Subtle is not normally a word used to describe Emmitt Smith’s career. There was nothing subtle about his career with the Dallas Cowboys, one that produced the glimmer of three Super Bowl rings and eight Pro Bowls. There was nothing subtle about Emmitt’s appearance on the third season of Dancing with the Stars, a competition which he won with partner Cheryl Burke. And in college, there was nothing subtle about the way Emmitt introduced himself to the world, reserving his coming out party for the biggest stage of all: in Birmingham, at Legion Field, against Alabama.
Before Florida became Florida, the program wasn’t known for its stellar football tradition. Sure, Steve Spurrier had won the Heisman Trophy in 1966, but by 1987 Florida still had yet to win a Southeastern Conference championship. At the time, Gators head coach Galen Hall had his sights set on being the first to lead a Florida team to such frontiers, something his predecessors—Charley Pell, Doug Dickey, and Ray Graves had failed to do. So when the Gators met the Crimson Tide on September 19, 1987, Hall needed a secret weapon.
Against Alabama that year, Florida had more to overcome than players like Derrick Thomas, Bobby Humphrey, Kerry Goode, and John Mangum. It had to overcome history. After Florida defeated Alabama in 1963, a 10-6 upset in Tuscaloosa against quarterback Joe Namath, the Tide reeled off eight straight victories in the series. And besides the meeting in ’64, a 17-14 win for the Crimson Tide, the games weren’t really close.
Bill Curry came to Alabama in 1987 as the head coach after Ray Perkins’ exodus to the NFL, and in Curry’s second game, the Tide defeated Joe Paterno’s Penn State team 24-13 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. Because Penn State was the defending national champion and had won 23 straight regular-season games, it was a whopping win for Alabama and a statement for the nascent Curry administration. After that road victory, surely Bama could rest easy back at home against Florida, a team that went 6-5 the previous season and was throttled by Miami 31-4 in Week 1.
Coming into the game, the storyline was not Emmitt Smith, the freshman who was playing in only his third college game; prognosticators saw it as a battle between the quarterback for the Gators and the tailback for the Crimson Tide. After gashing the Nittany Lions for 220 yards, Alabama running back Humphrey was emerging as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, as was Kerwin Bell, Florida’s senior quarterback, who had thrown for 5,816 yards in his first three seasons. “Everybody’s talking about two players in this game specifically: Kerwin Bell for Florida, Bobby Humphrey for Alabama,” said TBS sports announcer Bob Neal.
Later in the broadcast introduction, color commentator Tim Foley did give brief mention to the diminutive runner for the Gators: “there has to be more to the Florida offense this afternoon…and look for their little bombshell with the football, Emmitt Smith, to do some damage.”
In the first game of his college career, Smith got 16 yards on 5 carries against the University of Miami’s vaunted defense. The next week against Tulsa, Smith popped a 66-yard run en route to a 109-yard afternoon. He appeared to be on the advent of something special, but leading up to the Alabama game, Hall stated that Smith would not start. The Florida coach had expressed the need to bring Smith, who set a Florida high school rushing record at Escambia High School, along slowly, but later he would second-guess that decision when Smith’s maturity and game-readiness were apparent.
It was a dreary day in Birmingham, both weather-wise and for Alabama. During pregame warm-ups, many of the Tide players were in the end zone mocking the Gator chop. Whether this was cockiness or confidence is a matter of speculation, but either way Alabama was not ready to play. “I guess we came in thinking we were going to win,” said Alabama defensive lineman Tommy Cole. “And it ended up biting us pretty bad.”
Florida received the opening kickoff and began its first drive with a steady diet of Emmitt, who rushed twice and caught a shovel pass for a first down. On the second series, Smith ran right up the gut for 13 yards and another first down. “Oh the young freshman running back with great acceleration,” said Neal.
Florida called Smith’s number five straight times to open the game. It wasn’t what Hall and the Gators had necessarily intended; it was simply what was working. “The way he was running,” reviewed Florida offensive lineman Bob Sims after the game, “you’d block your man, then you’d want to run downfield and block someone else.”
By the end of the first quarter, Smith had 65 yards on 10 carries as the Florida offensive line was creating massive holes through which he traveled easily. “Emmitt Smith is making his own statement about running backs today,” said Neal.
Emmitt continued to pound away, and by the end, he had 224 yards and two TDs on 39 carries, a Florida single-game record. And the Gators had a big SEC road victory, a 23-14 “woodshed job” as the one writer in the Tuscaloosa paper described it.
Smith’s chopping up of the Alabama defense did not occur on a few long runs, but rather was a form of systematic torture. On seven occasions, he had between 5 and 10 yards. On eight attempts, he had more than 10 yards. His longest run of the day was just 30 yards. “Emmitt Smith was outstanding,” said Curry. “He had good blocking but he made good things happen on his own. Florida has the best offensive line we’ve played against and Smith is one of the best anywhere.”
Continued Curry: “You can’t practice the way he runs. It’s a God-given talent.”
More praise followed from sports journalists. “Saturday in his first college start,” wrote Mike Cobb for the New York Times regional newspapers, “and only his third game in what looks to be a long and prosperous career at Florida, he broke a single-game rushing record that had stood for 57 years.”
“The game introduced a new star to college football who stole the show from an anticipated battle between Heisman Trophy candidates Bobby Humphrey of Alabama and Kerwin Bell of Florida,” penned Billy Mitchell of The Tuscaloosa News.
“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,” wrote Rick Telander for Sports Illustrated.
Even Emmitt’s opponents that day could do nothing but tip their cap to the outstanding performance. “We knew he was good, but we didn’t know how good,” said Cole. “Emmitt pretty much had his way with us. You knew after that game how good he was, and of course, after that game he went on to prove how good he was.”
“I was just wanting to play and contribute,” shrugged Smith.
But more importantly than yards, Smith gained the confidence of his head coach. Throughout the ’87 season, Hall continued to give the ball to Emmitt, who rushed for 1,341 yards on 229 attempts, an average of 5.9 yards per rush, and 13 touchdowns. And although the Gators went 6-6, a star was born.
Later, Hall admitted he’d probably underestimated the runner. “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 said that November. “Maybe he was there already. Maybe he just needed the chance.”
Hall would give that to him, and more. In three seasons for the Gators, Smith ran for a total of 3,928 yards, which ranks him 11th in the SEC in career rushing yards.
In 1990, Smith decided to forego his senior season—one in which he would have teamed up with new head coach Steve Spurrier—and entered the NFL Draft instead. He was drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys, who took him as the 17th pick.
In Smith’s 15-year tour of the NFL, he rushed for 18,355 yards, an NFL record.
And there was nothing subtle about that. H&A
Cover photo: Emmitt Smith; Courtesy University of Florida Athletics
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