It was sometime in 1987 that I was among the first people invited to participate in an enterprise that has since eroded the veracity of what had long been the greatest individual award in team sports.
Respect for the brand still lingers, but the Heisman Trophy no longer maintains the legitimacy it did in the days before Heisman Watch.
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We’ve all heard of the Butterfly Effect, so I probably should have known something so innocuous could do so much damage.
A colleague from The Rocky Mountain News called one day at my desk at The Pittsburgh Press, asking if I would be willing to cast a weekly vote in their Heisman straw poll. As both publications were owned by Scripps Howard, and the poll would be distributed by the Scripps Howard News Service, I’m not sure I had much choice. Honestly, though, I didn’t see the downside.
I didn’t perceive that, one day, this sort of exercise would take the Heisman so far afield from the mission to honor college football’s most outstanding player. It has gotten to the point that someone as magical as Penn State running back Saquon Barkley will be denied the trophy that ought to be his.
There is no player in college football this season whose presence in a game screams more loudly: YOU MUST WATCH THIS.
When Barkley is on the field, the impossible not only is possible, it might just be a moment away. It might be him fielding the opening kickoff, and returning it the length of the field for a touchdown.
It might be him making an incredible juggling catch he turns into a long touchdown.
It might be him hurdling over a tackler to gain the yards necessary for a first down to rally his team.
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For all the excitement he has provided, however, Barkley will be stiff-armed by voters entangled in the weekly horse race best defined by this statement: He didn’t do anything to hurt his Heisman chances.
That mentality led to Jason White winning in 2003 over Larry Fitzgerald, to Derrick Henry winning in 2015 over Christian McCaffery, to Gino Torretta winning in 1992 over everybody, if you know what I mean.
It has shifted the definition of the award toward the player’s presumed value to his team, making it more of an MVP honor — which in turn has led to quarterbacks winning 14 of the 17 Heismans presented since 2000, compared to just four of 17 from 1970-86. Some of that surely involves the rising importance of the passing game in college football, but are we to believe there have been only a few dominant runners or receivers during this millennium?
Adrian Peterson, Leonard Fournette and Michael Crabtree would indicate otherwise.
Most of the debate regarding Baker Mayfield’s eventual acceptance of the 2017 Heisman will involve his various assaults on proper sportsmanship, including a gesture involving his own crotch that, if spotted by game officials and not just television cameras, would get him thrown out of just about any NCAA Division I athletic contest.
While that may be an issue worth debating, the simple truth is, he hasn’t been college football’s best player. He has accumulated remarkable statistics, and the only thing current Heisman voters like nearly as much as staying in the race is eye-catching numbers. Mayfield’s stats, though, aren’t significantly different than rival Mason Rudolph at Oklahoma State.
Of course, if it’s to be about numbers, Barkley can stand in that fight with anyone. He ranks No. 2 in FBS in all-purpose yardage, No. 1 among Power 5 athletes. He stands No. 3 in Power 5 kick returns and No. 2 in total touchdowns.
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It says much about how Heisman campaigns operate that Barkley’s was derailed in Penn State’s Oct. 28 loss against Ohio State — a game the Nittany Lions lost by a single point on the road. In that game, Barkley returned the opening kick for a touchdown and conjured a 36-yard touchdown from what might have been a 4-yard gain.
Ohio State spent the rest of the afternoon assuring he would not beat them again, kicking the ball away from him and stacking its defense in the box.
Fear of Barkley literally changed the game.
That is what the most outstanding players have done over the years in college football, from Michigan’s Tom Harmon to Syracuse’s Ernie Davis to Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers to Oklahoma’s Billy Sims. The modern Heisman voters occasionally stumble into selecting that guy, like when they chose Robert Griffin III or Lamar Jackson. It’s mostly an accident, though.
It won’t happen with Barkley. Maybe he’ll get invited to New York as a finalist, and then the telecast can be enlivened with a half-dozen highlights that’ll remind everyone the true identity of college football’s most outstanding player for 2017.
There ought to be a trophy for that. There used to be.