Why Heisman doesn't mean NFL fame

Reggie bush of USC is the odds-on favorite to win this year's trophy, awarded Saturday.

The Heisman highway is littered with players who scored big in college and flamed out in the NFL. For every Barry Sanders (1988) or Carson Palmer (2002), there is a Gino Torretta (1992), a Rashaan Salaam (1994), and an Eric Crouch (2001). Who?

Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett (1976) and Earl Campbell (1977) carry impeccable NFL credentials. But what of Mike Rozier (1983), who ran for more than 1,000 yards just once in seven NFL seasons? Or two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin (1974-75), who never topped 700 yards rushing in the pros? Not to mention 2003's Jason White, who now works for a securities firm in Oklahoma City two years after being voted the best college football player in the nation.

Clearly, college football's top individual honor doesn't necessarily translate into success on Sundays. The pro game is faster and more complex than its college counterpart, and the best players usually go to the worst teams, ensuring a steep uphill climb from the outset. The question now is, will this year's winner, announced Saturday in New York, be the next Roger Staubach (1963, NFL Hall of Fame) or Charlie Ward (1993, never played a down in the pros)?

The award is such an honor "it shouldn't even matter whether the guy even plays pro football," says Bill Curry, a former NFL player and college coach. "But I can guarantee you, [the winner] this year will be playing in the pros, and he will be a great one."

Mr. Curry is referring to all-everything running back Reggie Bush, the versatile offensive weapon employed by the University of Southern California and the favorite to take home the trophy. In the past two games alone the junior has accumulated more than 600 yards of offense, helping lead his team to a 12-0 record and a berth in the national championship game on Jan. 4. His main competition is teammate Matt Leinart, who's trying to become just the second player to win the award twice. The only other serious candidate is Texas Longhorns quarterback Vince Young.

What about defense?

Many experts agree with Curry that Mr. Bush is destined to be an NFL star. With Heisman winners, though, strange things can happen. A few logical reasons exist for the struggles they face once off campus. For starters, the vast majority of honorees - all but five players awarded the trophy since its 1935 inception - have been quarterbacks and running backs, eliminating virtually all defensive and offensive positions on the field. This removes a host of pro- caliber players from consideration, narrowing the choice to two of the more demanding positions in the NFL.

In addition, intangible factors play an important role, from how many times a school appears on TV (stirring fan and media attention) to the quality of teammates (few Heisman winners come from schools not ranked among the Top 25 teams). This means that great potential pros - like the NFL's leading rusher, Shaun Alexander of the Seattle Seahawks, or three-time Super Bowl-winner Tom Brady - who have solid collegiate careers, often go overlooked.

Andre Ware, who won the award in 1989 while at the University of Houston, has a vote as a former Heisman winner. He says the criteria are clear in his mind: "It boils down to the best player in college football. It's something as simple as that."

Mr. Ware, who dazzled voters with 46 TDs as a junior before going pro, embodies the Heisman conundrum. In four NFL seasons, he completed just 83 passes. Asked whether the mantle of Heisman-winner placed undue pressure on him, Ware says, "Not at all. I certainly didn't feel it."

Ware and Ron Dayne (1999), who finished his career at Wisconsin as the all-time NCAA rushing leader but is now third string on the Denver Broncos, may not have been burdened by the Heisman, but they could not translate that college glory to professional supremacy. The reason may be this simple: Assessing pro prospects is a hopelessly inexact science.

All in the family

Archie Manning was a two-time Heisman finalist during a stellar college career at Ole Miss, but never won. Nor did his sons, Eli and Peyton, who both now quarterback NFL teams and are considered rising (Eli) and established (Peyton) stars.

In 1997, Peyton Manning was considered the heavy favorite to win the Heisman. As the season wore on, a media movement to reward a defensive player began. Thus, Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson scored an upset win. Eli Manning lost two years ago to Mr. White, who now watches stock tickers rather than play clocks.

"A lot of years, it doesn't translate into someone who is a great pro player," says Archie Manning, who enjoyed a solid career with the New Orleans Saints during the 1970s. "What can you do? It always goes to an outstanding player, but there is always someone who feels like they got looked over. But it's an award - it's not life and death."

Post-Heisman woes

USC's Reggie Bush is trying to become the first running back since Wisconsin's Ron Dayne in 1999 to be awarded the Heisman Trophy. If he wins he will be the third Trojan in four years to take college football's top individual honor. Below are the past five winners, all quarterbacks. Only the Cincinnati Bengal's Carson Palmer has had strong NFL success.

2004 Matt Leinart (USC)

2003 Jason White (Oklahoma)

2002 Carson Palmer (USC)

2001 Eric Crouch (Nebraska)

2000 Chris Weinke (Florida State)

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