As the first running back in prep history to rush for 100 yards in 45 games and the second to reach 8,000 career yards, Emmitt Smith is no stranger to extraordinary achievement as a high school athlete. In many ways, the Florida native, Texas icon and former national Gatorade Player of the Year was the perfect pick to surprise South Grand Prairie (Texas) senior Abraham Hall and Legacy (Mansfield, Texas) senior Shelbi Vaughan with 2011-12 Gatorade National Track and Field Athlete of the Year honors.
Gatorade made the announcement Wednesday afternoon at the Omni Hotel in Fort Worth with Smith posing as a celebrity reporter conducting a mock television interview with the teens before breaking the news.
“It's nice to know there are kids today who understand the significance of their role in their schools and communities," said Smith, the NFL leader in career rushing yards with 18,355, who won the 1986-87 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year trophy as a high school senior. "They're willing to make the sacrifice to be one of the best athletes in the country, and to be able to recognize them for that is a wonderful thing. They're humble, classy kids who have been given a tremendous opportunity, and I know they'll do their best to make the most of that opportunity."
Hall, a 5-foot-11 senior, won the 100-meter dash with a personal-best time of 10.19 seconds and the 200-meter dash in a personal-best 20.58 at the Class 5A state championships, leading the Warriors to a fourth-place finish as a team. The 100-meter clocking ranks No. 8 in prep history while the 200 time ranks No. 18 in history. Only seven boys in high school history rank in the top 10 of one event and the top 20 of the other.
"Man, it's wonderful," said Hall, 18. "When Emmitt walked out, I didn't know what was going on. It was an amazing experience. I had to reintroduce myself afterwards. That's how in awe I was.
"It's great to realize your hard work is paying off. Seeing the names of people like Emmitt who have won the award in the past just makes me want to achieve even higher goals and step up two more levels. It would be great to continue the legacy of what they've done."
Vaughan, a 6-2 senior, launched the discus 198 feet, 9 inches at this month’s USA Track and Field Junior Outdoor Championships, setting the national high school and junior records in the event. She also finished fourth at the ongoing U.S. Olympic team trials for track and field with a throw of 195-9. One of only two girls in prep history to throw the discus more than 190 feet, Vaughan has now crossed the barrier five times.
“I was not expecting this," said Vaughan, 17. "It's amazing to see the list of athletes who have won the award and where they are now. They've accomplished so much, and it's incredible to know I'm on a similar same path as all of them."
Vaughan is one of only four girls in high school history to throw the discus over 185 feet. Now the prep record-holder, Vaughan eclipsed the old mark by eight and a half feet. The largest previous record-breaking margin in the apparatus dating back to 1980 was one foot, 11 inches. She also won the discus at the Class 5A state championships with a throw of 187 feet, 10 inches, and also took first by launching the shot put 50 feet, 1.25 inches.
Vaughan has maintained a B-plus average in the classroom. She has volunteered locally on behalf of the Union Gospel Mission, helping to feed and clothe the needy, and has donated her time mentoring intellectually and physically challenged students in technology applications and physical education. She has signed a national letter of intent to compete in track and field at Texas A&M next season.
“Shelbi has had an amazing year,” said DyeStat.com/ESPN High School’s Steve Underwood. "I’d go so far to say she redefined what’s possible for girls’ high school discus throwers. As her coach said after her Olympic trials performance, she’s on her way to being the future of the event at the professional and Olympic level. For me, Shelbi basically clinched Athlete of the Year honors when she broke the U.S. prep record for the third and fourth times at the USATF Juniors. Capturing fourth at the Olympic trials was icing on the cake and just affirmed her status.”
Hall’s state-title-winning effort in the 100 ranked as the nation’s No. 1 time among prep competitors in 2012 at the time of his selection, while his time in the 200 was ranked No. 2 nationally. He has maintained a 3.71 GPA in the classroom. A member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he has participated in community service initiatives with that group in addition to donating his time as an elementary school outreach ambassador. He will attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he will compete in track and field next season.
“Abraham really came on this year to become a great sprinter,” said Underwood. “His 10.19 and 20.58 at the Texas 5A state meet rank right up there with the best 100/200 doubles we’ve ever seen. Then he backed it up nicely with an outstanding 100-meter dash victory against two other 10.20 sprinters at Great Southwest. He also epitomizes what it means to be an outstanding student-athlete.”
Both Hall and Vaughan are now finalists, respectively, for the prestigious Gatorade Male and Female High School Athlete of the Year award, to be presented at a special ceremony prior to The ESPYS in July. The award recognizes not only outstanding athletic excellence, but also high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the field of play. ESPNHS manages the award’s selection process.
Hall and Vaughan are the 26th and 27th Texas natives to win national Gatorade Player of the Year honors, which has been awarded since 1985 across 12 sports. Only California has produced more Gatorade national winners than Texas with 58 of 246 overall. Florida ranks third with 19.
Texas has now produced seven national Gatorade winners in boys' track and three in girls' track, also second only to California’s eight and 18, respectively. The most recent boys' winner from Texas was Cedar Hill (Texas) hurdler Jason Richardson in 2003-04 and the last girls' winner was Luling (Texas) sprinter/jumper Ychlindria Spears in 2000-01.
Seven Texas natives in the past five years have won national Gatorade Player of the Year honors across the program's 12 sports, most recently 2010-11 National Softball Player of the Year Paige McDuffee, who graduated from The Woodlands (Texas) this spring.
Want to know who won Gatorade Track & Field Athlete of the Year in your state? Click here for boys and here for girls. Visit the ESPNHS Player of the Year blog and find out who won 2011-12 Gatorade Player of the Year hardware in 12 sports by following the ESPNHS team that manages the award program’s selection process.