College football is the only major American team sport in which a first-year player hasn’t won the sport’s most prestigious award. Freshmen have been chosen as national players of the year in college basketball, baseball and hockey. Rookies have won MVP awards in the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL.
And yet voters for college football’s Heisman Trophy have lagged behind. No freshmen has won the Heisman since freshmen started playing with upperclassmen, for good, in 1972. Since then, the three freshmen Heisman finalists – Herschel Walker, Michael Vick and Adrian Peterson – have all lost for various reasons. Some of that has been timing. As a freshman, Walker had one of his best games a day after ballots were due. The director of the club that hosted the award ceremony said Walker likely would have won the Heisman that year had his 205-yard, 3-TD performance against Georgia Tech been considered.
But the main reasons no freshman has yet won the Heisman are ignorance and bias. Unlike upperclassmen, freshmen don’t begin seasons as known commodities and that initial lack of familiarity among mostly sportswriter voters hurts their chances. As far as I know, no sports information department has launched an early-season Heisman campaign for a freshman, no matter how talented.
Pervasive technology has largely wiped away this knowledge barrier, though. A decade ago, Texas A&M likely would have waited for this upcoming offseason to launch a Heisman campaign for Manziel. Video would have been edited and DVDs would have been mailed out along with snazzy press packets extolling the fleet feet and field awareness of Johnny Football.
The Aggies may still go through the trouble of doing this, but nowadays the Heisman’s mostly sportswriter voters are more likely to pay attention to what’s coursing through their Tweetdeck feed than dropping into their mailbox.
Bias and muddled thinking persist, though.
By and large, voters expect freshmen to be even better as sophomores and juniors. Sure, this happens most of the time. But not always. Michael Vick, for instance, led the nation in passing efficiency as a freshman in 1999 while leading Virginia Tech to the national title game, but as a sophomore his numbers dipped. Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne had his best overall statistical season as a freshman in 1996, but five regular season losses squelched any Heisman talk.
That season would still help propel Dayne to an eventual Heisman as a senior, but he should have been awarded on the merit of a single season.
Some of the 928 voters may argue the Heisman Trophy – meant to recognize “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity,” according to the Heisman Trust – should reflect sustained excellence over multiple years and not equate to an MVP award for a single fall. That a mere season’s worth of kicking ass with integrity isn’t enough to prove one’s chops. Voters want to be certain that a player isn’t “a one-year flash in the pan,” longtime Heisman voter Dave Campbell told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. “When you get right down to it, the voters are probably reluctant to vote for some freshman if you have some legitimate – and I underscore legitimate – juniors and seniors to consider.”
In 2010, Cam Newton destroyed any arguments that more than one season matters. The Auburn quarterback won the Heisman almost purely on the merit of single season’s worth of play. He was so good, it didn’t matter if he’d stolen a computer earlier in his college career, feigned ignorance that his father was pimping him out or that he was a crappy teammate.
Newton racked up 4,300 yards, and essentially secured the Heisman by squeaking out a win against a top-ranked Alabama defense on the road.
Manziel now has that same signature, late-season win – against a defense that in the Arkansas blowout appeared to be one of the strongest in recent SEC history. Moreover, the freshman’s on track to surpass Newton’s numbers while dwarfing the stats of former frontrunner Collin Klein. Manziel has a couple hiccups on his resume – losses against Florida and LSU – but his overall impact is just as impressive as Newton’s. And, like Newton, he’s even had some fairly serious off-field issues. This past June, Manziel was jailed for getting involved in a fight and police said he produced a fake ID.
But, please, let’s not make too much of that whole “integrity” criterion. Because if we start looking too far down this rabbit hole, we may just end up toppling over. You see, the very coach after whom this award was named once insisted that a defunct football program be resurrected for a game just so he could beat the living daylight out of it to vindicate a previous loss. The result: Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland College 0.
If only on-field production is considered, then after the Alabama game Manziel deserved the Heisman. Still, he could very well lose it as other top contenders have the advantage of playing in more high-profile games before the Dec. 8 Heisman announcement. Kansas State’s Collin Klein or USC’s Marquis Lee could resurface to swipe the Heisman with boffo performances in wins against Texas or Notre Dame. That, coupled with an A&M loss to Missouri, would cost Manziel a place in history.
His class shouldn’t.
The typically Arko-centric author blogs about sports in the South at thesportsseer.com. Follow him on Twitter.
This column originally ran in Sync magazine.