What is this? It is a prolate spheroid in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.An odd fact about the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award is that the twenty-five pound hunk of bronze does not display its eponymous stiff-arm. (The helmet should be a dead giveaway.) Instead, the foot-tall fellow that this entire hubbub is over is one Ed Smith, an altogether pedestrian player for NYU from the year the award was first given by the Downtown Athletic Club of Manhattan. Heisman was a member of the club.
-- John Heisman, addressing his first team
At Alabama, our players do not win Heisman Trophies. Our teams win national championships.
-- Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, answering a reporter’s question during his retirement announcement
I ain’t a player. Get it right, I’m controllin’ the game.
-- Jay-Z, “The City Is Mine”
In truth, the first Heisman was not even a “Heisman,” but simply the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy. It’s recipient, Jay Berwanger, a halfback for the University of Chicago whose career highlight was blinkering future president Gerald Ford, thought so much of the thing that he reportedly used it as a doorstop.
Even the Downtown Athletic Club itself has been replaced now. ESPN broadcasts the presentation ceremony from a Times Square theater, replete with satellite hook-ups. The club’s old location in lower Manhattan now holds condominiums under the slightly modified banner of the Downtown Club. Its “athletics” now include a squash court and mini-golf.
Over the years, the Heisman Trophy has been a slow yet accurate barometer of the college football atmosphere. As scholarship limits and conference payouts dispersed the talent pool around the nation’s colleges, the Heisman regularly broke its earlier taboo on rewarding underclassmen. For example, if the projections and Vegas odds hold, the Heisman could go to its third sophomore in as many years tomorrow.
Many critics point to the Heisman’s record against NFL draft status to dismiss its value, but they fail to grasp the award’s hold on the popular imagination. The Heisman is not a predictor and is, if anything, backward looking. In a sport like football, where team discipline is most paramount to on-the-field execution and success, the anomaly of an individual merit becomes more of an aesthetic statement than the result of any validating criteria.
Others decry the award’s regional biases and its blind allegiance to traditional programs, especially when they are atop the polls, by a cadre of reporters with long-held biases and past recipients with personal allegiances. However, as true as this may be, it only reaffirms the trophy’s standing as a comment on the game itself, a State of the Union Address for the past season. The Heisman Trophy is the script for Hamlet written on a thousand typewriters by a thousand chimps.
Of those complaints, I have heard many and all of my life. And much of the time, these protests were accompanied by the echo of the old Coach’s words: championships, not trophies. Such was our history, such was our truth. We are unaccustomed to questioning the Gospel.
However, it should be noted that although Alabama has never produced a Heisman winner itself, the university does hold a trophy on campus. John David Crow won the award in 1957 for Texas A&M--and for Bryant, whose museum displays it on a pedestal under a spotlight. A rather gaudy presentation for something the man supposedly didn’t care for.
Recently, throughout this season and the last, magazine covers and television hustlers have decreed, “Bama is back!” (this time, they mean it), and they’ll be at it again all the way up to January 7. However, if I may, I’d like to offer a small voice of dissent.
As Mark Ingram waits to hear his name called in New York City and his team prepares for Pasadena, against a school no Alabama squad as ever beaten, it might be possible that, rather than “back,” Bama is somewhere it has never been.
And at Alabama, that’s saying something.