybe he got ahead of himself and said some things he probably wishes he could take back," he said. "But once it goes in black and white, it's done with. You can't take it back."

Smith was well on his way to becoming the NFL's career rushing leader by the time most of the Cowboys came into the league. They knew the rule: Take it easy on No. 22.

So, even without the added incentive, there already would be the excitement of finally getting to go after him.

"We thudded him up, but it was never full-contact, taking him to the ground," Ellis said. "I'm not going to take it easy on him. He's not going to take it easy on me either. When he tries to cut me, he's going to really be getting after me. I've got to return the favor."

The game also could become a showcase for Troy Hambrick, who lobbied hard to replace Smith last season.

He's getting his wish this season. He started slow, then broke out with 127 yards in a victory over the Jets on Sunday. His 240 yards in three games easily tops Smith's 193 in four games. Hambrick also is averaging 3.9 yards per carry to 3.1 for Smith.

Given the chance to gloat or make a bold prediction, Hambrick opted to avoid saying anything that might wind up on Arizona's bulletin board.

"Put the pressure on the offensive line," he said. "Go find those big guys that weigh 300 pounds, got a little fat hanging off the sides, and tell them they've got to dominate the defensive line this week."

There's one other relationship that will be interesting to see Sunday: How the fans react.

Although Smith was a big reason for three of the Super Bowl banners hanging from the rafters in Texas Stadium, and there's another commemorating his rushing record, the trash comment is still reverberating -- especially as much as it's being rehashed this week.

Some fans already were annoyed by his complaints about carries last season. There also was a public-relations mess when he declined an invitation to be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in February.

Despite it all, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is expecting Smith to be cheered, and thinks he should be.

"Those comments this summer are so far overshadowed by what Emmitt has meant and been to our fans and this franchise," Jones said.< ^Extra points:@ Smith apparently has gotten taller since leaving Dallas. The Arizona media guide lists him as 5-foot-10; he was 5-9 during his Cowboys days. ... CB Derek Ross (knee) and RT Ryan Young (knee) both practiced, but are listed as questionable. ... With OL Torrin Tucker promoted from the practice squad to "the varsity," as coach Bill Parcells called it, the Cowboys filled his old spot with WR Gary Lusk, who was cut during training camp.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index