True to form, Emmitt even beat the rest of the field to puberty. He had whiskers at 12. They came in dense, furry bunches, while the whiskers of all the other kids could be counted one-two-three. "Eighth grade, and he looked like a grown man," says Johnny Nichols, one of Emmitt's oldest and best friends.
At 13 Emmitt was practicing the moves he uses today. You gave him the ball and he could sec things: the play developing as if in slow motion, the hole that everybody else saw as only a crease, the very intent of the defense.
Jimmy Nichols used to go to middle school track meets to see Emmitt run. Jimmy is Johnny's father, and back in those days he was the offensive coordinator at Escambia High. "The guy could really go," Jimmy says of Emmitt. "Rules kept us from talking to him, but I kept hearing that he was coming to Escambia, and you can just about imagine how excited that made me. His speed was impressive, and most people don't think he has great speed. I will say this about that: Nobody ever caught Emmitt from behind. It's deceptive speed. He does what he has to do. Not only could he run as an eighth-grader, but the way the kid handled and presented himself set him apart. This was a young man as a 13-year-old."
Dwight Thomas, then Escambia's head coach, had the same first impression. He once told a reporter from USA Today that, after meeting Emmitt, he dug up the kid's birth certificate just to make sure he wasn't as old as he seemed.
Fourteen was when Emmitt first ventured into a weight room and settled under a barbell. He liked it: the warm iron bar, the clattering plates. In a month he was squatting 400 pounds and clean-and-jerking 275. Coaches and players watched in heart-hammering wonder, their mouths forming circles. "Fourteen," they whispered.
At the start of two-a-days, Thomas and Nichols gave Emmitt a locker in the varsity dressing room. They also gave him two weeks to prove himself deserving of the honor, but Emmitt took care of that at the first few practices. "Since nobody could exactly tackle the guy...," recalls Nichols.
The year before, Escambia had won only one of 10 games, but during Emmitt's freshman season, in 1983, the Gators went 7-3 and barely missed the playoffs. Emmitt carried the team, just as he would for the next few years. Back in those days he was barely 5'9", but he could dunk a basketball. His thighs were almost as big around then as they are now: 27 inches. Emmitt went to stores and ogled the yawning racks of jeans, not one pair of which he could pull up past his knees. "Mama," he complained, "why can everybody wear jeans but me?"
Sixteen, and the college recruiters started to gather along the sidelines to watch him practice. They came by the dozens, all manner of recruiters from all kinds of schools: hustlers and dreamers, losers and champions and also-rans. It was a rare autumn Friday night that Emmitt didn't rush for more than 100 yards, but that wasn't the only reason people went to see him. A sort of folklore had grown up around him, and people wanted to be able to say they had seen him play way back when.
He was so much fun to watch, the legend goes, that a coach for rival Gulf Breeze High complained one night when Nichols pulled Emmitt out of the game. It was Escambia's policy to bench its starters as soon as the game got out of reach, and in this one the outcome was settled early in the third quarter. "It was something like 45-0." Nichols recalls. "And after the game the coach for the other team is mad as hell. He comes over and says, 'Jimmy, what are you doing taking Emmitt out?" I said. "Look here, I have no intention of embarrassing you and your kids.' He said, 'Come on! I like watching the kid run!' "
In four years at Escambia, Emmitt gained slightly more than 8,800 yards rushing, the fourth-best career total ever for a schoolboy running back. Parade magazine named him the national high school Player of the Year in 1986. and USA Today, in doing the same, put him on its lead sports page. FLORIDA PREP BECOMING A LEGEND, FAST, said the headline.