LARRY VETTEL: Remembering Emmitt Smith

By Larry Vettel The retirement of Emmitt Smith brings to an end the greatest pro career any Gator athlete has ever had. That he became one of the all-time greats in NFL history is at the same time surprising yet pretty much what I expected from the first day I saw him play.

I saw Emmitt at Florida Field before his college career ever began. Pensacola Escambia played West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman in a "bowl game" at the end of the 1986 high school football season. Emmitt had a game that didn't wow casual observers, but sure wowed me. His patience running the ball, ability to avoid clean hits and beautifully thrown halfback pass all added up to a guy playing at another level even then.

Escambia won that game and afterwards all the media wanted to talk with Emmitt. While he obviously liked Florida a lot, he was pretty coy about the recruiting process. And he said one thing that had to worry Florida partisans. When asked about the artificial surface at Florida Field he responded, "It's hard. Man, it's hard." Still he signed up to play on that hard rug and became UF's all-time single season rusher and the man who almost single handedly carried the Gator program through the most painful effects of NCAA scholarship cuts. In the pantheon of great accomplishments in UF football history, Emmitt running for 3,928 yards in three years with those offensive lines and those limited passing games is at the top of the list.

I remember speaking to the Polk County Gator Club prior to the start of the 1987 season. It was the first speaking engagement I had ever done outside of Gainesville and was just ten days before the season opener. I told the club that night (and there are witnesses to back me up!) that Emmitt would be Florida's starter as a freshman, would run for a thousand yards in his first year and would break the school rushing record (3,234) held by Neal Anderson. I gave the same prediction to a club in Orlando a week later, and was somewhat concerned when Emmitt had all of 16 yards on five carries in the season opener with Miami. Fortunately the coaching staff gave up on the "bring him along slowly" mindset and Emmitt gained 109 off the bench against Tulsa. Game three was in Birmingham against Alabama and the freshman sensation carried 39 times for 224 yards in a stunning Florida win (23-14) and his legend was officially being written.

To me, the Alabama game was Emmitt's greatest, but I am proud to say I was on the microphone for SportsChannel Florida when Emmitt set the school record with 316 yards against New Mexico. Florida barely won that game (27-21) but the joy was short-lived since the following week was perhaps the most disappointing of Emmitt's Gator career. With Donald Douglas at quarterback (1-for-5 passing) Florida rode Emmitt like never before. Against eight-man fronts, nine-man fronts, eleven-man fronts Florida kept giving it to Emmitt… and it almost worked. Florida gave up a late touchdown pass as Auburn pulled out a 10-7 win and Emmitt Smith openly wept on the sidelines. It showed how important winning was to the guy and convinced me he would be even better at the next level.

Part of me will always regret not seeing Emmitt in Steve Spurrier's offense. He could have run for 15-hundred yards and caught another 50 passes in the fun and gun. And he would have gotten even with Auburn and Georgia, two teams he never beat. Emmitt's career rushing record was taken away by Errict Rhett, but he still has a pretty impressive list of UF marks:

  • most yards in a season (1,599 '89)

  • career rushing touchdowns (36)

  • 100-yard games (23)

  • consecutive 100-yard games (8)

  • average rushing yards per season (1,309)

Emmitt leaves the NFL as the All-time leading rusher, but the thing I'll remember most is the game he played against "my" New York Giants in 1993 when he ran for over 200 yards despite a separated shoulder. He was NFL MVP for that season as well as Super Bowl MVP.

Rushing Record May Not Last Long

I've been astounded by the nearly unanimous view from national analysts that Emmitt's record is safe for a long time. Allow me to introduce you to Curtis Martin. The New York Jets runner is less than five thousand yards behind Emmitt and is four years younger than the Gator great. In the last four seasons, Martin has totaled 5,612 yards. That's about 600 yards more than he needs over the next four years to break Emmitt's mark. Considering he has gained 1,000-plus in all ten of his NFL seasons, he seems to be a pretty good bet to give it a run. One key to Martin staying healthy may be for the Jets to cut down on the times they throw the ball to Martin (he averages 46 receptions/year) in order to cut down on the wear and tear somewhat.

UF Wall Of Fame?

Gainesville Sun Sports Columnist Pat Dooley chose the occasion of Emmitt's retirement to renew a call for a "Wall of Fame" at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. It's a discussion many have had before, especially since Florida "unretired" number 11 and number 55 upon Spurrier's arrival as head coach. I don't think the stadium sets up well for a "ring of honor" that several stadiums have, so I'm not sure that would work aesthetically. Perhaps something outside in the area where the North End Zone meets the West stands.

If there is a "Wall of Honor" then comes the debate: how many names should be on it to start with? Then should there be one addition each year? Two? What should the criteria be? All-American? Championship team? UF graduate? How significantly should their pro career be considered? What about non-football accomplishments?

Who should make those decisions? Ideally you would have a committee that includes former players, coaches, administrators and media.

Here's my committee:

  • Keith Tribble

  • Red Anderson

  • Norm Carlson

  • Jack Hairston

  • Nat Moore

  • Lee McGriff

  • Carlos Alvarez

They ought to be able to get it done, although Alvarez and Moore might be poor choices because they could/should be candidates.

Next column, I will choose the first ten inductees to the Wall of Honor. Ten might seem like too many, but the first four (Spurrier, Wuerffel, Smith, Youngblood) are so freakin' obvious I had to have something to create an argument with.

Keep those emails coming!

Don't forget to email me your questions and comments, but please do not include attachments! My email address is: .

I look forward to you joining me on the radio, Sunday nights from 6:00-to-8:00 on Gainesville's WSKY-FM 97.3 (877/975-9825 toll free)

Have a great week.

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