[Web Special] What It Takes to Win the Heisman

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For 75 years, all we hear about are running backs and quarterbacks: Can a defensive lineman get some love?

This Saturday, the Heisman Memorial Trophy, the most prestigious award in college football, will be announced. There are five finalists this year. To be considered for the award, players must have had a statistically outstanding season and must have played on a team that was in contention for a national championship (...continue reading)

It is an award for winning, for having the heart of a champion, and for stars aligning in a magical year for an individual, a team, a coaching staff and the fans that support them. This is the 75th year for the award.

Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, Alabama running back Mark Ingram, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow are the five contenders for the award.

I grew up in upstate New York playing football in the shadow of the Syracuse Orangemen and the legend of Ernie Davis. In 1961 he was the first person ever to break the color line and be selected to win the award. The 2008 movie, “The Express” chronicled the short life of Davis, who died before he would play a down in the NFL. The legend of his and his Syracuse predecessor Jim Brown gave me, a young tailback, dreams of winning the Heisman wearing number 44.

The actual trophy that players receive is made of all bronze and patterned after a former New York University football player. NYU no longer has a program. The fist player to win the award came out of the University of Chicago – Jay Berwanger – but he never played any professional football. In its 75 years of outstanding college football players, only eight have gone on to be in the NFL Hall of Fame.

If you look throughout the history of the award, mostly the winners are running backs and quarterbacks. Some of the most electric, though, are the wide receivers. Guys like Johnny “the Jet” Rodgers, who won the 1972 Heisman while a junior at University of Nebraska. Rodgers held the college record for returned punts for decades, had game-breaking speed, and was hard to take down. He electrified Nebraska fans – and the nation –  en route to a national championship, which was one of the few unanimous national championships in the modern era at that time. As a pro, he found his great success in the Canadian Football league.

The winners in the 80s were almost all successful, marking a unique time in its history. We are all familiar with names like Herschel Walker (1982, GA), Barry Sanders (88, OSU), and who could forget the 1984 winner from Boston college, Doug Flutie? Only eight Heisman winners have ever won the NFL's Superbowl.

Most of the players from the 90s have passed into obscurity. One notable player is Charlie Ward who played quarterback at Florida State from 1990-1993. He also played basketball and baseball at FSU. He won the Heisman in his final year at Florida State, but instead, he played pro basketball for 11 years and reached the NBA Finals in 1999 with the New York Knicks. His NBA career would end in the 2004-05 season. He is now a high school football coach.

This year, history could be made by either Florida’s Tim Tebow (who puts Bible verses in the eye black underneath his eyes), the living legend who has broken rushing and scoring records in the South Eastern Conference (SEC). And with the appearance of a defensive lineman – Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh – as one of the five finalists.

They join running backs Mark Ingram of Alabama and Toby Gerhart of Stanford, and quarterback Colt McCoy of Texas.

Obviously, most kids who dream of winning this award never do. It is only a select few, a company of champions who will forever be legendary. This Saturday, the dreams of one of these five young men will have been fulfilled; that they are in the conversation to begin with is an achievement. To win the Heisman, though, is not about who you will become, but who you have already been. Their future may be defined by winning, but it will not define them as people. Let's hope this year's winner also graduates and has success in life of an equal measure, far beyond football.