Emmitt Owes Nobody Anything, But...

It was very hard for me to watch Emmitt Smith talk on national television when accepting his enshrinement into the NFL Hall of Fame and not mention a single word about the University of Florida. Gator fans have adored Smith and his accomplishments when they happened and ever since. In the end, Emmitt Smith doesn't owe anyone anything, but he made things right the next night.

To say that Emmitt Smith was a football hero of mine is quite the understatement. I started school at the University of Florida in 1985 and saw some of the greatest Gators ever that year and the next before probation riddled the roster of talent. Emmitt Smith, despite all the issues with probation and Florida not having the other guns on the roster to make national noise, chose Florida when he could have gone anywhere in the country.

That was the first step of Emmitt becoming the beloved Gator that he was, and once he did step foot on campus, the lack of talent around Smith was so evident, it was almost painful watching anything but him on offense on Saturdays between 1987 and 1989.

Kerwin Bell was a senior in 1987 and the former walk-on turned all-American was my favorite before Emmitt came to town. After Kerwin left, Emmitt was it for the Gators for the last two years of his career. They happened to be the formative years of my Gator psyche I suppose, but the fact is, Emmitt did things on the football field that no other running back had ever done. We aren't talking stats, we are talking how he made plays out of absolutely nothing.

And along the way in this three year period, Gators fans would line up to see and adore him as the hero of the Gator Nation. No doubt the guy earned it, I was just one of his flock.

I can remember my apartment on NW 16th Avenue where I took photographs from news clippings of the Gators and made my "Great Wall of Florida". It was basically a collage of pictures of the Gators that took up the largest wall in our apartment living room. The name "Great Wall of Florida" of course was a play on the offensive line of the 1984 team, a line Emmitt would have dreamed about having during his time in Gainesville.

That wall was probably covered in 60 percent or more of just Emmitt photos. He was the team back then, especially on offense.

He showed up every Saturday and win, lose, or draw, he was the man in the backfield. Unfortunately there were far more losses in that time frame than most Gator fans would like to remember. Still, the community and the state lived and breathed Gator football and in turn they worshiped Emmitt Smith.

Forget all the talk of why he left early to go to the NFL, that was something new to Gator fans who were hardly used to primo players getting drafted that high in the draft anyway. Fans may not have wanted Emmitt to go, but they understood when he did and not many faulted him for doing so.

It truly was and is a Gator Nation that loved their hero. That changed for a time starting Saturday night.

Emmitt Smith gave his acceptance speech for his enshrinement to the NFL Hall of Fame. The NFL's all-time leading rusher thanked every football program and the fans of those programs that he was a member of, except one. He didn't mention the Florida Gators at all, nada, zilch.

It hurt...Emmit was my Gator hero. As some folks praise the names Wuerffel or Tebow, I was too entrenched in working for the program or working in the media covering the program to have that fanatic slant to those two guys. Spurrier was before my time. When talking about these guys, you could say their first or last name only and everyone would know who they are. Steve, Emmitt, Danny, and Tim are entrenched in the Gator psyche forever...as they should be.

And that is why it hurt. And that is why I made some public comments that weren't so great about Mr. Smith.

Now, who am I to be judgmental for a football player that gave his all every day as a Gator? He owes me nothing. He owes nothing to Gators fans. He owes nothing to the University of Florida. Emmitt Smith made more money for the university during his time and after than Florida can really calculate and is still doing so.

Still, he was a hero. A Gator ingrained in my head and you have thought he would appreciate folks like me that have him on that pedestal.

That is what makes his apology about the lack of mention of his college of choice, where so many folks loved him, where he left so much on the field for all the fans...that is what makes the apology on a national stage the very next night so special...and necessary, if he did care.

We got our Emmitt back. He was gone for a day, but now he is back, and not only is he back, he did it in style. Emmitt owed us nothing, yet he realized he made a mistake that he couldn't let go and he fixed it on the stage at the NFL's Hall of Fame Game.

"I forgot one of the most important ingredients, my Gator Nation, and I sincerely apologize for not recognizing the University of Florida and Urban Meyer and Jeremy Foley and all of the Gator Nation," Smith told Al Michaels after prompted. "Because the Gator Nation truly helped me get on the platform on the collegiate level which helped me get to where I am now, in Canton."

Then, maybe the best running back in the history of the game, finished speaking by giving the world wide symbol of the Florida Gators, "the chomp".

Again, it was a gesture he didn't have to do, but one that certainly cleared it in this person's mind that he is and always will be a Florida Gator.

If I had to cast doubt again under the same circumstances, I would. At the same time, I can admit when I was wrong about some thing or someone, and there are times it is so good to be wrong. This is one of those times.
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