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The numbers are staggering. The Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith has rushed for 14,359 yards in high school, college and the NFL combined. So what's the big deal, you say? Walter Payton got more than that with the Chicago Bears alone. Tony Dorsett got almost 13,000 as a Cowboy. Well, you're talking about guys who played 12, 13 years in the pros. Emmitt Smith is still a baby, 22 years old. He's still learning the ropes. When he really gets the hang of it, who knows what kind of mileage he'll leave behind him?
In four years at Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., Smith ran for 8,804 yards, a 7.8-yard average per carry and 106 touchdowns. He went for more than 100 yards in 45 of the 49 games he played for Escambia, including the last 28, and he was never held to less than 71 yards, even as a freshman. The 8,804 puts Smith second on the alltime rushing list in the National High School Sports Record Book, behind Ken Hall of Sugar Land, Texas (11,232 yards from 1950 to '53), who did not go on to distinguish himself on a higher level. The most recognizable names appear further down the list...Billy Sims of Hooks, Texas, No. 5; David Over-street of Big Sandy, Texas, No. 7; Herschel Walker of Johnson County High in Wrightsville, Ga., No. 29. Pretty fast company there.
Think about it a minute. Here's young Emmitt, a 5'8", 175-pound high school freshman, about to strap on his helmet and step into murderous competition in the Florida Panhandle—one of the SEC's most fertile recruiting grounds—and his coach, Dwight Thomas, hands him the ball and says, "Kid, I want you to gain five miles for me."
In his first game, in 1983, Smith rushed for 115 yards against Pensacola Catholic High. Gulf Breeze High and Niceville High saw him fly by on his way to 205 and 210 yards, respectively. By his sophomore year he was already District 1's most feared back. Defensive units were taping his number 24 on their helmets. By his junior season, he had turned it up a notch—seven 200-yard games and, in a furious outburst, 28 carries for 301 yards against Milton High, which was led by future Auburn quarterback Reggie Slack. A gimme night, you say—garbage yards in a five-touchdown victory?
No, sir. That wasn't Thomas's way. When the game was decided, the varsity sat down. Against Milton, Escambia needed every inch out of Emmitt to squeak out a 24-21 overtime victory. Poor Milton High. In four years Smith hit Milton for 855 yards.
In his first start as a University of Florida freshman, Smith, by then fleshed out to 190 pounds, carried 39 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns on national TV against Alabama. Four games later, in his seventh game of the season, he breezed past 1,000 yards, reaching that milestone earlier in his career than any other runner in college football history. Late in his junior season, playing for a team that was laboring under the heavy shadow of impending NCAA sanctions, the sudden resignation of coach Galen Hall and the shock of quarterback Kyle Morris's having been kicked off the team, he ran for a career-high 316 yards, plus three TDs, in a 27-21 defeat of New Mexico. The Florida career rushing record, held by Neal Anderson (3,234), fell that day, and by the end of the season Smith's total had climbed to 4,232.
Smith was ready for the pros, and his timing was perfect. The 1990 NFL draft was the first in which juniors were allowed to pass up their final year of college eligibility and enter the draft pool. Smith and 37 other juniors came out early. He was an incredible yardage machine, having rushed for more than 100 yards in 25 of his 34 games at Florida, and in 70 out of 83 high school and college games combined. But pro scouts are funny people. Size, vertical leap, speed—those are the things that get the exclamation points in their notebooks.
In terms of speed—the burst, the breakaway ability—there was a question mark next to Smith's name. His time in the 40 while at Florida was 4.55, on synthetic turf. A New York Giants scout reportedly got him in 4.7. Too slow.
"They talked about his speed," says Emmitt's mother, Mary. "Well, they never saw what he was capable of. They never saw all those 90-yard runs of his in the peewee leagues. I never did see anyone catch him from behind once he had a ball under his arm."
The Cowboys weren't worried about Smith's speed. They were coming off a 1-15 season and a last-place NFC ranking in team rushing. They already had spent what turned out to be the No. 1 pick in the draft on Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, whom they had selected in the supplemental draft the year before. But they still had the 21st pick in the first round, the Minnesota Vikings' choice, which they had acquired in the trade that sent Walker to the Vikings. Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson went into the draft intent on beefing up his defense, but, jeez, if Emmitt Smith is still there.... Forget it. He'll be gone by the 21st pick.