The four years were a nonstop wonder. Emmitt broke virtually all the Florida rushing records, and his 8,804 yards still stands among the top-three career totals in the nation, ever. He ran for more than 100 yards in 45 of the 49 games he played, including the last 28. He fumbled, total, six times. The doormat school became a powerhouse, ranked first in the nation for six weeks in the USA Today poll during Emmitt's senior year. Emmitt won just about every individual award possible.
The college coaches who came to recruit him were as impressed as Thomas had been when he met Emmitt. Here was a kid who had grades, plus a stable family life, plus all of this natural ability. Was this a dream? Mary Smith's first rule of being a parent was to be around her children. She told young mothers that their children were only going to be around for a short time, so a mother had better be with them now, because there wouldn't be a chance later. Mary, who was working at a bank at the time, would stop and watch Escambia practice on the way home, sitting at the edge of the field with the other mothers.
Football was part of family life. Emmitt played, and middle brother Emory (now at Clemson and the Tigers' offensive MVP of this year's Peach Bowl) played, and Emmitt Jr., their father, still played semipro during the first two years of Emmitt's high school career. Friday night was for Escambia High's games. Saturday morning was for Emory's youth-league games. Saturday night was for Emmitt Jr.'s games as a 40-year-old wide receiver and free safety for the Pensacola Wings of the Dixie League.
"Here's what you have to understand about Emmitt," Thomas says. "He didn't have to go through all that searching about who he was. It was Maslow's theory of hierarchy of needs. Emmitt knew who he was because he had a mother and father and a family at home. He was very secure about that. All he had to worry about was who he could be. He could maximize his talents."
Emmitt's most memorable game was not his biggest statistical game, not the 301 yards against Milton High or any of the seven 200-yard games he had as a junior. In his sophomore year he was going to miss the game against Rickards High with a swollen ankle. The ankle looked like a balloon, and he couldn't even run during pregame warmups. He tested the ankle on one play in the first half but left the game immediately and watched from the sidelines as Rickards took a lead. At halftime he iced the ankle and asked the trainer to tape it tight. He returned to the game late in the fourth quarter and gained 89 yards on a touchdown drive. Escambia won in a triple-overtime shootout, a win that put the school on the way to its first state championship.
"He was always a determined child," Mary says. "All my children have been determined. I like to think it's something that starts at home."
"Emmitt," Thomas says, "is a role model. Not just for kids. I mean for all of us."
The University of Florida was a continuation of Escambia High. There never was a thought about redshirting this local-hero running back, but certainly there was the notion that maybe he should be moved slowly into the rigors of college football. This lasted exactly two games. The third game of the season Florida (1-1) was at Alabama. Smith started. He ran for 224 yards on 39 carries and scored twice in a 23-14 upset, breaking a school single-game yardage record that had been set in 1930. By the seventh game of his freshman season he had cruised past the 1,000-yard mark, reaching that milestone faster than any other runner in college history.
"We expected he was going to be good, but we never expected those kinds of numbers that fast," says Galen Hall. Smith's coach those first two years. "He was just very confident. He believed in himself. You'd watch him run, and you'd see he had great balance, great lower body, great vision."
Vision was the word now associated with him most. There had been detractors at the end of his high school career. One scouting service called him "a lugger, not a runner" and said, "The sportswriters blew him all out of proportion." His timed speed of 4.55 seconds for the 40-yard dash seemed to indicate that he wasn't a whippet who could run away from people. His size—5'9", 200 pounds—seemed to indicate he wasn't a locomotive who could blast people out of the way. So what was he? He was X-ray eyes. Vision.