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Heisman Time: Is college football’s most glorious trophy waning?

What is the most exclusive and prestigious club in the world? No, it’s not the Silencio in Paris, nor is is CORE in New York City. (To be honest, I’m so out of touch with everything that I had to look up “exclusive clubs” to get those names.) It may be hard to believe, but it’s not Inkwell either. The aforementioned club is, in fact, the Heisman Fraternity.

Since 1935, when the Heisman was first given to Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago, it has been awarded yearly to “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.”

The Heisman is arguably the toughest trophy to win in sports. In the 78 times it has been awarded, it has gone to 77 different players. Only one player has won it twice: former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin won it as both a junior in 1974 and as a senior in 1975. Part of why it is so hard to repeat is because most people win it late in their college careers. Only four people have won the award before their junior seasons. Three sophomores have won the award: Tim Tebow (2007), Sam Bradford (2008), and Mark Ingram (2009). Even fewer freshmen have taken home the hardware: Johnny Manziel (2012) and Jameis Winston (2013). And no “true” freshman has ever won the award: Manziel and Winston captured the trophy as redshirts.

The Heisman is on a higher level than most sports awards. When I asked a fellow student what they thought of when I said “Heisman” they said “I think of honor and elegance.” The Heisman has the ability to inspire a generation. When Johnny Manziel went from being an unknown redshirt freshman out of tiny Tyler, TX to winning the Heisman, he instantly became a media sensation and an inspiration for college football fans around the nation. I myself have nearly been in love with Johnny Football since his “true” freshman season, and plan to name my first son or daughter after him.

Winning the Heisman means that you were, de facto, the best player in college football that season. But it doesn’t translate to NFL success like it used to. In the 40 years since the first Heisman was awarded, just 17 of the winners can be said to have achieved a high degree of success in professional football after college. In this decade, there are only two Heisman winners who have made it to an NFL Pro Bowl: Cam Newton (Auburn, 2010) of the Carolina Panthers, and Robert Griffin III (Baylor, 2011) of the Washington Redskins. None of the seven Heisman winners from 2001-2007 were able to stick with one team, and none of them have had much (if any) NFL success.

 

YEAR WINNER SCHOOL # OF PRO TEAMS
2001 Eric Crouch Nebraska Seven
2002 Carson Palmer USC Three
2003 Jason White Oklahoma One*
2004 Matt Leinart USC Four
2005 Reggie Bush USC Three
2006 Troy Smith Ohio State Five
2007 Tim Tebow Florida Three
2008 Sam Bradford Oklahoma One
2009 Mark Ingram Alabama One
2010 Cam Newton Auburn One
2011 Robert Griffin III Baylor One
2012 Johnny Manziel Texas A&M One
2013 Jameis Winston Florida State N/A

*Offseason and/or practice squad member only

 

The most recent Heisman winners are have only been on one team so far, mainly because they are so young. The older, more veteran players have been all over the place. There aren’t very many NFL cities that haven’t played host to a Heisman winner at some point. As the chart above shows, many Heisman winners have washed out of the league. This leads to a major question: Is winning the Heisman a big deal any more?

The NFL has a rule saying that a player needs to be three years removed from his high school graduation in order to declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft. Because of this, anyone who has a dream of playing professional football plays in college. College football is the feeder system for the NFL, so having success at the NCAA level is the easiest way to turn yourself into a high draft pick, and there is no greater success than winning the Heisman. Winning the Heisman used to come with an expectation of success for the rest of your football life. Recently, however, people have won or nearly won the Heisman and yet have failed to get drafted. Most recently, Collin Klein of Kansas State finished third in voting, and has yet to even be worked out by an NFL team. When he was still in college, people knew he would never have success in the big leagues. Despite this, he nearly won the Heisman. Just because a person does well enough to nearly win the most prestigious trophy in college football does not necessarily mean they will ever play a down in the NFL.

Still, with players such as Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota both vying for the Heisman this season, the award will once again return to a player who has the potential to be be a good NFL player. Don’t worry, college football fans: the Heisman is still the most glorious award in sports.

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