Heisman Candidate or Blocking Fullback? The Difference Is Apparently Only Skin Deep.
By Jimmy Chitwood
This powerful article was written in August of 2008, after Peyton Hillis' senior season at Arkansas and before his rookie season with the Denver Broncos. Its analysis has proven to be right on the mark. Peyton is just a small example of many other white running backs, receivers and defensive players have been denied the same opportunity to succeed that black football players routinely do. Peyton Hillis is but the tip of a very, very large iceberg of white football players who have been discriminated against that has been accumulating for 30 years and counting.
(8/22/08) As an avid student and fan of the game of football, I am constantly informed (or maybe indoctrinated) that talent wins football games. I am told that coaches recruit the best talent. And play the best talent. And that the best talent will always be put in a position to make plays regardless of virtually any other criteria. Talent is all that is important, and talent will always get the opportunity it deserves. Nothing else matters.
Coaches, scouts, etc. get paid to win, after all, and not signing the most talented players and not giving said players the most opportunity would be foolish. They would lose their jobs if they didn’t sign and play the best possible talent for their team! This I am told time and time again as if by mantra. These are stated as simple, and obvious, FACTS that everyone just knows are true, told to me in tones of shock and bewilderment if I question it, akin to my wearing a bikini in church.
Yet I do have questions...because the performances I see on the field don’t make sense if the “talent” thing is true.
When trying to work out puzzles of this sort, I find that it makes things easier to understand if I compare things (players in this instance) that are similar, the more similar the better. In this scenario, if players are evaluated in the same manner, then similar players will yield similar evaluations/accolades/playing time/and so on. Many people might be surprised that this isn’t how things work, neither in college nor professional football.
In fact, there are often VAST differences in the treatment of players who are virtually identical...except for one small difference.
A case in point:
Player A, as a high school senior, was 6'2", 220 pounds, and ran a reported 4.5 40. Player B, as a high school senior, was 6'2", 220 pounds, and ran a reported 4.5 40.
Player A rushed for 2,134 yards and 27 touchdowns on 223 carries as a senior (9.6 avg.). Player B rushed for 2,631 yards and 29 touchdowns on 261 carries as a senior (10.1 avg.).
Player A was a Parade All-American and one of the top prospects in the nation. Player B was a Parade All-American and one of the top prospects in the nation.
Here is where things get interesting…and confusing…and troubling…because it is readily apparent that both of these athletes are incredibly talented. And physically, one could hardly hope to find two more similar athletes…except for one evidently all-important difference.
Player A is black and Player B is white.
And thus, their careers take DRAMATIC turns when they enter the realm of college football and beyond…
Despite the incredible similarities, Player A was considered to be an elite talent running the football as a tailback and is now considered a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
Player B, on the other hand, was considered to be an elite talent…as a blocker and was never given the chance to be a tailback. He was a fullback, you see.
Player A is Chris Wells, and he plays for Ohio State.
Player B is Peyton Hillis, and he played for the University of Arkansas.
Let’s continue the comparison, shall we?
Wells, known for his powerful running style, played as a true freshman. At tailback.
Hillis, known for his powerful running style, played as a true freshman. At fullback.
Wells averaged 5.9 yards per carry last year as the featured back, behind a blocking fullback in an offense designed around him.
Hillis averaged 5.6 yards per carry last year from his fullback spot without a lead blocker, while running from much nearer the line of scrimmage, and getting the majority of his carries in short-yardage situations. (As an aside, teammate and two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up Darren McFadden also averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season for the Hogs.)
Wells is said to be an explosive playmaker and is most often compared to Eddie George, Maurice Clarett and Jim Brown (an old-school fullback). All of whom were featured backs despite not having elite speed. None were asked to be a regular blocker.
Hillis is said to be too waaaaay too slow to be a featured back. So, since his freshman year, he has been forced to add weight and block almost full time.
But let’s take a close look at the speed thing for a moment…Both players have a career-long run of 65-yard touchdowns. Both runs came against last year’s NCAA Champions, the LSU Tigers. You can’t ask for more identical comparisons, apples to apples, Buckeyes to Razorbacks.
Take a look at each of the runs:
Can you tell any difference?
But there are significant differences in the two players despite their obvious similarities, differences that appear to show Hillis to be the more complete player.
Wells is one-dimensional. In two years as the featured playmaker at OSU, he only has seven catches for 37 yards. He has never been a factor in the return game. Nor has he ever blocked for another back.
Hillis is multi-dimensional. Despite being miscast, he set school records for running backs in career receptions (118), receiving yards (1,195) and receiving touchdowns (11). And he was the Razorbacks top punt returner for much of his career, averaging over 10 yards per return. And his talents are also unselfish and team-first. He also blocked for two individual 1,000-yard rushers (McFadden and Felix Jones) for the second consecutive season.
So, draw your own conclusions. It’s possible there is some “other” explanation. It’s possible that skin color “wasn’t” the determining factor. I guess anything is possible…but if so, if I am wrong, I’d like to have those facts presented to me.
And for anyone who says, “Why does it matter?” Just consider a couple of reasons, amongst the many. Hillis has suffered both physically and financially for the position change. As a fullback, he has been forced to carry more weight than his body is designed for. He has endured more physical punishment due to the rigors of the fullback position. AND, compare the meager salary a seventh-round draft pick at fullback makes to what a first-round tailback gets in the NFL.
Come to think of it, I’d say there are millions of reasons it matters.