Road to 1991 Perfection: When Emtman Played, it was 'That's Not Normal'

The University of Washington defensive tackle remains quite possibly the greatest player in Husky history.
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Steve Emtman joined the University of Washington football team with no fanfare.

The Huskies first looked at the Cheney, Washington, product as an offensive tackle.

He wanted to wear his high school No. 74, but the coaching staff gave it to Mike Lustyk from Interlake High School in the Seattle suburbs who was the more heavily recruited recruit coming in.

Emtman showed up in 1989 as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, long and lean, maybe 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, and he made his first Husky start at the tail end of that season.

In the ensuing offseason, he turned himself into a weight-lifting maniac — someone who would never be mistaken again for a blocker or come in second in the UW equipment line — and the result was this hulking monster. He was now pushing 300 pounds and tossing around anyone who got in his way. 

"He was very fiery, a very emotional guy, and he still is I think," former Husky fullback Leif Johnson said. "He runs hot and cold pretty quick, but he loved to play football. He got really big. How this all of this happened, I'm not all together sure. He kind of metamorphosed himself into something he wasn't at the start."

To be clear, Emtman repeatedly was asked during his football career if he used performance-enhancing drugs, which he acknowledged was a fair question. He denied it every time. 

Emtman said he would have had similar questions about PEDs had he looked at someone built like him, but he maintained he was addicted to working out, far too much, and it led to his body breaking down and a shorter-than expected NFL career. 

Ah, but Emtman's league-record 90-yard interception return for a touchdown with a Dan Marino pass as an Indianapolis Colts rookie defensive tackle was so fun to watch. 

This is another in a series of vignettes about the UW's 1991 national title run, supplementing the conversation for the recently completed pandemic-influenced season, celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the high point in the program. We're now in the aftermath of the Huskies' 12-0 season in this throwback replay that will conclude on Friday.

Emtman was the leader of this unbeatable crew. He was a consensus All-American selection. The Outland Trophy winner. The No. 1 player taken in the ensuing NFL draft.

While always accommodating to media requests during his career, even conducting a tour of the family's sprawling farmland and his Cheney hometown, Emtman doesn't do interviews anymore. Ten or so calls and texts went unanswered regarding this series, though he accidentally "butt-called" us back once. The chewing sounds that could be heard emanating from a summer barbecue seemed to indicate the food was good.

Instead, we have been left to solicit Emtman's teammates to describe and eulogize him, and the introspective Johnson takes his turn here.

"He had everything," the fullback said. "He had the will, for sure. He had the want-to. He had this fiery kind of temper really. And, of course, he had the strength that came with it and started to develop."

For four months three decades ago, Emtman unquestionably was the most dominant player in college football, maybe one of the game's most disruptive defenders ever. He had his way with Nebraska, USC and Michigan linemen. He swallowed quarterbacks whole.

He did the "Compton Shake" with outside linebacker Jaime Fields while they destroyed Arizona. He shook off a bout with the flu, or didn't shake it off, and embarrassed his Rose Bowl opponents in the maize and blue uniforms.

"They put him in the middle of that defense and it was really something to watch," Johnson said. "When you're in it, you kind of get used to it. But when you step back, you go, 'That's not normal. That's not a normal occurrence.' "

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