GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Emanuel Hall fielded question after question with poised grace. A smile here. A chuckle there. Deep beneath the bleachers of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, he appeared to be in his element.
It’s been the toughest year of Hall’s life. Aside from the groin injury that sidelined him for the previous four games, he’s been dealing with the death of his father, Daton Hall, who passed away unexpectedly on Oct. 11.
Stepping onto the turf Saturday was his return to normalcy.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “you’ve still got to take care of your business, because the world doesn’t stop.”
Hall took care of business against No. 13 Florida, catching four passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in Missouri’s 38-17 road victory. It was his first game since Sept. 22. His mere presence on the field opened up a Missouri offense that had struggled without the senior. The Tigers needed Hall, and Hall needed the Tigers.
The receiver’s production was impressive, especially considering he was a game-time decision who hadn’t played in six weeks — or practiced in eight weeks, for that matter.
“I was telling my coaches the whole time, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play this game or not,’” Hall said. “As soon as I get on the field, it’s kind of hard to go, ‘Ah, no, I’m not going to play anymore.’ I just toughed it out.”
Equally important for Missouri was the attention Hall commanded defensively. He gained a step on his defender several times in the first quarter, and even though quarterback Drew Lock missed him on most of those opportunities, it forced the Gators’ safeties to play deep and shade to his side.
That freed the middle of the field for players such as wideout Johnathon Johnson and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. Johnson caught five balls for 47 yards and Okweugbunam registered four catches for 46 yards before leaving the game in the first half because of a bruised shoulder. Overall, Lock completed 75 percent of his passes and threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns against the nation’s 11th-ranked pass defense.
“When you’re growing up, you got your blankie,” the quarterback said. “It’s like I was sleeping and I was freezing for four weeks. The little blankie came back and made some plays for us.”
According to right tackle Paul Adams, Hall even opened up the Tigers’ ground game. Missouri piled up 221 yards on 42 carries.
Simply put, the Tigers’ offense is incomplete without Hall. It was missing a certain swagger in the last four games without its game-breaking, big-play weapon.
“I think the energy part plays a big role, too,” Hall said. “Because when we’re all together, when everybody’s healthy, this offense is the best one in the country.”
The receiver showed extraordinary courage on his journey back to the playing field. Lock said he doesn’t think Hall would’ve been able to manage this situation a few years ago. The quarterback thinks the mental toughness he’s seen Hall build through football in his time at Missouri helped him push through a painful situation.
“He’s grown up,” Lock said. “He’s becoming a man real quick.”
“I love this game more than anything,” Hall added. “So to be able to play and to be able to perform after all that other stuff that’s been going on, it’s awesome.
“God worked his magic, and I’m here. So that’s all I can ask for.”
The receiver grew closer to God during the last three weeks than he’s been at any point in his life. He has also leaned on his teammates, fellow senior wideout Nate Brown in particular, and his mother, Shannon Simmons, to work through this difficult time.
Simmons has attended every single one of his college games — not including Hall’s four-game absence this season — and she made the trip from Nashville, Tennessee, to Gainesville with no clue whether her son would play.
“She was preaching health first,” the receiver said. “I can’t help it, though. I love playing. I love playing.”
After the game, Hall spotted his mother near Lock’s dad, Andy, behind the Missouri sideline. He immediately walked into the bleachers and embraced her. Then, he said he loved her.
Moments later, Hall stood before reporters and spoke about the Tigers’ first win over a ranked opponent since 2014. It was a much-needed victory for Missouri, one Hall thinks will help define and elevate the program in the coming years.
It was also a much-needed victory for Hall.
“There’s no energy and feeling like a team win,” the senior said.
Hall wasn’t overjoyed after the game. He’s still in the middle of a challenging and heartbreaking situation. But one look into his calm brown eyes showed that, at least today, Hall found his inner peace on the football field.