Steve Emtman is weary and frustrated. He’s also determined to repay the Indianapolis Colts for the faith they showed when they made him the top pick in the 1992 NFL draft.
In three seasons, the defensive lineman has spent nearly as much time in the hospital as on the field. Once again, he’s ready for training camp.
“I’m getting tired of rehab, very tired,” said Emtman.
“Calling me frustrated is probably the biggest understatement of the year. It’s been real rough.”
Emtman had reconstructive surgery on his left knee after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament as a rookie. Five games into the 1993 season, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament, the medial collateral ligament and a tendon in his right knee.
Last season, he played in four games before he had another operation for a herniated disc in his neck.
The 6-foot-4 Emtman never missed a game because of injury while starting two years on Cheney High School’s basketball team or three years as a starter on its football team. He also was available for every game during his three seasons at Washington, where he helped lead the Huskies to a share of the national championship and a 12-0 record as a junior while winning the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy.
Emtman had his second operation in October 1993, one day after he was driven off the field, pounding his fist on the golf cart in anger as much as in pain. Doctors repaired one ligament and the tendon, but decided to give the anterior cruciate ligament more time to heal.
After pushing himself through sometimes “torturous” rehabilitation following reconstructive surgery on the right knee, Emtman was removed from the physically unable to perform list on Aug. 16. He practiced in pads with the team for the first time Aug. 29 and played for the first time in almost a year Oct. 2, recording his only sack of the season on one of his three solo tackles.
After three more games and 80 plays, it was back to the hospital.
“There’s no question I’ll be ready for training camp. I’ve been cleared to do everything at mini-camp. I’m hoping to have all the strength back in my arm by training camp, so that I won’t have to baby it, and that I’ll take every snap to get myself prepared for a full season,” Emtman said after a workout at the team’s complex.
“It’s been like a big-time roller coaster ride. Personally, I’ve been down a lot more than up. But, I’m very optimistic about this upcoming season. The way this team has come around since I got here, I feel it’s on the verge of a major breakthrough and I want to be a part of that … I’m sure I’m going to be in the same kind of shape that I was coming in as a rookie.”
When the Colts rewarded Emtman with a multiyear contract that made him a millionaire, it was anticipated he would provide an immediate impact. That happened before his first injury. He had 49 of the 119 tackles recorded by the defensive linemen in the team’s first nine games in 1992, along with three sacks and a 90-yard return of a Dan Marino pass that was the longest touchdown return in NFL history by a defensive lineman.
“I don’t feel I’ve proven anything in the NFL, and the way this team is now, my role is different,” he said. “I have a lot more to work with as far as talent on the team. I don’t have to come out and be the star, make the big tackle on my own. It’s gotten to where we’re a complete team. I’ve just got to come out and play as a part of the team. I want respect for how I play, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Coach Ted Marchibroda called Emtman “a wonder.”
“He could walk away from football today, and everyone would understand. He doesn’t need the money, but he loves the game,” Marchibroda said. “I know he’s in that training room nearly every day. He’s got amazing determination. That’s what made him a great football player.
“He’s had some bad luck with injuries, but as a man, he’s someone we all respect and are pulling for.”
The Colts, led by NFL offensive rookie of the year Marshall Faulk, improved to 8-8 last season, double the number of victories they had in 1993.
“We made a lot of progress last season as a defense. By the end of the year, everybody had it down and we played a lot better. Early in the year, we made some mental mistakes, and it cost us,” Emtman said. “We can’t expect anything less than a winning season, and the playoffs this year. I just want to be a part of achieving that.
“I’m confident, and the team is confident. We can’t be cocky, because we haven’t proven anything. But we will be going into every game knowing we can win it. “
Emtman was a 300-pounder as a rookie; he wants to be around 280 in the 1995 campaign.
“Being mentally sharp is more important than anything. In the last year, I’ve learned a lot more mentally about the game. Before, I could rely on my size and my strength. But with my injuries, I’ve learned that I have to learn the other part of the game,” he said. “Now I want to take my game to the next level, and I think I can do it at a lighter weight.
“Everyone asks me about my knees,” he said. “I’m tired of hearing about my knees. My knees are not why I didn’t play at the end of the season last year. I had a serious nerve injury. Weighing less puts less strain on the knees. The knees are fine… . I’m ready to play.”
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