Emmitt Smith is one of the greatest ever everywhere he's been - from Escambia High School in Pensacola to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL. But even with all of his NFL success, I'll remember Emmitt as a Florida Gator.
I'll never forget Emmitt Smith's first game at Florida Field, and it wasn't as a Gator. In the fall of 1986 Pensacola Escambia played West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman in a "bowl" game at Florida Field. Smith had a performance that demonstrated all his skills, running for well over a 100 yards, catching passes and even throwing a TD pass. He outplayed Cardinal Newman QB Craig Erickson in the contest, but that wasn't the big story. But most of those in attendance were much more interested in what the two of them were going to do about choosing a collegiate program to play for.
I remember Emmitt talking the media after the game and being asked what he thought of Florida Field and his answer was, "it's hard." It made me think they should promise to switch to national grass almost immediately, but they didn't. He also downplayed reports that he had said, "Once a Gator always a Gator." (Escambia High School is the Gators.)
The recruitment of Emmitt Smith is the single event that turned the coverage of recruiting from a cottage industry into a mega business. The interest in what this running back was going to do was off the charts. Our news department at WRUF could barely function as the phone rang repeatedly with fans demanding the news, even though it was fairly well reported he would make the announcement at school at the appointed time (late morning).
Remember this was a pre-cell phone era and Al Gore still hadn't invented the internet and we just took call after call after call.
Eventually word surfaced that Smith, who had supposedly claimed he would wear his new school colors that day, was wearing red and white. That made people think Nebraska had beaten out Florida and Auburn, but when the time came to put on a hat, he reached for the one with the big "F" on it and his Gator career was underway.
I remember an early practice that fall when Emmitt took a toss to the right and glided behind the line before bursting through a hole no one else had seen, making one cut, and going the distance. My first reaction was that Emmitt would start opening day and gain a 1,000 yards. I made that very prediction to the Polk County Gator Club before the season opener and I was half right. Emmitt didn't start, and carried just five times for 16 yards in Florida's 31-4 loss at Miami. The next week he went for over a 100 off the bench against Temple, earning his first start.
It was Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama where Smith made that start and his 224 yards were a UF record as Florida shocked Alabama 23-14. That record has only been topped once --- by Emmitt Smith two years later.
Emmitt finished his rookie years with 1,341 yards and 13 TD. While Kerwin Bell entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate it was Emmitt who kept this team from a sub .500 season. In his sophomore season Smith ran for 988 yards and 9 TD despite missing 2½ games with a knee injury.
Emmitt's junior year began with great optimism that the Gators with an improved QB in Kyle Morris and stout defense would be an SEC contender, but Florida opened the year with a devastating 24-19 home loss to Ole Miss. Florida bounced back with four straight wins, the fourth being a late season 16-13 win at LSU. Florida Coach Galen Hall was fired the next day.
Two days later at the typical media day interviews before the Vandy game Emmitt walked into the media room and announced he would only answer football questions and no one had one. I remember calling to him as he walked out that I had a football question. Here's what it was:
"Emmitt, you guys won your fourth straight game Saturday night. Does this team still have momentum?"
I wish I had saved the answer because Emmitt talked at length about how he felt, how much he cared for Coach Hall and how they had to pull together and make it a special season. It was everything all of us wanted… and I didn't share a single quote!
My last two memories of Emmitt as a Gator were soon to come. On October 21, he singlehandedly carried the Gators to a 27-21 win over New Mexico. His 316 rushing yards broke the UF single game record and also made Emmitt Smith Florida's all-time leading rusher. And I'll never forget it because of the quality of the performance and the fact it was my first play-by-play assignment for SportsChannel Florida.
The following week Florida played at Auburn and had to start freshman Donald Douglas. The Gator game plan was get the lead, ride Emmitt and hold on for dear life. And it almost worked. The Gators took an early lead. Douglas completed just one pass and Florida led late in the game. However a busted coverage allowed Auburn to complete a fourth down TD pass and win the game 10-7. Emmitt wept openly at the end of the game as Florida's SEC Title hopes died on that play.
Emmitt Smith turned pro after the 1989 season, declining to play for Florida's new coach, Steve Spurrier. He's still bitter that the new coach didn't try to talk him into staying, but Steve to this day has never tried to talk one of his players into remaining in college. Emmitt would likely have turned pro anyway and it appears both sides did well in the years that followed.
Any discussion of the greatest player in school history is going to generate argument and debate, but no Gator accomplished more with less than Emmitt Smith did on the Gator offenses of the late 1980's.
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