Most years the Downtown Athletic Club could probably engrave the winner's name on the Heisman Trophy before the ballots are even counted. An unexpected amount of suspense, however, suddenly has attached itself to the election of this season's best college football player. As a result, Saturday's announcement will not be a mere formality. In its latest issue, Sports Illustrated focused attention on the wide-open nature of the Heisman race by endorsing virtually unknown halfback Joe Dudek of Plymouth (N.H.) State over the two players generally considered the strongest contenders, running back Bo Jackson of Auburn and quarterback Chuck Long of Iowa.
Some readers may have figured this was another hoax, a sequel to the prankish story they ran about a baseball phenom in this year's April 1 issue. Dudek is no fictitious character, though, but a very legitimate player, one who beat Walter Payton's record with 79 career touchdowns, albeit at the small college, or Division III, level. Although most of the thousand-plus sports- writers and sports-casters who vote on the Heisman will leave him off their ballots entirely (electors vote for three players in descending order), Sports Illustrated has used its cover to effectively muddle the Heisman air. Not that there wasn't growing confusion already.
For a while the candidates seemed to sort themselves out. Ohio State's Keith Byars, runner-up to Doug Flutie last year, was injured and saw very limited duty. Brigham Young's Robbie Bosco, the other top returnee, blew his chances when intercepted four times in a shocking loss to Texas-El Paso. Miami's Bernie Kosar opted to turn pro before the season; Washington State's Rueben Mayes didn't get untracked soon enough; and Navy's Napoleon McCallum was overlooked playing for a losing team.
As things developed, Jackson and Long moved to the front of the pack, but not so clearly as to eliminate doubts about their Heisman worthiness.
Historically, voters have gone for running backs with glittering statistics, which gave Jackson an edge. Eventually, however, two lesser-known players, Michigan State's Lorenzo White and Temple's Paul Palmer, overtook Jackson on the rushing chart. Then, too, some have questioned his grit after taking himself out of two games.
Long no doubt would be in the driver's seat now if Iowa had maintained its No. 1 ranking. The Hawkeyes slipped, though, after losing to Ohio State in a nationally televised game that was Long's worst of the season. Chuck, of course, had an outstanding year and is perhaps the key reason Iowa (10-1) won the Big Ten title.