The Heisman Trophy As A Non-Predictor
College football’s most prestigious award was just accorded to Baker Mayfield, the Oklahoma Sooners’ QB who led his team to a 12-1 season and a spot at the Rose Bowl.
With his legacy now inscribed in the annals of NCAA football, is the native Texan who is the first walk-on recipient of the Heisman Trophy destined for NFL greatness? History suggests a clear “no”.
Not only is there no correlation between winning the coveted amateur prize and finding success as a professional athlete, but there is also no surety of victory at the college national playoffs and championship.
In the 51 seasons since the first Super Bowl game was launched, only 9 Heisman winners would claim an NFL title and out of those, only 4 to date would be inducted into the pro-Hall of Fame.
Coming out of Notre Dame and joining the Green Bay Packers, Paul Hornung was the first Heisman recipient (1956) to go on and win the Super Bowl (I) and later be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame (1986).
Hornung was followed by just three other football luminaries who managed to raise the Trophy in college, take home a Super Bowl ring, and be professionally enshrined: Roger Staubach (1963, VI & XII, 1985), Tony Dorsett (1970, XII, 1994) and Marcus Allen (1981, XVIII, 2003).
In a class of his own, Marcus Allen remains the sole athlete to also collect an NCAA National title (USC, 1978) and a Super Bowl MVP.
So what happened to the majority of Heisman heroes who put in virtuoso amateur careers? The stories of their post college lives on the gridiron are as varied as the sportsmen themselves.
1989 Trophy winner Andre Ware was the first draft pick by the Detroit Lions, but the University of Houston QB started in just a limited number of games and only found success with the Canadian Football League.
1993 Heisman recipient Charlie Ward won several Bowls with Florida State but the multi-talented athlete ended up joining the NBA where he played point guard for the New York Nicks from 1994-2004.
2003 notable QB Jason White found himself an undrafted free agent with weak knees that prevented him from competing in the NFL following an accomplished stint at the University of Oklahoma.
While most Heisman winners were drafted and did go on to post at least modest careers in professional football, many, primarily from the pre-Super Bowl era, never ran the field again after college.
Jay Berwanger, winner of the first Heisman award in 1935, was known as the Chicago Maroons’ “one-man football team”. Though drafted into the NFL, the University of Chicago alum entered the work force after he and Bears’ owner George Hallas failed to agree on a salary.
Ernie Davis, a graduate of Syracuse University and the first black player to hoist the Trophy in 1961, signed up with the Cleveland Browns but was diagnosed with leukemia and never played a single professional game; Davis died in 1963.
Princeton halfback Dick Kasmaier was the last Ivy Leaguer to run with the Heisman in 1951. He was a 15th round pick by the Chicago Bears but the standout footballer decided to pursue an MBA at Harvard instead.
More than anything, the Heisman Trophy is an enduring symbol of football athleticism at the amateur moment. But as a crystal ball, the celebrated mark of achievement has no predictable value of an athlete’s professional career.
BASKETBALL November 28, 2009 The Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Golden State Warriors 130-97 at Golden State. The Lakers would wrap up the season with a 57-25 record and go on to defend their title at the NBA Championship by overtaking the Boston Celtics 4-3. Kobe Bryant, star player on the Lakers roster, played all 7 games, averaging 28.6 ppg and taking home the MVP award.
BOXING November 20, 1999 Junior middleweight fighter Stephan Johnson fights Paul Vaden in Atlantic City for a $10,000 purse. Johnson is knocked out with two punches in the 10th round and falls immediately into a coma. Despite hospital efforts, he never recovers and dies less than three weeks later on December 7th. The 154-pounder who lived and trained in New York City turned pro in 1987.
FOOTBALL November 26, 1989 The Saskatchewan Roughriders defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 43-40 to win the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup. Finishing only 9-9 for the season, the Roughriders were underdogs going into the 77th annual Grey Cup championship. With the game tied at 40-40 and only 9 seconds left in the 4th quarter, they clinched the title with a 26-yard field goal.
BASEBALL November 19, 1979 Nolan Ryan signs a record 4-year, $4.5 Million contract with the Houston Astros. The gifted pitcher who hurled consistent throws at 100 mph and above remained a force on the mound into his 40’s. Ryan started off with the NY Mets where he won the World Series in 1969 before moving on to the Angels, Astros and Rangers. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.