Going back to college was a definite option. If a pro football season did not materialize for him, Smith would head back to the University of Florida to finish off those 13 remaining credits. He would live his idle year according to those true-value rules that had been as normal and important in his family's household as a good breakfast ever) morning. Right was right. Fair was fair. Maybe Jerry Jones was a business marvel and a public relations whiz-bang when he talked to the cameras in Dallas, but with Smith he was dealing not just with a rock but with a rock sunk in some solid Pensacola ground.
"Emmitt is as determined as any man you're ever going to meet," Howell says. "And beyond that, deep down, he knows how good he is."
This was a 24-year-old guy who could handle a siege. No one who knew him had any doubts.
"We had a procedure we did with the kids," Dwight Thomas says. "I'd give them these cards. I have a thing I say: 'It's a dream until you write it down. Then it's a goal.' We gave the kids the cards to write things down. I remember sitting down with Emmitt just once, and looking at the Florida high school rushing records. I think it was in his sophomore year. We never did it again, but he knew—and I knew—what the records were. Emmitt had goals."
Thomas was the coach at Escambia High. He had been fired from a bigger Florida high school, Choctawhatchee in Fort Walton Beach, after four years and a 30-12 record. The injustice he saw in his situation—who gets dumped with a 30-12 record?—was a fire inside him. He wanted to prove himself in a hurry. The only job open was at Escambia, 50 miles away. The school had had only one winning football season in the previous 18 years. He grabbed at the chance, making the 100-mile round-trip commute daily, coming in strong with a doctrine of hard work and discipline, making all the rounds to the middle schools, recruiting players for the future.
One stop he wanted to make was at the Brownsville Middle School. He had heard about this kid who was an eighth-grade sensation, running around and through everybody on the peewee level. This was a kid he wanted to meet. The moment is captured in his memory.
"All these kids were running around playing run-and-grab-butt, fooling around, normal eighth-grade kids," he says. "Wiggle-worms, I call them. In the middle of it all there was this quiet kid. He was dressed real nice. Nice polo shirt. Nice pressed slacks. Nice dress shoes. He came over to me and put out his hand. 'Hello, Coach,' he said. 'I'm Emmitt.' "
The rest was easy. In Escambia's opening game the next season, the quiet kid scored two touchdowns and gained 115 yards. Thomas had never started a ninth-grader in his coaching career. Indeed, he had started only two 10th-graders. At Escambia he rushed everything. He started Emmitt, another freshman and 11 sophomores. This was a fast-salvage program. Thirty-eight seniors were on the team at the beginning of fall practice, and only seven remained at the break-up banquet. Escambia High was in the divisional playoffs for the first time in history. By the end of the following season it was the 3-A champion, and by the end of the next it was the 4-A champ, the biggest title in the state.
The quiet kid was far from the strongest player on the team, because another kid, Lamar Williams, was the strongest kid in the state and set a weightlifting record to prove it. The quiet kid was also not the fastest. He ran track in the spring and never won an individual sprint because Marzette Porterfield was a burner, a state champ. What the quiet kid was...the quiet kid was simply the best football player Thomas had ever seen. He was polite, and he was on time, with a football under his arm, and he was an open-field delight, dipping and moving, making people miss, and heading for the end zone.
"I told the team," Thomas says, "that I only had three rules: Be where you're supposed to be; be there when you're supposed to be there; and be doing what you're supposed to be doing. That was Emmitt. In his four years he never missed a practice, never was late for a meeting, and I never heard him say a swear word. Every day before practice I would talk to the team for five minutes, discuss some problem that we might have—stealing or something. I'd read from Scripture. To start the meeting I'd flick the light switch to tell everyone to calm down and listen because this was important. Every time I flicked the light switch, Emmitt was there, sitting in the front row. He never even got senioritis, which is something, because just about everybody gets senioritis. And do you know what he did in the winters? On the basketball team, he mostly passed out the towels and kept the scorebook. That's how secure he was as a kid."