If, in the past two weeks or so, you've been watching the jock-sniffer segments on the TV news or plowing through the daily sports sections, you know now what deep thinkers like Copernicus and Bill McCartney and O.J. Simpson have known for ages: The earth revolves around the Heisman Trophy.
On Saturday a couple of pink-faced geezers with expensive suits on their backs and three martinis inside them will totter up to a podium in New York's Downtown Athletic Club and hand the thing to "the best college football player in America." This will be regarded in many quarters as a great event--the turning point that revolutionizes the young man's life, the key to fame and riches. It will also be the irresistible prod that hastens the best college football player in America, if he happens to be an underclassman, right out of his present stadium and into a room containing an NFL jersey, a chest of gold and thirteen lawyers.
The Heisman, those reams of copy and hours of motormouth keep telling us, is an honor akin to the Nobel Prize. Or the Congressional Medal of Honor. Or finding Kim Basinger in your bed when you get home. Win the Heisman and you're set for life--or at least until next Thursday. The thirteen lawyers will get you $9 million a week for carrying a piece of leather under your arm. The nation's Mercedes-Benz dealers will fight it out among themselves to leave a new car in front of your house. President Clinton and Secretary of State Christopher will be phoning up to get your best advice on Bosnia.
Kim Basinger might even stick around for breakfast.
So they say. The fact is, sports people are almost as fond of giving out prizes as those country-music folk in Nashville who designate a different bouffant "entertainer of the year" every three or four days. But in the awards business, it's no good unless the bestowers can plump the thing up into something like the Second Coming or the invention of the wheel. If the Heisman Trophy, now in its sixtieth year, were called, say, the Harold J. Schmunk Trophy and were given to the best college chemistry student in America, what use would that be? The kid might go out and waste his life discovering a cure for cancer instead of playing nose guard for the Dallas Cowboys.
So. The earth revolves around the Heisman. And this year's winner, for those who've been vacationing in Bangladesh, is probably going to be Rashaan Salaam, the junior running back from the University of Colorado.
Rashaan's had a good year, all right. Beginning with the quote he gave to the editors of the school's football media guide before the season even began. Asked (as the Era of Personal Highlights demands) to imagine his personal "ESPN Sportscenter Highlight," Salaam answered thusly, right there on page 55: "It's fourth and 15 late in the game at Michigan Stadium, and we're down by five. We're on our two-yard line, and with two seconds to go. Kordell pitches me the ball. I throw a 98-yard touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook and the Buffs win the game."
Not bad, Rashaan. The only thing out of whack is that he didn't get to throw the ball. Quarterback Kordell Stewart did. Westbrook caught it, as predicted, and the Buffs won the game. Salaam still benefited. Without the Miracle in Michigan and his 134-yard effort against the mighty Nebraska defense, there might not have been any Heisman for him.
Okay, the statistics. Salaam rushed for 2,055 yards and scored 24 touchdowns this year, which put some distance between him and the next best runner, Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter (1,539 yards and 23 TDs). The other major Heisman contenders were probably Carter's Penn State teammate, quarterback Kerry Collins, and Alabama QB Jay Barker, whose club rarely looks like it's going to win but always does. In his career at Tuscaloosa, Barker is 34-2-1--better than predecessors Joe Namath or Kenny Stabler.
Still, barring an earthquake or permanent closure of the saloons, the ink-and-videotape-stained Heisman voters will probably choose Salaam, who says he's 90 percent certain he will return to CU for his last season and play for new coach Rick Neuheisel. Sure, and Holy Bull wants to pull a milk wagon next year. Once the Golden Buffs lay waste to their joke of a Fiesta Bowl opponent--unranked, untalented, undone Notre Dame--it's a pretty good bet Rashaan will be gone with the wind.
Meanwhile, he's the wrong choice for the Heisman.
If there were any honor in such matters, the pink-faced geezers at the Downtown Athletic Club would be handing the trophy to Steve "Air" McNair, a quarterback who accumulated--let's see here--17,305 yards of total offense in his career. Only two weeks ago he capped his career by completing 52 passes for 514 yards and three touchdowns in his school's playoff loss to Youngstown State.
Did I mention that McNair played that entire game on one leg? His left hamstring was so badly injured that he looked like Fat Albert lurching around out there. But--whoa, Nellie!--what an arm.
As you probably know, Steve McNair plays for Alcorn State, a Division 1-AA school in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. "A minor league," chirped college football TV commentator Lee Corso, who couldn't pick his own brother out of a police lineup. "Not the same level of competition," chimed in fellow tubemouth "Beano" Cook. Really? Ask Jerry Rice and Walter Payton about that. They played in the SWAC, too, and their NFL careers proved more illustrious than anyone still calling himself "Beano" at the age of 65, or however old he is.
"Minor league." "Not the same level of competition." It doesn't take much imagination to figure out that phrases like that are a kind of linguistic code. Translated, they probably mean something to the voters like "little pissant black schools in the South on the dole from the United Negro College Fund." An ugly speculation? You bet it is. But just ask Rice, or Payton, or dozens of other sublimely gifted African-American football players from black schools who never got a sniff of Heisman consideration. Some of them, like McNair, were "the best college football player in America." Old rules still apply: You can be black, but all your classmates can't be.
Oh, well. Jim Crow never won the award, but John David Crow did. In 1957. Texas A&M.
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Speaking of winners, what about the long-held myth that winning the Heisman foretells lifelong success? Among the 1,712 Heisman articles that appeared in the Denver daily papers last week, Post writer Jim Armstrong's "Where Are They Now?" piece was probably the most revealing. To wit: For every Barry Sanders (1988), who's become a premier NFL running back, there's an Andre Ware (1989), currently mired on the practice squad in Ottawa. For every Herschel Walker (1982), still punishing defenses in Philadelphia, there's a Gary Beban (1967), reduced to selling real estate after three tepid seasons with the CFL and the Redskins. How about 1992 winner Gino Torretta, late of the University of Miami? The quarterback's been with Minnesota and Detroit but has yet to throw a pass. Last year's winner, Charlie Ward. That big guy towering over him as he sits on the bench is, well, Patrick Ewing.
One other name sticks out on the list of former winners, and I don't mean Nile Kinnick or Terry Baker or Johnny Lattner. O.J. Simpson won the 1968 Heisman Trophy after playing just eighteen games for the University of Southern California. That fame, along with his natural talent, got him to the top of the rushing game with the hapless Buffalo Bills. He once ran for 2,000 yards in a season--not a feat against big, fast NFL defenses, but a miracle.
Alas, O.J. is better known for other things these days. Don't you wonder where his Heisman is gathering dust? And whether those pink faces in New York don't grow ever pinker at the very thought of him? Looking back, perhaps O.J. should have gone after the Nobel Prize. Or the Medal of Honor. Or even the Schmunk Trophy.
Maybe now he wouldn't still need thirteen lawyers.