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If La'el Collins can walk, he will play for the Cowboys

La'el Collins continues to suit up every week despite a bulging disk in his back. Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- As La'el Collins walked through the Dallas Cowboys' locker room Tuesday afternoon, he looked like anything but a 24-year-old.

He was leaning noticeably to his left and slightly hunched as he went from his locker to the team's training room for treatment of a back injury that has bothered him for the last three weeks. He said he has a slightly bulging disk and some muscular issue as well.

When the Cowboys practice today, Collins will sit. But come Sunday's kickoff against the New York Giants he anticipates starting for the 13th time at right tackle, whether he's standing straight or not. Collins did not practice last week leading into the 38-14 win against the Washington Redskins but played every snap.

"We all deal with the things, that's the thing about this game," Collins said. "You're always going to deal with something. If you feel like you can go out there still go out there and get your job done through it all, then, hey, go give it your best try, and if it doesn't work out at least you tried."

Offensive linemen almost seem to live by a code that if they can walk, they can play. All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith missed two games because of a groin injury, but has dealt with back tightness since training camp. All-Pro right guard Zack Martin returned last week from a concussion suffered on Thanksgiving. All-Pro center Travis Frederick and left guard Jonathan Cooper have dealt with aggravating injuries through the course of the season.

"It just speaks to him and how much he's grown since he's been here," Martin said. "He's evolved and changed as much as any guy I've been around. His knowledge of the game, how he approaches everything, his work ethic. Everything. It's just been unbelievable these last couple of years and he’s growing each week."

Collins suffered a toe injury that limited him to three games last season. He knew it was bad but tried to play through the injury for a couple of snaps even though he could not put any pressure on the joint. He finally came out and had surgery not long thereafter that ultimately ended his season.

"I think we had a good feel for what he was all about when we signed him coming out of school and that was almost line 1 for him, just the way he plays, the physical nature, how much he loves it," coach Jason Garrett said. "He's demonstrated that. He's matured a lot as a player. Technically, he's getting better. But it was good to see him out there. I think he continues to gain respect from his teammates with his toughness and how he plays."

Collins wasn't sure he would be able to play against Washington as he drove to AT&T Stadium. He went through a 30-minute workout with assistant offensive line coach Marc Colombo and director of rehabilitation Britt Brown, who put him through a series of lateral movements to see how well he could move.

Alfred Morris ran for 127 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in part because of what Collins was able to do at right tackle. The Cowboys ran for 182 yards on 42 carries, controlling the tempo of the game with their offensive line. Dak Prescott threw two touchdown passes.

Because he was limited physically, Collins said he was more technically precise.

"More patience. I was telling one of my buddies, dealing with an injury kind of makes you more patient because you try to be less aggressive," Collins said. "When you're feeling good, you tend to be a little more aggressive because you're feeling good. Sometimes it throws you off a little bit. That's something that comes with the game. If you get injured you have to slow it down a little bit and have a little bit more patience."

Collins said he doesn't believe he will need surgery. Smith missed two games last season because of a disk issue but did not have offseason surgery. Time was able to calm down the issue.

Collins has four more weeks to fight through, and maybe more if the Cowboys can get to the postseason. He can rest and rehab in the offseason and maybe start walking like a normal 24-year-old.

"I've been through a lot of tough things and adversity," Collins said. "I know I'm a mentally tough guy, a physically tough guy so I knew as long as I was feeling good enough to go I was going to go out there and give everything I had. That was my mindset going into it."