The second-half kickoff in the opening game of the 1987 season spun through the air, and Ohio State freshman Carlos Snow—an 18-year-old running back who had rushed for an extraordinary 7,761 yards and a national-record 104 touchdowns in high school—settled under it, caught it and set sail. The 88,272 fans at Ohio Stadium roared as Snow, a 5'9", 194-pound sprinter, broke a tackle and looked for daylight. "I was so excited," Snow says. "I was thinking about taking it back all the way." An instant later, as he was tackled at the Buckeyes' 29-yard line, he fumbled. West Virginia recovered and five plays later kicked a field goal.
The next week, at 1:02 in the third quarter in the Buckeyes' Sept. 19 game with Oregon, Snow touched the ball for the second time in his college career, on a pitchout. He fumbled again. On the Buckeyes' next possession, Snow got a third chance, a handoff from quarterback Tom Tupa. He fumbled once more. Snow had fumbled rarely while leading the Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education (CAPE) to two state high school championships. All he had done at CAPE was move upfield. Indeed, in his first game, as a 15-year-old freshman, he had gained 122 yards on 10 carries. In the second half.
But that was then, and this was now. After Snow's third fumble in three tries, coach Earle Bruce put him at the far end of the pine.
That same day, in Birmingham, an 18-year-old University of Florida freshman named Emmitt Smith was carrying the ball against Alabama. Like Snow, the 5'10", 201-pound Smith also had been a high school sensation, leading Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla., to two state championships. By gaining 8,804 yards in four years, he moved past former Oklahoma All-America and Detroit Lion All-Pro Billy Sims into second place on the high school career-rushing list, just ahead of Snow. Smith was so unstoppable in high school that an entire defensive unit once showed up with his number, 24, taped on their helmets.
November 16, 1987
Smith and Snow met at an awards banquet in Columbus, Ohio, last winter, and they found they liked each other. They also found they had a lot in common. Snow is an inch shorter and seven pounds lighter than Smith, but he has the same sort of massive thighs, wiry calves and muscular upper body. Moreover, both players come from solid, working-class families. Most of the time their parents and most of their brothers and sisters attended their games. Where Snow had those 104 rushing touchdowns (and three via the pass), Smith had 103, plus three more as a receiver. Where Smith had a national high school record 45 career 100-yard rushing games, Snow had five 200-yard games and a 16.2 yards-per-carry average his senior year. Snow is faster than Smith, but Smith can leg-press 800 pounds. "Emmitt's a really intelligent guy, really nice," says Snow. "Carlos seems like a pretty level guy. I enjoyed hanging around with him," says Smith.
But while the high school careers of these two gifted athletes seemed to run in tandem, their paths diverged sharply when it came to making the transition to big-time college football. On that mid-September afternoon, while Snow sat in dejection as Ohio State played Oregon, Smith exploded to glory against Alabama. In his first college start he gained 224 yards on 39 carries, setting a Florida single-game rushing record.
As the season progressed Smith became the only freshman in history to get as many as 1,000 yards in seven games. This put him ahead of the pace set by such other precocious first-year runners—and eventual Heisman Trophy winners—as Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson. Walker's freshman rushing record of 1,616 yards was in sight before two subpar games, against Auburn and Georgia, slowed Smith down. Snow, meanwhile, sat on the bench for two weeks, then carried just twice against Indiana. His coaches feared that their tailback of the future might fumble away the Buckeyes' hopes for earning a berth in this season's Rose Bowl.
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. "You can't practice the way he runs," said Alabama coach Bill Curry after the game. "It's a God-given talent."
Smith had earned the start against the Tide by gaining 109 yards on just 10 carries as a reserve the previous week against Tulsa. Included in that total was a dazzling 66-yard touchdown run. The week before, in the Gators' season opener with Miami, Smith had rushed only five times for 16 yards. Florida coach Galen Hall had wanted to bring Smith along slowly, which was understandable but perhaps unnecessary.
"There's a great mental adjustment between high school and college, particularly in a conference like the SEC," says Hall. "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 shrugs, contemplating what Smith might have done had he been turned loose right from the start against the Hurricanes, who beat the Gators 31-4. "Maybe he was there already. Maybe he just needed the chance."
Easygoing, polite and confident, Smith didn't complain about his backup role. "I felt I was ready against Miami," he says. "But even when Wayne Williams started against Tulsa, it still didn't faze me."
"He's a very mature, caring person," says Hall. "He cares most about his teammates."
Indeed he does. But the game against Alabama showed that Smith, only three months out of high school, was now the big shot on the Gators, and his teammates, including quarterback Kerwin Bell, a preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful, would have to care about him. Smith's success was all too sudden for one teammate: sophomore running back Octavius Gould, a former Parade High School All-America, transferred to Minnesota immediately after the game with the Crimson Tide. "I tried to convince him to stay," says Smith sadly. "I told him we'd need more than one tailback. But he made it clear he was transferring because of me."
It was a wise move for Gould, because Smith is penciled in as Florida's tailback until 1990. The week after the 'Bama game, he rushed for 173 yards on 20 carries and scored three TDs against Mississippi State. Next he ran for 184 yards against LSU. Then he got 130 yards on the ground against Cal State-Fullerton and 175 more against Temple.
And with each 100-yard outburst the Smith legend grew. His mother, Mary, recalled the time that she and Emmitt's father, Emmitt Jr., a bus driver, were watching television, and all of a sudden nine-month-old Emmitt III came crawling across the floor. "Just a little baby and already he could climb out of his crib," she still marvels. Little Emmitt always played with older kids because of his athletic skills; he had the balance to walk forever on neighborhood fences and curbs without falling off; he was the Gale Sayers of the local youth league. And now he was dazzling the big boys.
"One time in the second half he came through a hole, and I was right there waiting for him," said Mississippi State defensive tackle Anthony Butts. "I'm not sure what he did, but the next thing I saw, he was gone."
"It does something inside me to see Emmitt run," says Florida senior defensive tackle Henry Brown. "If I could, I'd steal the Heisman Trophy and give it to him. He deserves it."
What Snow deserved at the beginning was the Typical Freshman Award. If it hadn't been the fumbles, it might have been dropped passes, missed assignments or dumb penalties. "This is very confusing to me," he said at one point. "This is not high school."
No, Ohio State is not high school. In truth, it is remarkable that any freshman athlete can make the leap from Mom, home and the yellow school bus to Division I-A college football. Snow was not used to taking precise steps on each running play, nor did he know how to run crisp pass patterns or block effectively. It didn't matter that Archie Griffin himself would watch Ohio State practice and say, "Yes, Carlos is for real. He's fast, strong and quick. A little faster than I was." Talk is cheap.
"I almost think it's better if freshmen don't play," says Snow now. "Football at this level isn't fun anymore. It's very serious, like a business." He thinks a moment. "I was very nervous on that opening kickoff. As a kid I idolized Walter Payton, and I liked holding the ball like he does, like a loaf of bread. I'd never wrapped it up. In college you've got to hold it with two hands."
"He was upset after that fumble," says his mother, Mattie, who along with Carlos's father, Ralph, a truck driver for the city of Cincinnati, is one of Carlos's biggest fans and an obvious source of strength. "I told him, 'You're a learner, and there's no need to get upset if you learn from your mistakes.' In our family we've always said that there are no limits to the heights you can reach."
But Snow was having difficulty climbing the first step. Among other things, he was having a hard time adjusting to artificial turf. "I only played on it twice, and that was here in the state playoffs," he says. "I really like grass more. But the Big Ten is mostly turf, isn't it? I guess I better get used to it."
Above all, Snow had to learn how to hang on to a football if he ever hoped to play. After that performance against Oregon, Ohio State running back coach Lenny Willis presented Snow with a football with a handle on it. "Don't drop it," Willis said.
"It had pink eyeballs on it and pink writing that said something like 'squeeze me,' " says Snow. "I had to carry it everywhere. People thought I was carrying an Easter basket. It's funny, but it really did help. The message was, 'This is the price you've got to pay to succeed.' "
"The point was to keep him loose," says Willis. "Like any other kid from high school, he just has to learn about things. And as soon as he does, he'll be the tailback here. The man we call the Lighthouse."
One reason for Snow's faltering start was the hangover from the recruiting process. College scouts had descended on him, as they had on Smith, like a cloud of flies. Snow was leaning toward Georgia, to be near his paternal grandmother, who lived outside Athens. But after she died last February, he decided to attend Ohio State. Doing so meant snubbing another childhood hero, Herschel Walker, who had flown in from Dallas to guide Snow around the Georgia campus. "There's a lot of pressure on you," Snow says.
Bruce, a man under some pressure himself, working as he does in the shadow of the late Woody Hayes, slowly eased Snow back into the Buckeyes' game plan after the fumbles against Oregon. Four weeks later he got to carry seven times at Purdue. Going into that game he had four carries for minus-six yards. Against the Boilermakers he didn't fumble, and he gained 42 yards. "He was so nervous that he ran the wrong way on the first play," said Bruce afterward. "But when I asked him what he did best, he told me, 'Coach, I learned how to relax.' "
The next game was on Oct. 24, Snow's 19th birthday, and Bruce let the leash out a bit more. Snow responded in thrilling fashion, rushing for a game-high 85 yards and three touchdowns, and catching a 45-yard pass for another score as the Buckeyes whipped Minnesota 42-9. The four TDs in a game were the most ever by an Ohio State freshman. "I can't let a freshman stay in my doghouse," said Bruce afterwards. "I can see what happens to young kids. You saw what the little guy can do today; he can make the big play anytime."
Snow says that he started to feel at home after the fourth score, a safety-valve pass that he tightroped up the sideline. "Finally, I felt I was ready for college," he says.
Then came the Oct. 31 showdown with conference coleader Michigan State, on a gorgeous fall day at Ohio Stadium. Alternating at tailback with sophomore Jaymes Bryant, Snow gained just 18 yards on eight carries. Ohio State lost 13-7, netted only two yards on the ground, its second worst total in 97 years of football, and fell out of contention for the Big Ten title. The reporters who had half-expected to proclaim Snow's entrance into superstardom shuffled their feet and asked him rather perfunctorily how he felt. "I was frustrated that I kept slipping," he replied in his husky, respectful voice. "It seemed like Michigan State was all one big family. The way they were gang-tackling, it reminded me of the last game of my senior year against Kenton Falls."
Outside the press conference room an angry fan screamed, "Do something, Bruce! Why don't you quit!"
Bruce sighed. A decent man, he was faced with a dilemma: How can you blame a 19-year-old for putting your job on the line? Bruce answered the reporters' questions and then said, "We had no rushing offense at all. I thought we had opportunities by all our people. Not pinpointing Carlos Snow, but he did run the ball."
Snow knew he had failed once again. "I really feel bad," he said. "Holes were there. I should have been concentrating on cutting it up instead of going around the end. But I kept slipping. My shoes are messed up, I think."
That night Snow and a friend, freshman Kim Anderson, drove to her parents' house in suburban Columbus. There they watched Florida play Auburn on TV. Of particular interest to Snow was Smith, who by now was the object of such media hyperbole that he had been all but granted All-World status eight games into his first season.
In fact, Smith had had a number of doubters before the season started. One recruiting service didn't even bother to include him among its top 50 prospects. And while Smith had been named National Player of the Year by Parade and Gatorade/Scholastic Coaches Magazine, detractors pointed out that he wasn't particularly big or fast and that he didn't look like a stud when he ran with the ball. "Emmitt isn't a franchise player," said high school scout Max Emfinger last February. "He's a lugger, not a runner. The thing is that sportswriters blew him all out of proportion."
In fact, Smith possesses a combination of abilities and disciplines that makes him a far better runner than any one of his gifts would indicate. For one thing, he's not slow—"Actually, I haven't been timed in the 40 since my junior year," he says, "and I remember doing it in 4.41"—but more than straight-ahead speed, he has change-of-direction speed. He also has superb field vision. "He'll run full speed 45 degrees to the left and then cut back 90 degrees to the right, exactly where the hole is, because of his peripheral vision," says Bell. "To see him do that is amazing. Even if there are backs who can see that hole, they can't cut on a dime as Emmitt can."
Smith readily admits his shortcomings. "I know I'm not the fastest guy around," he says. "I remember getting caught from behind in high school by a player. Why? He was faster than me. And I know I'm not the strongest guy, either. It doesn't bother me at all. I see myself as being able to get the job done."
He's just as frank in discussing the advantages of his remarkable vision. "When I line up I don't see the wide receivers or the cornerbacks," he says, "but I see everybody else on both teams. It's not a blur, but a clear picture. I probably see things other people don't see. I can see changes in coverage. I can usually look at a defense and predict where the hole will be, regardless of where the play is called. That part is more difficult now. In high school, sometimes I'd tell the fullback where the hole was going to be before the snap and the majority of the time I was right. And sometimes I'd mess around and run to the hole with my eyes closed." Smith smiles as he recalls this. "Other times I'd take the handoff with just one hand."
Smith is the antithesis of a hot dog—no spiking or taunting for him—and he looks sheepish admitting these frivolous deeds. But no big deal. Even van Gogh must have doodled occasionally. Nor does Smith seem to care about records. "Records are made and then broken," he says. "They don't tell you what kind of football player you are. The way I see it, my talent came from God. What I add is my desire. I have great desire."
But desire won't get you where you can't go, will it?
Smith nods solemnly. "If you want to get through a hole bad enough," he says, "you'll get through it."
Escambia High was a football zero when Smith arrived there as a freshman. The Gators hadn't had a winning team in 21 years. According to coach Dwight Thomas, who arrived at the same time Smith did, Escambia had "the most negative, apathetic, losing environment I've ever been in, ever."
Thomas had heard that a youngster with great potential would be attending Escambia, and he recalls clearly his first meeting with the 14-year-old Smith. "All the other kids were acting like kids, fooling around, taking nothing seriously," says Thomas. "Then a boy in neat, pressed clothes walks up to me and shakes my hand. 'Hi, Coach Thomas,' he said. 'I'm Emmitt.' So confident, so gracious. I have three children, and I just hope they can be like him. And I don't mean anything about athletics."
Smith led Escambia to a four-year record of 42 wins and seven losses, and Thomas has no patience with those who questioned Smith's chances of success at a higher level. "Everybody talks about his great vision on the field," he says. "But where his success really comes from is how he sees himself. He's not searching for his identity, like so many kids. He's at ease. In many games he only reached single digits in carries. I'd take him out because we were so far ahead, and he'd be the biggest cheerleader on the bench. If he'd played for a lot of coaches, he would have broken Ken Hall's record for the most yards ever by a high school kid. But he didn't care about any of that."
Snow watches intently as Smith breaks tackles and slithers for tough yards against a ferocious Auburn defense. "Wow," he says.
Florida will lose 29-6 and slip to 5-3, and Smith will gain just 72 yards in 21 carries, his first non-100-yard game as a starter since his sophomore year at Escambia. Still, he made yards when no one else could have.
"Emmitt is very shifty," says Snow. "He can see things before they happen. He's very smooth, not hard. Look at him. What would I like that he has? I'd like to carry the ball."
Snow asks Ann and Jess Anderson, Kim's parents, what time it is. Ten o'clock.
"I have curfew at 11:30," he says solemnly. "If you're late, you have to run Buckeye Reminders—sprints where you drop every five yards for a push-up. After 50 yards your arms are dead. I think I'd better go."
Carlos leaves to drive back to campus. After he is gone, Ann, a diehard Ohio State fan, shakes her head and says, "Football players are under a lot of pressure, and we put it on them. Especially in a place that bleeds red and gray." She smiles at this, sensing the irony of her words.
"Around here, if Ohio State doesn't win, we don't eat," says Jess, pointing at his wife. "She won't cook is why. And during the game there's so much screaming going on, we have to close all the doors. The neighbors think we're fighting."
They laugh at their silliness.
The following Tuesday, Earle Bruce announces that Snow will get his first start, against Wisconsin on Saturday. "I'm going to leave him in," says running back coach Willis. "I'd like to see him break out."
And he does, to an extent. Playing in a rainstorm on a foreign field, Snow leads Ohio State with 79 yards on 17 carries. His best run is a nifty 32-yarder around end. He also catches four passes for 38 yards. But he fumbles once, and the Badgers convert it into a field goal. Wisconsin, which has not won a Big Ten game, sneaks past once-mighty Ohio State, 26-24.
Carlos Snow isn't the Lighthouse yet. He is a freshman, a candle in the wind fighting to shine.