My Heisman Trophy ballot is due in a few days. Because the Heisman Foundation frowns on voters disclosing their choices before the award is announced – I couldn’t live with myself, knowing somebody in New York is frowning at me – I’ll take the high road and keep my ballot selections to myself.
Besides, I haven’t decided.
But I’m prepared to volunteer a prediction: History is about to be made. For the first time in 77 years, the Heisman Trophy is either going to a player whose candidacy entirely rests on defense (Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o) or a freshman (Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel).
Te’o rates as a long shot. Unlike Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, the 2007 winner whose résumé was beefed up with three touchdowns on offense and another on a punt return, Te’o has built a case that’s more anecdotal – he’s the heart and soul of a defense responsible for his team’s berth in the national-championship game – than statistical. True, Te’o’s seven interceptions are impressive, but modest compared to the crazy numbers “Johnny Football” put up as college football’s most productive dual-threat quarterback since, well, Robert Griffin III.
In addition to his pinpoint passing and dazzling ability to avoid tacklers, Manziel has been blessed with some good fortune: He was born in 1992, two decades after the NCAA declared freshmen eligible for intercollegiate sports. The traditional reluctance of Heisman voters to support freshmen candidates isn’t entirely about the voters’ bias: Between 1935 and 1971, except during World War II, freshmen weren’t relevant on fall Saturdays.
After the ban was lifted, Heisman Trophy voters needed some time to accept the premise of a freshman qualifying as the outstanding college football player in America. Take 1973, when Penn State running back John Cappelletti won in a landslide.
Cappelletti had a terrific senior season, scoring 17 touchdowns for the unbeaten Nittany Lions. His acceptance remarks – he devoted the award to his younger brother Joey, suffering from childhood leukemia – became the basis of a television movie, and remain on the short list of most inspiring speeches ever given by a college athlete.
But was Cappelletti the outstanding college football player of 1973? It can be argued he wasn’t the outstanding running back in the state of Pennsylvania. As Cappelletti was rushing for 1,522 yards that season, Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett ran for 1,586 yards, helping the Panthers to a Fiesta Bowl appearance one year after they finished 1-10.
Among Dorsett’s accomplishments in 1973 was his 265-yard rushing effort against Northwestern, which then ranked as an NCAA record. He averaged 5.5 yards a carry. (Cappelletti averaged 5.3) And yet, after the votes were counted, Dorsett placed 11th, behind the likes of Texas’ Roosevelt Leaks, Arizona State’s Woody Green and UCLA’s Kermit Johnson.
Nothing against Leaks, Green or Johnson, but they weren’t in Tony Dorsett’s class. Literally. Leaks was a junior. Green and Johnson were seniors.
Dorsett was a freshman.
Heisman Trophy voter Smith Barrier of the Greensboro (N.C.) Daily News reflected the thinking of the early 1970s when he told Sports Illustrated: “I don’t buy the ‘senior-only’ qualification, but a freshman?”
A few years after Dorsett left Pitt with a Heisman Trophy of his own – he won in 1976, as a senior – Georgia rode the coattails of freshman Herschel Walker to the 1980 national championship. Walker was a revelation, a running back who combined the strength of an interior lineman with the speed of a world-class sprinter. In a 1980 game against Vanderbilt, he ran for 207 yards.
By, uh, halftime.
Georgia coach Vince Dooley was a sportsman with a disdain for running up the score. So Walker ended up on the bench for 11 quarters – almost three full games – and still gained 1,616 yards.
But he finished third in a Heisman Trophy vote won by South Carolina senior running back George Rogers. When Walker finally received the award, as a junior, it was more a nod to career achievement than an acknowledgement of a breakout season. He enjoyed that as a freshman, when he was the best running back on the planet.
Press the fast-forward button to 2012, and you get redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel occupying the front-runner’s position in the Heisman race once denied Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker. We’re not talking about any profound gains in the human-rights movement here. All we’re talking about is a sports award determined by an electorate that used to apply a class bias toward obviously worthy candidates. It’s a bias the electorate no longer applies.
There’s a word for this, and I love the sound of it.