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PRO FOOTBALL '94 / SEASON PREVIEWS : His Goal Is Now in Sight : Colt Lineman Emtman Says He Will Play Again

September 01, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANDERSON, Ind. — The wildflower fields of Middle America are filled on this Saturday afternoon with the cries of the NFL's most tormented man.

Surrounded on three sides by waist-high white daisies, soft and bending in a midsummer breeze, Steve Emtman's face grows hard.

He stares straight ahead, not at the 100 yards of isolated grassy space, but at a stained gray T-shirt.

It belongs to Tom Zupancic, the Indianapolis Colts' strength and conditioning coach.

Emtman's chest is bare.

Today they will wrestle.

"I'm gonna shove you around," Zupancic says.

"You fat . . . ," Emtman says.

They start slapping and pushing and tugging, and soon they are moving on their feet across the grass, two huge men and all these flowers.

There are townspeople in the distance. They have driven over to watch Jim Harbaugh lead the Colts in practice.

But many soon turn their back on the scrimmage. They are facing Emtman, poking each other and shaking their heads.

They must squint to see him. They need do nothing to hear him.

"Erggggg," Emtman shouts. "Ahhhhh."

He and Zupancic drag each other to the end of the grassy area, where they are adjacent to a field with chalk lines.

This field is filled today with players who, although in full pads, don't figure to be nearly as tough as the one wearing only his shorts and his heart.

Steve Emtman dreams for the day when he rejoins those "real" Colts as a defensive lineman. But for now, he turns, Zupancic turns, and together they wrestle in the other direction.

Thirty minutes later, Emtman is sitting under a tent, his head covered in a towel.

He is doing nothing, yet he is surrounded by 16 fans. None of them have pens or paper, so they can't want autographs.

What they have just witnessed in those flower fields apparently has made them want only to look at him.

Nearby, stereo speakers play a country song from a radio station tuned in by Emtman moments before.

"You've got to stand for something," the singer croons, "or you'll fall for anything."

*

In a season of high-profile NFL comebacks, from the Achilles' tendon of Dan Marino to the leg of Randall Cunningham, the most compelling cannot be found in a headline, a pregame show or on the back of a professionally printed T-shirt.

That comeback began last October in an Indianapolis hospital bed. A player looked at a bar sticking out of his leg and listened to doctors talk about the end of his career.

The comeback continued this spring in Berkeley. A player slept on a futon in a buddy's guest bedroom for two months, took up boxing and worked out at a gym chosen because he was certain nobody there knew him.

The comeback continued this summer in the fields of central Indiana, where the player pushed not only his strength coach, but trucks.

The comeback is scheduled to culminate this fall, much later than the comebacks of Marino and Cunningham. But earlier than anyone but Steve Emtman imagined.

On Nov. 6, at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, Emtman plans to step on the field as a defensive tackle for the Colts against the Miami Dolphins.

He plans to step on the field despite suffering an all-encompassing right knee injury last season that has forced every previous such victim into retirement.

He plans to step on the field despite undergoing reconstructive knee surgery not only last year, but also two years ago, on his other knee.

And he plans to step on the field even though he would make exactly as much money if he stayed off.

Because of an insurance policy, this former No. 1 overall draft choice would make $3 million over the next two years either way.

Remind him of this, and he wipes his face with his shirt and stares at you.

Some say that is the way his father used to stare at him when he hesitated before leaving the house at 4:30 a.m. to haul hay on their farm in Cheney, Wash.

His voice is as soft as his body is large--he's 6 feet 4, 275 pounds. But his words are direct.

"Maybe this is stupid, maybe it's crazy," he says. "But there have been too many guys in this game who have come out making big money, as high draft choices, and flopped.

"Too many guys like Brian Bosworth, who have taken the money and run."

He paused.

"I couldn't do that and live with myself," he said. "I sit there and I panic. I think, what of all the things I haven't done in my career? What of all the things I screwed up?

"What if I never have a chance to make up for everything? What happens then?"

Friends say that if he doesn't come back, those around him won't be able to live with themselves.

"If he doesn't come back, I may die, because I can't keep going through these rehabs with him," Zupancic said with a laugh. "A normal guy wouldn't do this. Couldn't do this. What Steve is doing is too hard for anyone you know."

Hard to achieve but, according to those who know him, easy to understand.

From the time he walked off that remote piece of land in Eastern Washington to become a star for Washington and then top overall pick by the Colts in 1992, Emtman has been like this.

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