Heisman Trophy caps rags-to-riches story of University of South Carolina running back

George Rogers's story follows the same, familiar theme of other rags-to-riches sports sagas. But it is something special, the stuff of Hollywood movies.

A broken home, an imprisoned father, and a mother too poor to pay the bills are all part of his tale. So also are his days skipping class to take jobs washing dishes or weeding fields -- and still he once couldn't afford the $2 insurance money required to play high school football.

"You know," Rogers once told Sports Illustrated, "for a kid brought up like me, football makes you or breaks you."

Let it be known that on Monday, Dec. 1, George Rogers collected the Heisman Trophy at New York's Downtown Athletic Club. The award, presented annually to the nation's best collegiate player, makes it clear that he "broke" football and not vice versa.

The 6 ft. 2 in., 224-pound tailback will go down in the game's history as one of its greatest escape artists.

On countless occasions, this awesome package of thunder and lighting has bolted in and out of the grasp of tacklers, running to glory for himself and his school, the University of South Carolina. His greatest escape, however, was from a path marked "poverty and despair."

As the Heisman recipient and the nation's leading ballcarrier, he will command a hefty professional salary, the kind that will allow him to build a house for his mother.

That dream was also held and realized by the 1977 Heisman winner, Earl Campbell, one of many poor blacks to get a leg up in the world via football.

For Rogers, the breakthrough came after moving from Atlanta to Duluth, Ga., where as a reserve he was forced into action in a high school game. He scored four touchdowns. The next year, as a senior, he gained 2,300 yards, sending college recruiters flocking to his doorstep, such as it was.

Jim Carlen, South Carolina's head coach, says Rogers didn't really have a home, although reportedly he was living with a relative. "He often slept on the couch of a teammate and ate at the coach's home," Carlen explains.

Rogers wound up at South Carolina, partly because Carlen's straight talk appealed to him and partly because "other [schools] made me feel like I was being bought."

He made his choice knowing South Carolina was not a "brand-name" football school (it had never won a bowl game or even produced a consensus All-American). Consequently, his exploits only gradually earned national recognition, and then not really until he moved from fullback to tailback his junior year.

Given more latitude to chart his own running routes and additional time to gather speed, the powerful Gamecock made himself the country's second-most productive runner. With a whole state's hopes riding on his shoulders, the team won eight games (the most in history) last year and Rogers finished seventh in the Heisman balloting.

This season he locked up the national rushing title with nearly 162 yards a game as the Gamecocks again notched eight victories in regular-season play.

Based on recent history, Rogers appeared to have the inside track when it came time for sportswriters and sportscasters to cast their Heisman ballots. Running backs had won the trophy the past eight years, their glittering yardage statistics compiled during a period when ground games generally flourished.

Passing has been on the increase, though, giving rise to preseason speculation suggesting either Purdue's Mark Herrmann or Ohio State's Art Schlichter might become the first quarterback to win the Heisman since Auburn's Pat Sullivan in 1971.

Both players ran into problems as the season progressed, eventually finishing fourth and seventh respectively in the final tally.

The players who emerged as Rogers's most serious challengers were Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green and Georgia running back Herschel Walker, the eventual second and third place finishers.

Green faced the seemingly insurmountable task of becoming the first defensive specialist to win the Heisman, while Walker was attempting to make himself the first freshman on the Heisman scrolls.

Pittsburgh undertook an ambitious promotional campaign to get its man elected , retiring his number and sending out full-color posters of Green to the media in one last, final push.

Top-ranked and undefeated Georgia didn't feel impelled to beat Walker's drum so loudly, particularly not since he had outgained Rogers in a nationally televised showdown back on Nov. 1.

When it came decision time, though, voters had to be impressed with George's consistency -- a string of 21 straight games rushing for more than 100 yards.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.