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As it turned out, the coaches had misread his personality and underestimated his desire. Maybe if they had hung out with him at the fishing hole, or watched him heft 120-pound bales of hay in the summer heat, they would have had a better idea of what side of the ball to put him on. Now the Husky coaches love to natter on about Emtman's killer instinct or, more often, his work ethic. That first year, however, they didn't know what to do with him.
In fact, Emtman was a little lost himself. Before arriving at Washington, he had never played football, he says, without someone reminding him that he was the best. Things came easily to him, even in the classroom; he had never been forced to crack a book all through high school. And here was Emtman, suddenly crammed into this puny urban acreage in Seattle, redshirted and playing on a scout team, and flirting with academic ineligibility. "The only place I felt wanted was the weight room," he says.
Emtman became the hero of the barbell room, squatting and bench-pressing his frustrations away. His grades soon improved—he is majoring in small-business management—as he developed better study habits, and so did his strength as he joined competitions with his powerlifting teammates. He has put on 35 pounds since arriving at Washington, and he has raised his GPA from a 2.00 in his freshman year to his current 2.80. Emtman's coaches appreciated all those numbers, but they were more impressed with his determination. "Everything that's important to him, he wants to be the best at," says defensive line coach Randy Hart.
In 1989, when Brown injured his foot in the first half of the Huskies' game against Oregon, Emtman filled in and started the next three games until Brown returned. There was no keeping him out of the starting lineup in '90. He continued to surprise his coaches, and not simply because of his eight sacks, more than double the number Brown had had the previous year. For one thing, he wasn't afraid to dress his teammates down. In Emtman, the Huskies had an unofficial sophomore captain. Says Hart, "Steve feels that if he's going to invest so much of his time and effort, it gives him the right to lead. And not one senior ever snapped back at him."
During a spring scrimmage this year, Husky Stadium suddenly reverberated with the sound of Emtman slamming his helmet against a metal equipment chest on the sideline. His defensive unit had just gotten pushed around by the No. 2 offense, and he hadn't enjoyed it much. "Ones, right here!" he yelled, gathering some sheepish 280-pounders around him and blistering them for several minutes.
"It's refreshing," says Hart. "Now I'm not the one always coaching motivation."
For those of you whom Emtman has barked at, be assured that he is even harder on himself. That superb year he had last season? What he remembers most about it are two plays. In the Colorado game, the guard in front of him pulled, and Emtman was instantly on top of the ballcarrier—and missed the tackle. Washington lost. Against UCLA, he barely missed sacking quarterback Tommy Maddox—Emtman had his arms around his legs—and watched as Maddox completed a 21-yard pass that set up the Bruins' winning field goal. These two games were the Huskies' only defeats of 1990.
Says Emtman, "All I remember is how I screwed up. Those plays just haunt me."
Note that he is not haunted by lost opportunities to fatten his sack totals. Individual statistics mean little to him. "We don't get that many plays, so the totals are meaningless," he says.
James Emtman remembers taking his nine-year-old son to a Punt, Pass and Kick competition in Seattle, where Steve was, as he is now, a man among boys. "He had this thing won going into the kick," says James. "All he needed was a 20-footer. Well, he kicked a 50-footer, but 30 feet to the side. He cried all the way home. He didn't mind losing if it was to a better player, but blowing it on his own, he couldn't take that."