Herschel Walker, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel: Evolution of Heisman Front-Runners

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Herschel Walker, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel: Evolution of Heisman Front-Runners
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Not since Herschel Walker has a freshman appeared this close to winning a Heisman.

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.

Since freshmen started playing with upperclassmen for good in 1972, there have only been three freshman Heisman finalists (Herschel Walker, Michael Vick, Adrian Peterson), and they have all lost for various reasons, including timing. For instance, as a freshman, Walker had one of his best games a day after ballots were due.

It's always tough to make a point in hindsight, but it's a fair argument that Walker would've won had his 205-yard, three-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."

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Cam Newton broke new ground by needing essentially only one season to bag the Heisman.

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 what's 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 propel Dayne to an eventual Heisman Trophy as a senior, but he should have received it on the merit of a single season.

Some of the 928 voters may argue the Heisman—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 worth of play.

He was so good that it didn't matter if he'd stolen a computer earlier in his college career, feigned ignorance that his father was pimping him out to schools recruiting him 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, earlier this season, 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 front-runner 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. Let's not forget the very coach after whom this award is named once insisted that a defunct football program be resurrected 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, Manziel deserved the Heisman after the Alabama game.

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 Marqise Lee could resurface to swipe the trophy 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, however.

 

The author blogs about sports in the South at thesportsseer.com. Follow him on Twitter.

This column originally ran in Sync magazine.

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