Road to 1991 Perfection: Clifford Predicted Emtman Greatness Before Others Knew

The former University of Washington linebacker shared his insights about the farm boy with his teammates and he was right on all counts.

Following the 1989 season, sophomore James Clifford stood up in front of his University of Washington football teammates at a meeting and told them what was coming next. 

The Husky inside linebacker was well qualified to offer his opinion and everyone listened intently. 

Clifford had topped the then Pac-10 in tackles, continuously running up to the line of scrimmage and blitzing nonstop, all with the tacit approval of defensive coordinator  Jim Lambright.

The Huskies finished up that '89 campaign with an overly dominant Freedom Bowl performance, dismantling the Florida Gators 34-7 and limiting All-America running back Emmitt Smith to a harmless 17 yards rushing on seven carries in Anaheim, California. 

Clifford now expected this sort of beatdown to become a regular thing for the Huskies moving forward. He saw someone in their midst who would lead them to the football promised land.

"We have this Steve Emtman kid and he's going to dominate the whole league," the linebacker told everyone.

At the time, Emtman was this tall and still slender farm boy from Cheney, Washington, a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, who had started a handful of games at the end of that '89 season. Clifford, now the Seattle Mariners strength and fitness coach, saw coming greatness in this otherwise developing teammate.

"I called it," he reminded. 

This is another in series of vignettes about the UW's 1991 national championship team, supplementing the conversation for the pandemic delayed and shortened season. We're in week 11 of this throwback series, Apple Cup week. We have a number of Emtman remembrances coming up as told by his former teammates. 

Fast forward two seasons ahead of that Freedom Bowl, and Emtman led the Huskies up against Washington State as this unblockable defensive monster who devoured opposing offenses. He was 30 pounds heavier and a whole lot meaner. He would soon become a first-team All-American selection, the Outland Trophy winner and the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

"Playing behind Steve, you could just run around," Clifford said. "No linemen got on you. You could just run around and make a bunch of tackles, and that's what we did."

Clifford still laughs out loud over what Emtman, now a Cheney real-estate developer, did following the Apple Cup to close out his college career. 

Preparing for the Rose Bowl against Michigan, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound junior was ill leading up to the game, receiving fluids at a local hospital and somewhat limited in practice. Some concern was registered that he might not be the full-service disruptor as advertised on New Year's Day.

"Everybody talks about him being sick — whatever," Clifford said. "He single-handedly took on three guys and dominated the line of scrimmage. It was over from play one."

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