DALLAS -- LaDainian Tomlinson had just embarked on his NFL career when his San Diego Chargers played the Cowboys in 2001.
It was only his second game, but it may as well have been the Super Bowl. The Waco native, fresh out of TCU, was in Texas Stadium, where so many of his childhood dreams took place. He was playing against the team he cheered for as a kid, sharing the field with his idol, Emmitt Smith.
"That's a moment that I'll always remember, really idolizing him and getting a lot of advice from him," said Tomlinson, who ran for 90 yards in a 32-21 win. "That was special to get back there and have a chance to talk to him on the field."
Smith's advice about taking care of his body stuck with Tomlinson. Eight years with at least 1,100 rushing yards later, Tomlinson returns in what could be his final North Texas appearance.
Sunday's game is at Cowboys Stadium, and Smith has been retired for five years. But Tomlinson is still as close as a handshake to the NFL's career rushing leader.
His 12,321 yards in 137 games leave him just 46 yards off Smith's pace. Smith had 12,347 through his first 137 games.
"It's never been something that I set as a goal. Emmitt has set that bar so high," Tomlinson said. "I think it is attainable, but it's going to take some more special years."
Tomlinson, 30, moved into eighth place on the all-time rushing list last week, passing Jim Brown. Another 419 yards and Tomlinson will pass Tony Dorsett, whose number is enshrined on the Ring of Honor at Cowboys Stadium.
But for Tomlinson to get the 6,034 yards needed to match Smith's magical number, he will have to do more than break tackles, avoid injuries and compile 1,000-plus-yard seasons. He must remain a workhorse running back.
That will require bucking a trend. Over the last three years, the featured back has become a dying breed in the NFL. More teams are using second and third backs to fuel quick-strike, multi-dimensional offenses that flourish with changing personnel.
"Anything's attainable," Smith said of his rushing title. "I like L.T. a lot. He's doing what he needs to do off the football field; that much I know."
Only four players average more than 20 carries per game. That's one more than last season, and the same as in 2007. Ten years ago, nine players averaged at least 20 carries. From 1999 through 2006, at least seven backs finished with 20-carry averages.
The Cowboys produced model workhorses, winning three Super Bowls with Smith and one with Dorsett. Dallas was also the trendsetter for the platoon backfield. They made a featured back out of Julius Jones, who led the league with a 24.6 carries per game in 2004.
But after trading Jones to Seattle, the Cowboys figured that gaining 3 yards and a cloud of dust would be easier with three players.
Dallas has the modern model backfield with powerful Marion Barber, speedy Felix Jones and wild card Tashard Choice. They complement each other, and their varying styles complicate opponents' preparations.
"The Cowboys were trying to find a third-down back with me, but they couldn't find anyone they could trust," Smith said. "I knew the offense very well, so I would do things that some other running backs wouldn't do. Blitz pickup? Not an issue with me. With L.T. and where teams are nowadays, they have a third-down guy where all he does is focus on that."
At least seven players per season averaged more than 20 carries from 1995 to 2006. Tomlinson entered the league when featured backs were all the rage.
He was one of nine backs with 300 carries in 2001, his rookie season. He had at least 313 attempts for seven straight seasons, dropping to 292 last year. This season he is averaging a career-low 16.8.
The movement toward multiple backs is understandable. The NFL is littered with workhorse backs whose bodies broke down with constant pounding. Terrell Davis averaged 336 rushes his first four years. He battled injuries and played no more than eight games his final three seasons.
Larry Johnson set the NFL record with 416 carries in 2006 but had less than 200 because of injuries the next two years. He's averaging 8.7 carries this season.
In his last year with Dallas in 2007, Jones averaged 10.2 carries. He averaged 10.5 in his first year with Seattle and is at 12.7 this season.
"Every running back would like to be a workhorse," Jones said. "These days it's tough. Defensive guys are stronger and faster. You can't have anymore Earl Campbells. It's a different game right now."
Tell that to Edgerrin James. With 12,246 yards, he's trails Tomlinson by just 75 yards on the career list. He averaged at least 19.8 carries for nine straight years. His average was cut in half last season in Arizona. Playing behind Jones in Seattle, James rushed only 46 times for 125 yards.
After rushing six times for 17 yards against the Cowboys on Nov. 1, James got a game ball for moving into 11th on the all-time rushing list. The Seahawks released him two days later.
"I know I can still play," James said when asked about his reduced role. "This is something that is totally different for me. You sit for a long time and then you go out there for a few plays, you never get a chance to get into it. Hopefully things will get better."
Tomlinson, one year younger than James, has seen his carries drop for three straight seasons, from 19.7 to 16.8. He missed two games because of injury and hasn't had a 100-yard day.
Still, he remains a key figure in the Chargers' scheme. And he's still on pace with Smith.
"He was the one who really gave me the advantage of how to stay on the field with the massage center, cold tub and chiropractor," Tomlinson said. "I think I've still got a lot of football to play, and hopefully I have more good years left."