updated 11/16/2006 AT 7:00 PM ET
•originally published 11/16/2006 AT 12:00 AM ET
It was a partisan crowd that cheered former NFL great Emmitt Smith onto victory at the Dancing with the Stars finale on Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
While Smith and fellow celebrity finalist Mario Lopez received identical scores on Tuesday night’s show, it was Smith’s fan base that voted him and professional dance partner Cheryl Burke onto victory.
Smith, 37, beat out the former Saved by the Bell star in the third season of the popular ballroom dance show.
“I am so proud of this trophy and I am proud to share it with Cheryl,” Smith told PEOPLE while gold-colored confetti fell from above. “We worked our tails off.”
“Emmitt embodied what this competition is all about,” season 3 contestant Shanna Moakler said. “He deserved to win. Absolutely.”
“I don’t think you could go wrong with either of these guys,” former contestant Jerry Springer said. “They both had identical scores so it was who had the more compelling story and Emmitt’s was the great American story. You saw his growth throughout the process and that’s the great American story. That’s the magic of this show.”
Runners up Lopez, 33, and partner Karina Smirnoff couldn’t hide their disappointment about coming in second place. Tears streamed down Smirnoff’s face as she reluctantly talked to reporters and the usually jovial Lopez tried to console her.
“Apparently world-class dancing wasn’t enough. That wasn’t the criteria it was based on,” a dejected Lopez told PEOPLE. “I don’t really care about the trophy. I just wanted to win for Karina. She is honestly the best dancer in the world. No disrespect to the other girls on this show, but they don’t hold a candle to her.”
Smith, Burke, Lopez and Smirnoff will be in New York City on Thursday for a Ronald McDonald House charity event. Then, Smith will reunite with his family at their Dallas home.
“This is going to be a great Thanksgiving this year,” Smith’s wife, Pat, said. “He is one happy man and I’m so proud of him.”.
One of the highlights of the night, aside from Smith’s win, was the return of the entire season 3 cast. Receiving the biggest ovations were Jerry Springer and Sara Evans. Evans withdrew from the competition after filing for divorce from political consultant Craig Schleske, her husband of 13 years.
Evans is not allowed to do any press because of a gag order imposed by the judge presiding over her divorce. But her return to the show was well-received, dancer Louis Van Amstel tells PEOPLE.
“She was very relaxed, very happy to be here. Her kids are here and they are having a lot of fun. Her son Avery was doing some moves on the dance floor during rehearsals yesterday.” Van Amstel said.
On Thursday, Smith, Lopez and their partners paid a visit to ill children at a Ronald McDonald House in New York City. A still “shocked” Smith said that when he heard his and Burke’s names announced, “We had to make sure they weren’t playing a trick,” he told PEOPLE.
And the football star has already gotten well wishes from other athletes. “I got a call from Charles Barkley. You don’t even want to know what he said. It was bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep!”
Lopez, on the other hand, is going “through a range of emotions,” he told PEOPLE. “At the end of the day, it’s a competition. You do your best.”
The DWTS tour kicks off Dec. 19 in San Diego. Burke will re-team with her fellow champion from season 2, Drew Lachey, for the 38-city jaunt. Smirnoff, meanwhile, will team up with season-3 contestant Harry Hamlin.