College Football Countdown: No. 90 Steve Emtman

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Eighteen years before Ndamukong Suh made his push for the Heisman Trophy, Washington Huskies star defensive tackle Steve Emtman built an equally compelling case for the nation’s top, individual honor.

Emtman didn’t win; like Suh, he finished fourth in the final balloting. However, he capped the 1991 season with the prize that matters the most: a national championship, sewn up with a 34-14 rout of Heisman winner Desmond Howard’s Michigan Wolverines.

“We proved we can play with anyone in the country. We’re 12-0, and I think we deserve a ring,” Emtman said following that Rose Bowl blowout.

The Huskies got their ring. Steve Emtman’s belongs in a trophy case with the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. Needless to say, Emtman was a unanimous All-American selection that season, and 16 years later, he became a College Football Hall of Famer.

The 1991 season stands as the crowning achievement of Don James’ illustrious tenure coaching the Huskies. For those of us who grew up on college football in the 1990s, Steve Emtman is the player most associated with Washington football, and thus, most indicative of the Dogfather’s reign.

The ’91 Huskies held opponents to an astounding 9.6 points per game, and limited three Top 10-ranked opponents to a combined 42 points. Michigan in the Rose Bowl Game was one; Nebraska in a two-touchdown Huskies romp, in Lincoln, was another.

Ask a random college football fan or pundit, and I assume the team they’re most likely to reference as the Pac-10/12’s most dominant of the modern era as 2004 USC. However, the 1991 Huskies belong in that conversation, primarily for that imposing defense.

Alas, Steve Emtman seems to come up more frequently not as a Heisman contender or anchor of one of the Pac’s all-time best teams, but an NFL draft “bust.”

Bust is one of those words in the sports take lexicon that makes me cringe; Emtman’s the quintessential example why.

Injuries short-changed Emtman in the NFL. He wasn’t lazy, or not up to snuff as a talent. His 1996 season with the Miami Dolphins showed Emtman’s potential when not facing surgery.

In a 2011 interview with ESPN.com’s Ted Miller, Emtman addressed the b-word. His perspective should be presented as an epilogue to any of those bust listicles published during draft season.

When I was healthy, I think I did OK. It wasn’t like I didn’t perform at all. Yeah, there’s frustration. Any athlete who sets out to set a higher standard, if you don’t reach, it’s frustrating. As you get older, though, you look back on it and you go, ‘I don’t question my work ethic or my effort to be good.’ I just didn’t achieve everything I wished to achieve.