The defining moment for me in deciding who deserved my vote for
the Heisman Trophy this year took place in mid-October in the
office of Arizona State quarterbacks coach John Pettas. In
search of material for a story on Sun Devils senior quarterback
Jake Plummer, I sat across from Pettas, full of serious
inquiries. But Pettas intercepted me. He pointed a remote
control at the television set in one corner of the room. "Watch
this," he said.
On the screen was Plummer in the final 56 seconds of Arizona
State's season opener against Washington, escaping four tacklers
in a desperate scramble and throwing on the run to wideout
Lenzie Jackson to set up the game-winning field goal. Pause.
There he was again, catching a halfback pass and twice cutting
back against the grain before diving into the end zone for the
go-ahead touchdown in a 42-34 comeback victory over UCLA. Pause.
And one more time, scrambling and lunging for a crucial first
down in a double-overtime defeat of USC.
There was a freewheeling vigor to Plummer's work. He seemed to
be forming options for himself as plays broke down in front of
him, becoming more creative as the circumstances became more
dire. Downs weren't over until Plummer determined the situation
was hopeless, and his teammates followed along, believing. There
was something old-fashioned about the tableau, as if this
quarterback wasn't Plummer but Roger Staubach or Gary Beban.
That tape showed something more, too: this year's solution to
the Heisman mess. Once a sweet little honor at the end of the
college football season, it's now an outsized, overblown,
season-long production number, often going to the athlete with
the gaudiest statistics or the most shrill supporters. It will
be awarded this Saturday night at the Downtown Athletic Club in
New York City, at a ceremony replete with television cameras and
guys in suits, as far removed from the ideal (don't laugh) of
college football as Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman winner, is
from Deion Sanders.
Among the players most publicized in this year's Heisman race
are Iowa State junior Troy Davis, who became the first running
back in NCAA history to rush for 2,000 or more yards in a season
twice, and Florida senior quarterback Danny Wuerffel, who has
thrown more than 100 touchdown passes in his career and was all
but given the Heisman by ESPN analyst Lee Corso shortly after
Labor Day. Both players are terrific. Davis carried 402 times, a
daunting workload for a bad team. Wuerffel took Florida to four
SEC titles and to the brink of the national title in 1995 and,
given the pounding he endures from onrushing defenders, has
proved himself to be the toughest player in the country.
But the groundswell for both Davis and Wuerffel underscores the
corruption of the Heisman. Davis is deemed worthy by many
pundits because his statistics are so daunting. Yet numbers are
only one measure of a player's worth--and a cheap one at that.
Houston quarterback Andre Ware won the 1989 Heisman on the stats
ticket, running up supersonic numbers in coach John Jenkins's
absurd offense. A lack of compelling statistics kept Nebraska
quarterback Tommie Frazier, as good a college quarterback as has
played in the last decade, from winning the Heisman a year ago.
Davis is great but no better or more deserving than Florida
State's Warrick Dunn, who has fewer yards but fewer carries.
Wuerffel not only has big arithmetic but also has the
season-long support of many in the media. There are 920 Heisman
voters, far too many. Some never see a game in person, instead
relying on others in the media to guide their voting.
Plummer's statistics are good, but he didn't break any NCAA
records while leading the Sun Devils to an 11-0 record. His
support has grown only by word of mouth because none of Arizona
State's games were broadcast on network television nationally
and the Sun Devils' most significant moment, a 19-0 home win
over Nebraska on Sept. 21, ended in the early morning hours of
Sept. 22 in the East. Without Plummer, Arizona State would have
at least three losses, and the warmest story of the autumn would
never have unfolded. He personifies improvisation, excitement
and even a sort of innocent spirit, everything the college game
was before it became universally televised and corporatized.
I haven't a clue when it comes to determining who is the
"Outstanding College Football Player of the United States," as
my Heisman ballot instructs. I do know that the Heisman should
find the soul of the game but too often finds only its arms and
legs. So this year, it's an easy call.
COLOR PHOTO: JOE GIBLIN [Jake Plummer in game]