THE HEISMAN HEIST
A part of my football-loving heart died the day Peyton Mannings Heisman Trophy was given to Charles Woodson. The bruise left behind has made it difficult for me to root for the teams and stars who make fall Saturdays among the most decorated in American sport.
Woodson filled a highlight tape for the 1997 Michigan Wolverines, a team that finished undefeated and shared the national championship with Nebraska. In addition to his extraordinary athleticism in the Wolverine secondary, Woodson had the bonus novelty of playing some offensive downs, even reaching the end zone a few times, to the delight of the ABC and ESPN cameras.
It was Mannings Heisman, though. At least the Heisman I once held in such high regard, the trophy won by Roger Staubach, Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, and Doug Flutie. Sure, Manning broke every passing record in the Tennessee book (his season marks of 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns in 97 will be broken when college football expands to a 20-game season). And he led the Vols to the 1997 SEC championship. And his 11,201 yards through the air are the most in SEC history. And his 39 wins are the most by a college quarterback in the history of the sport.
His stats aside, though, Manning earned Americas most famous trophy by his performance off the field, as a student-athlete. He was named an Academic All-America in 1997 (a list Woodsons name somehow missed) and was presented no fewer than four national academic awards. He graduated after his junior season at UT, but chose to (stop the presses!) remain in school for a fourth year, recognizing that college football is a brief but glorious chapter in a young mans life. Right about the time Charles Woodson was announcing he would leave Michigan a year early to turn pro, Manning picked up his masters degree in sports administration (3.50 GPA).
All this is ancient history, you say? Manning and Woodson are millionaires now, both NFL superstars. The quarterback is on pace to someday test the passing numbers of Tarkenton, Elway, even Marino. The cornerback is a perennial All-Pro and has already played in a Super Bowl. So why all the fuss? Why the chip on my shoulder?
This Saturday night, another portrait will be commissioned at New Yorks Yale Club (the founder of the award, the Downtown Athletic Club, was severely damaged in the attacks of September 11, 2001). Another young man will be able to pose with the trophy that made Charles White, Billy Sims, and Barry Sanders household names. But no matter whose name is in that envelope (Larry Fitzgerald? Jason White?), he wont be the college football player Peyton Manning was. Wont be close.
In 1997, the D.A.C. -- and by extension, college football as an enterprise -- had the chance to honor the prototype for a modern student-athlete. A young man with credentials to spare both on the gridirion and in the classroom. A record-breaking player who led his team to victory, then led the marching band in celebration. The stuff of comic books.
I take some consolation in the list of players who have NOT been chosen worthy of the Heisman: Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Eric Dickerson, John Elway, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith. These are the names Mannings will stand beside someday. And the Woodson supporters will need a ticket to see Mannings bust in Canton.
The Heisman voters had the chance in 1997 to ignore the televised hype of this years most dynamic star and re-establish some credibility for the trophy they had recently handed to the likes of Ty Detmer, Gino Torretta, and Rashaan Salaam. Instead, Peyton Mannings Heisman Trophy became Charles Woodsons most famous interception of all. Arm extended -- eyes tightly closed -- Ill be doing my best Heisman imitation Saturday night.