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"We do three things here on offense," Thomas said. "We hand the ball to Emmitt, we pitch the ball to Emmitt, and we throw the ball to Emmitt."
As the Gatorade Player of the Year. too, Emmitt won an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena. He took Johnny Nichols along, and they stayed in a luxury hotel and really lived it up for a few days. More than 120 million people watched the game on TV, but there Emmitt was, in person, on the floor of the Rose Bowl. As thrilled as he was by the experience, he was able to keep it in perspective. Super Bowls were his destiny. "One day," he said, turning to Nichols with a look of absolute conviction, "I'm going to play in a game like this."
But first he had college, and that was Florida. Emmitt broke a personal streak when he failed to start in his first game as a freshman. When Gators coaches recruited him, they had promised that he would start right away, and yet in the opener, against Miami, Emmitt found himself watching from the sideline until the fourth quarter. Didn't they know he didn't like to wait? Couldn't they see what a hurry he was in?
After the game coach Galen Hall tried his best to calm Emmitt down. Didn't want to put too much pressure on you too soon, was basically what he said. Didn't want you to go losing your confidence. Emmitt didn't start the second game, against Tulsa, cither, but when he got the call in the first quarter, he showed them, he showed everybody. Emmitt gained a total of 109 yards and scored a couple of touchdowns, one of them on a 66-yard run. Hall let him start the third game, against Alabama, and Emmitt responded with 224 yards and two touchdowns and led the Gators to a 23-14 upset. No Florida player had ever gained as many yards on the ground in one game, which to Emmitt sounded more like it: He was back on the fast track, waiting for no one.
In Game 7, in mid-October, Emmitt passed the 1,000-yard mark, becoming the first runner in college football history to get there that fast. "He definitely was the big man around Gainesville," says Johnny Nichols, then Emmitt's roommate, "but it never went to his head. He was the same Emmitt we all knew before. Humble."
Emmitt decided to go pro after his junior year. The football program at Florida was going through tough times. Hall resigned during the 1989 season, and NCAA probation was looming. And there was one more thing that helped Emmitt make up his mind: For the first time the NFL would allow teams to draft underclassmen, and Emmitt was a lock to go high.
The day of the draft he gathered with family and friends at a beach house in Pensacola. Whenever the phone rang, Mary answered, then passed the receiver to Emmitt, who retreated to a bedroom and talked for a minute before coming back out. Each call carried the weight of enormous possibility, and it racked the relatives' nerves just to hear the phone ring. Sixteen players were chosen before Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson called. Mary greeted him with a polite but anxious hello and handed him over to Emmitt. After talking in the bedroom, Emmitt emerged with a grave expression on his face.
"Well, what did he say?" somebody asked.
Emmitt was quiet for a second. Then he said, "He wanted to know if I wanted to wear a star on my helmet."
Everybody screamed and hollered, and Emmitt went out by himself to look at the Gulf of Mexico and ponder the future.