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 a virtuoso amateur career? 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.
FOOTBALL April 26, 2008- Jake Long of the University of Michigan is first pick by the Miami Dolphins at the NFL draft. He signs a 5-year, $58 million contract, making him the highest paid offensive lineman in the league’s history. Long would stay with the Dolphins through 2012 and later join the Rams, Falcons and Vikings before retiring in 2017.
NASCAR April 26, 1998- Bobby Labonte wins the DieHard 500 as the only driver for the Joe Gibbs Racing team. It was the 2nd season victory for the Texas native who also took 1st place at the Primestar 500. At season start, Labonte had finished 2nd to Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500, but landed 6th in final points standings at year-end.
GOLF April 24, 1988- Rosie Jones wins the LPGA USX Golf Classic in a playoff against Kathy Postlewait. It was the second of what would be 13 total victories at the LPGA. The California native attended Ohio State University and turned professional in 1982. Though never clinching a Major, she placed 2nd four times in her career.
TENNIS April 29, 1978- Tennis twin prodigies Mike and Bob Bryan are born in Camarillo, California. The duo won 16 Grand Slam Doubles championships between 2003-2014 and were named ATP team of the decade. They also took gold in Doubles Tennis at the 2012 Olympics. Both played at Stanford University, winning back-to-back NCAA titles.