HEAVY Hitter

Steve Emtman's ferocious play is a major reason why Washington is undefeated and headed for the Rose Bowl
December 02, 1991

When Washington defensive tackle Steve Emtman wants to relax he goes hunting-and-fishing. Not hunting or fishing, not hunting sometimes and fishing others. He likes to go hunting-and-fishing. When he is done bucking hay or working the cattle, he'll strap on his .44 and visit one of the many ponds on or around his family's 2,000-acre farm in eastern Washington. There is no finer recreation than this, he says. "You know how those carp sometimes come to the surface to see what's going on?"

Near the town of Cheney, where curiosity does indeed kill the carp, they say the wheat fields often resound with the roar of gunfire. It's Izaak Walton as the Terminator. Somewhere, at some pond, a film of scales remains on the water, and Emtman is fully relaxed.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to playing football, Emtman also favors search-and-destroy over catch-and-release. It's a similarly brutish thing to watch, maybe more so, because quarterbacks are not even nominally protected by a wildlife commission. Emtman, who weighs 290 pounds—only 9% of it fat—and who might as well be carrying firearms as he leads the Husky defensive line, assigns quarterbacks the same rank in the food chain as he does all bottom feeders, and he destroys them with equal gusto and lack of remorse.

Against Arizona earlier this season, he nailed quarterback George Malauulu for a two-yard loss on the Wildcats' first play of the game. On the next play, he sacked Malauulu for a five-yard loss. It was like shooting fish in a...well, you know. Before the third play could commence, a horrified Malauulu called a timeout. "Shooting carp, sacking quarterbacks," says Emtman, "it's all the same thing."

This year the Washington defense has allowed 67.1 rushing yards a game, second in the nation, and ranks in the top three in all other major categories, a principal reason why the second-ranked Huskies, who beat Washington State 56-21 last Saturday, finished their season 11-0 and are headed for a second straight Rose Bowl game. Emtman, a junior who is already on the pro scouts' must-have lists, is the big reason that this defense is so fearsome. He is huge, he is strong, he is athletic, and he has that defensive lineman's temperament that, up to now, has been difficult to put into words. To put it simply, Emtman is the kind of guy who will shoot carp with hollow-point ammunition. "There's really not much left of them," he says, speaking of the fish. Last season, he began as an unheralded sophomore and ended with all manner of honors. Emtman anchored a defense that permitted a mere 67 yards per game on the ground, and he was named Pac-10 co-Defensive Player of the Year and second-team All-America. Washington went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in nine years and defeated Iowa 46-34.

Entering '91, Emtman was named to six preseason All-America teams, and was touted as a leading candidate for both the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award. Because he has performed at an even higher level than he did last year, when he had 16 tackles for losses (55 tackles altogether, a lot considering that the Husky defense doesn't exactly get dragged up and down the field), he figures to receive honors from AP, from UPI and also, presumably, from the NRA.

If he decides to enter the upcoming draft, in April, Emtman could be the No. 1 pick, according to the experts who keep track of these things. And we all know what first picks are worth—more than $2 million a year, recession or not. Nobody yet knows what Emtman will do, least of all Emtman. He says that he kind of likes college life and that the NFL is only "in the back of my mind." On the other hand, he and his family are not unmindful of the money that's lying on the table. Before this season began, Emtman purchased a $1 million insurance policy from the NCAA, at a deferred cost of $14,000, that will pay off if Emtman is injured.

Whatever the future holds for Emtman, his success proves what we have always suspected of football coaches: They don't know anything. Emtman had been lightly recruited out of Cheney High. Notre Dame did not drop by Cheney. Nor did Penn State. Or Miami. Well, who knew where Cheney was? "It's a little hard to get to," says Washington coach Don James, cheerfully.

Cheney is a town of 7,700 people and quite a few more cattle. It is situated amid rolling wheat fields with a skyline that includes an occasional silo. At 6'4", Emtman would not have been hard to find, but few looked. Though he was an honorable mention USA Today All-America and was named to several regional lists of outstanding schoolboy players, only Washington State, an hour away in Pullman, was eager to land him. Some Big Sky schools visited, and Washington invited him to its campus, but nobody in Seattle expected that he would turn out to be the perfect replacement for defensive tackle Dennis Brown, whom the Huskies lost to the San Francisco 49ers in last year's NFL draft. Says James, "We thought he'd be a decent offensive lineman in a few years."

An offensive lineman? The kind of guy who, when he goes fishing, stoops to using bait and a hook? "I just knew that's how they were thinking of me," says Emtman, in disgust, though he finally chose Washington for its tradition of fine linemen.

As it turned out, the coaches had misread his personality and underestimated his desire. Maybe if they had hung out with him at the fishing hole, or watched him heft 120-pound bales of hay in the summer heat, they would have had a better idea of what side of the ball to put him on. Now the Husky coaches love to natter on about Emtman's killer instinct or, more often, his work ethic. That first year, however, they didn't know what to do with him.

In fact, Emtman was a little lost himself. Before arriving at Washington, he had never played football, he says, without someone reminding him that he was the best. Things came easily to him, even in the classroom; he had never been forced to crack a book all through high school. And here was Emtman, suddenly crammed into this puny urban acreage in Seattle, redshirted and playing on a scout team, and flirting with academic ineligibility. "The only place I felt wanted was the weight room," he says.

Emtman became the hero of the barbell room, squatting and bench-pressing his frustrations away. His grades soon improved—he is majoring in small-business management—as he developed better study habits, and so did his strength as he joined competitions with his powerlifting teammates. He has put on 35 pounds since arriving at Washington, and he has raised his GPA from a 2.00 in his freshman year to his current 2.80. Emtman's coaches appreciated all those numbers, but they were more impressed with his determination. "Everything that's important to him, he wants to be the best at," says defensive line coach Randy Hart.

In 1989, when Brown injured his foot in the first half of the Huskies' game against Oregon, Emtman filled in and started the next three games until Brown returned. There was no keeping him out of the starting lineup in '90. He continued to surprise his coaches, and not simply because of his eight sacks, more than double the number Brown had had the previous year. For one thing, he wasn't afraid to dress his teammates down. In Emtman, the Huskies had an unofficial sophomore captain. Says Hart, "Steve feels that if he's going to invest so much of his time and effort, it gives him the right to lead. And not one senior ever snapped back at him."

During a spring scrimmage this year, Husky Stadium suddenly reverberated with the sound of Emtman slamming his helmet against a metal equipment chest on the sideline. His defensive unit had just gotten pushed around by the No. 2 offense, and he hadn't enjoyed it much. "Ones, right here!" he yelled, gathering some sheepish 280-pounders around him and blistering them for several minutes.

"It's refreshing," says Hart. "Now I'm not the one always coaching motivation."

For those of you whom Emtman has barked at, be assured that he is even harder on himself. That superb year he had last season? What he remembers most about it are two plays. In the Colorado game, the guard in front of him pulled, and Emtman was instantly on top of the ballcarrier—and missed the tackle. Washington lost. Against UCLA, he barely missed sacking quarterback Tommy Maddox—Emtman had his arms around his legs—and watched as Maddox completed a 21-yard pass that set up the Bruins' winning field goal. These two games were the Huskies' only defeats of 1990.

Says Emtman, "All I remember is how I screwed up. Those plays just haunt me."

Note that he is not haunted by lost opportunities to fatten his sack totals. Individual statistics mean little to him. "We don't get that many plays, so the totals are meaningless," he says.

James Emtman remembers taking his nine-year-old son to a Punt, Pass and Kick competition in Seattle, where Steve was, as he is now, a man among boys. "He had this thing won going into the kick," says James. "All he needed was a 20-footer. Well, he kicked a 50-footer, but 30 feet to the side. He cried all the way home. He didn't mind losing if it was to a better player, but blowing it on his own, he couldn't take that."

Today, Steve talks about achieving that perfect game and is disappointed at how far from it he seems. When people hear him talking like that, they begin to think that maybe he will remain at Washington for his senior year, just for the challenge of it. "I look at film and I see so many mistakes—my stance, fundamental things," he says. "I've got a long way to go."

Still, he is not without hope. "I see potential. It's there."

There is no predicting what Emtman will do next. Like at spring practice this year, when Emtman was leading several players through calisthenics. Emtman shuffled left, they shuffled left. Emtman dropped and did push-ups, they dropped and did push-ups. Emtman stopped, hesitated and did a full-blown backflip. His teammates stood agog. It is a surprising thing to see 290 pounds uncoiling in midair. "Like a Cadillac doing a somersault," said middle guard D'Marco Farr at the time. Emtman had never done a backflip before in his life. "Things just come over me sometimes," he says.

Meanwhile, the war against quarterbacks continues, and Emtman respects no limits nor many rules in the decimation of that population. He's straight-ahead destruction, a one-man pillage, a Saturday afternoon entertainment unto himself, if you happen to enjoy the ransacking of backfields. As any carp would tell you, this guy comes out firing.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERFor two seasons, Emtman (right) has savaged offensive linemen such as Oregon's Heath Howington. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe big question is: Why did so many schools pass on an athlete as imposing as Emtman?

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