The second-half kickoff in the opening game of the 1987 season spun through the air, and Ohio State freshman Carlos Snow—an 18-year-old running back who had rushed for an extraordinary 7,761 yards and a national-record 104 touchdowns in high school—settled under it, caught it and set sail. The 88,272 fans at Ohio Stadium roared as Snow, a 5'9", 194-pound sprinter, broke a tackle and looked for daylight. "I was so excited," Snow says. "I was thinking about taking it back all the way." An instant later, as he was tackled at the Buckeyes' 29-yard line, he fumbled. West Virginia recovered and five plays later kicked a field goal.
The next week, at 1:02 in the third quarter in the Buckeyes' Sept. 19 game with Oregon, Snow touched the ball for the second time in his college career, on a pitchout. He fumbled again. On the Buckeyes' next possession, Snow got a third chance, a handoff from quarterback Tom Tupa. He fumbled once more. Snow had fumbled rarely while leading the Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education (CAPE) to two state high school championships. All he had done at CAPE was move upfield. Indeed, in his first game, as a 15-year-old freshman, he had gained 122 yards on 10 carries. In the second half.
But that was then, and this was now. After Snow's third fumble in three tries, coach Earle Bruce put him at the far end of the pine.
That same day, in Birmingham, an 18-year-old University of Florida freshman named Emmitt Smith was carrying the ball against Alabama. Like Snow, the 5'10", 201-pound Smith also had been a high school sensation, leading Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., to two state championships. By gaining 8,804 yards in four years, he moved past former Oklahoma All-America and Detroit Lion All-Pro Billy Sims into second place on the high school career-rushing list, just ahead of Snow. Smith was so unstoppable in high school that an entire defensive unit once showed up with his number, 24, taped on their helmets.
Smith and Snow met at an awards banquet in Columbus, Ohio, last winter, and they found they liked each other. They also found they had a lot in common. Snow is an inch shorter and seven pounds lighter than Smith, but he has the same sort of massive thighs, wiry calves and muscular upper body. Moreover, both players come from solid, working-class families. Most of the time their parents and most of their brothers and sisters attended their games. Where Snow had those 104 rushing touchdowns (and three via the pass), Smith had 103, plus three more as a receiver. Where Smith had a national high school record 45 career 100-yard rushing games, Snow had five 200-yard games and a 16.2 yards-per-carry average his senior year. Snow is faster than Smith, but Smith can leg-press 800 pounds. "Emmitt's a really intelligent guy, really nice," says Snow. "Carlos seems like a pretty level guy. I enjoyed hanging around with him," says Smith.
But while the high school careers of these two gifted athletes seemed to run in tandem, their paths diverged sharply when it came to making the transition to big-time college football. On that mid-September afternoon, while Snow sat in dejection as Ohio State played Oregon, Smith exploded to glory against Alabama. In his first college start he gained 224 yards on 39 carries, setting a Florida single-game rushing record.
As the season progressed Smith became the only freshman in history to get as many as 1,000 yards in seven games. This put him ahead of the pace set by such other precocious first-year runners—and eventual Heisman Trophy winners—as Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson. Walker's freshman rushing record of 1,616 yards was in sight before two subpar games, against Auburn and Georgia, slowed Smith down. Snow, meanwhile, sat on the bench for two weeks, then carried just twice against Indiana. His coaches feared that their tailback of the future might fumble away the Buckeyes' hopes for earning a berth in this season's Rose Bowl.
Against the Crimson Tide, Smith displayed a running style that defies easy description. He darted, slithered and followed his blockers, and squeezed yard after yard out of plays that didn't have any yards in them. He didn't look especially fast or powerful or blindingly deceptive, yet he couldn't be stopped. "You can't practice the way he runs," said Alabama coach Bill Curry after the game. "It's a God-given talent."
Smith had earned the start against the Tide by gaining 109 yards on just 10 carries as a reserve the previous week against Tulsa. Included in that total was a dazzling 66-yard touchdown run. The week before, in the Gators' season opener with Miami, Smith had rushed only five times for 16 yards. Florida coach Galen Hall had wanted to bring Smith along slowly, which was understandable but perhaps unnecessary.
"There's a great mental adjustment between high school and college, particularly in a conference like the SEC," says Hall. "A kid like Emmitt has the ability—the only other runner I've been associated with who was that good that early was Marcus Dupree when I was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma—but you still wonder." Hall shrugs, contemplating what Smith might have done had he been turned loose right from the start against the Hurricanes, who beat the Gators 31-4. "Maybe he was there already. Maybe he just needed the chance."