THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
IRVING, Texas — Emmitt Smith lives for big games. The one he’ll play Sunday sets up as his biggest of the year.
Now wearing the red of the struggling Arizona Cardinals and still seeking his first breakout performance for his new team, Smith returns to his longtime home at Texas Stadium to take on his former teammates on the Dallas Cowboys.
He’s wondered for weeks what it will feel like walking down the tunnel and stepping back onto the field, where he can look up to the rafters and see four banners that define his career: three for Super Bowl trophies he helped win and one commemorating his NFL career rushing record.
Smith expects the first jolt to be overwhelming. His goal is to cherish the moment.
‘‘I may go out there and just be in awe. I just don’t know,’’ said Smith, who has been in the visiting locker room at Texas Stadium only once, when the Cowboys dressed there before a rare practice at the stadium.
‘‘I think the unknown is the part I look forward to fulfilling. I’m not going to try dictating what it’s going to be like.’’
Neither are the Cowboys. There’s no special ceremony or other pregame plans to mark the return of a player who dominates the team’s record book.
Smith hopes to be cheered and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expects he will be. After all, it wasn’t the fans Smith was talking about when he told Sports Illustrated that last season in Dallas he felt like ‘‘a diamond surrounded by trash.’’
His remark was aimed at the players, most of whom have forgiven, although none have forgotten.
Even his close friends say they’re looking forward to the payback, admitting they’ll use the quote for motivation. They’re also eager to finally get to tackle him after so many years of letting him roam free in practice.
Safety Darren Woodson was a rookie when Smith was entering his second season. Early on, Woodson had a chance to take a clean shot at Smith. He didn’t. Coach Jimmy Johnson told him that was a smart move if he wanted to make the team.
They spent 12 seasons together, enjoying the highs of Super Bowl wins, then enduring the painful downfall in which coaches, quarterbacks and other teammates turned over rapidly and losses piled up. Along the way, Woodson saw Smith rise to the occasion often when team or personal glory was at stake. He expects Smith to be in that same mode Sunday.
‘‘It’s a big game for him and he always plays well in those big games,’’ Woodson said. ‘‘We’ve got our work cut out. We know it better than anybody else. Hopefully we can put that fire out.’’
Cowboys coach Bill Parcells has tried downplaying Smith’s return. Asked how much he’ll talk to the team about it, Parcells circled his left thumb and forefinger, held it up and said, ‘‘Zero.’’
‘‘I only mention things that I think are important,’’ Parcells said. ‘‘I don’t think that’s a factor.’’
Smith will probably take that as a jab and use it to fuel his own motivation. Not that he needs another reason to be angry at Parcells. He said Wednesday he believes he’d still be a Cowboy if it wasn’t for the new coach.
‘‘I think he got what he wanted,’’ Smith said in a conference call with local reporters. ‘‘And he’s doing well with what he had. So, obviously, the decision was good for him.’’
Parcells has been adamant that he stayed out of the decision-making process. He told Jones the call was his before even getting hired. When Smith was released, he and Jones agreed it was a mutual decision.
A month later, Smith signed a $7.5 million, two-year deal with Arizona. The Cardinals promised to make him their featured back, giving him a chance to reach his goal of 20,000 yards, while he hoped to help turn around a team whose history of losing is as steep as Dallas’ history of winning.
It hasn’t happened. Turnovers and lopsided scores have forced the Cardinals (1-3) to abandon the run in most games, limiting Smith to 193 yards and one touchdown on 59 carries. His best game was 64 yards in the opener.
‘‘The experience of being out here in Arizona is what I thought it would be,’’ he said. ‘‘The playing and not winning is not everything I hoped for it to be. I obviously wanted to be at least 3-1 or 4-0 going into this week.’’
As Smith noted, Dallas is doing fine without him.
The Cowboys (2-1) have a winning record for the first time since December 1999. A win Sunday would mark their first three-game winning streak since starting that same season 3-0.
The difference is Parcells, who has brought in a whole new way of doing things — sweeping out the trash, you might say.
‘‘From the players to the locker room, the team is different,’’ linebacker Dexter Coakley said. ‘‘We really won’t have to remind (Smith) of that. He knows.’’