On Dec. 11, when the Heisman Trophy is awarded to the nation’s best college football player, Chris Weinke may be the victim of unfair discrimination. The Florida State quarterback has done everything you could ask a Heisman candidate to do. You want gaudy stats? He’s completed 266 of 431 passes this season, piling up 4,167 yards and 33 touchdowns while allowing only 11 interceptions. You want victories? He’s guided the Seminoles to a 10-1 record and a berth in the Orange Bowl, where this year’s national champion will be determined. You want career achievement? A victory in Miami would make him only the second quarterback in college football history to lead a team to consecutive national titles. But Weinke may lose the Heisman for something outside his control. He’s 28, and critics suggest that a collegiate award shouldn’t go to someone who’s older than many starting quarterbacks in the National Football League.
It’s an absurd knock. This isn’t peewee football, where teams are grouped into age categories because of the huge advantages older kids have (in size, strength, speed, and coordination) over younger ones. The college game matches up grown men of exceptional physical gifts, and it doesn’t have an age ceiling. The reason Weinke is still a collegian is that he spent six years playing minor-league baseball after finishing high school before deciding to accept Bobby Bowden’s promise to give him a scholarship if he ever wanted to return to football.
The interruption could hardly confer an unfair advantage. Learning to hit a breaking ball is no preparation for reading blitzes. Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman as Navy’s quarterback in 1963, wasn’t drafted by an NFL team until the 10th round because he was obligated to put in four years of active-duty service after graduation—years in which, it was assumed, his skills would rust and his instincts dull. Muhammad Ali, who wasn’t allowed to box for three and a half years during his battle with the Selective Service System, was never the same fighter afterward. Weinke had a similar handicap to overcome. When he showed up in Tallahassee in 1996 to claim his scholarship, offensive coordinator Mark Richt was not happy to waste it on a dubious reclamation project. “He was out of shape, he had no touch on the ball, his footwork was horrible,” Richt recently informed Sports Illustrated. “I told him, ‘You might never play here, you know?’ “
If anything, Weinke deserves special consideration for overcoming extra hurdles. But he’s in no position to gripe if something arbitrary and irrelevant hurts his chances. After all, lots of arbitrary and irrelevant factors are working in his favor. The trophy, the most prestigious in American sport, is supposed to go to “the outstanding college football player in the United States.” In reality, though, upward of 90 percent of those formally eligible are disqualified before the season’s first kickoff. To start, only players on the best teams are considered: Heisman, like the first Mayor Daley, don’t back no losers. If Weinke were piling up big numbers for a 3-8 team, his chances of winning the trophy would be roughly the same as Mia Hamm’s.
Worse, since its inauguration in 1935, with only one exception, the award has always gone to a quarterback, running back, or receiver. In days of yore, when players were expected to contribute on both sides of the ball, defensive prowess counted for something, at least in theory. But since the rise of the two-platoon system in the 1960s, only one defender has won. That was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997—and he grabbed the spotlight by not only returning punts but sometimes lining up on offense as a wideout.
In America, any boy can grow up to win college football’s highest honor—unless he’s of sufficient size to play on the line, in which case he might as well aspire to an Academy Award for Best Actress. You could be the greatest center or guard to come along in a hundred years and still be spurned. No lineman has ever won. Orlando Pace, a supremely dominant 320-pound offensive tackle for Ohio State (and now a Pro Bowler for the St. Louis Rams), was exceptionally lucky to even be a finalist in 1996.
This disparity isn’t because the glamour boys who throw, carry, and catch the ball just happen to be the best players. In the last 20 years, eight of the collegians chosen first in the NFL draft have played other positions. But they were beneath Heisman’s notice.
If Chris Weinke doesn’t win the Heisman, it will be a terrible injustice. And if he does, ditto.