Friday, November 25, 2011

Closing the Deal

"They can quit playing now. They have played the perfect game."

Dave Kindred
Louisville Courier–Journal

It's different with every Heisman Trophy winner.

Sometimes, guys go into seasons as the clear favorites to win it — and they don't get hurt and they don't have more than one or two really bad games and, when they receive the Heisman in December, it seems to have been preordained.

Other times, Heismans are won primarily on the basis of one or two explosive performances — whether those performances came in the Heisman–winning season or not, whether they were representative of the player's skills or not.

Sometimes you're not so sure.

Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers, it always seemed to me, may have secured the next season's Heisman on this day 40 years ago.

The 1971 Heisman was given to Auburn senior Pat Sullivan, an Academic All–American who graduated with a degree in business administration — in addition to setting all kinds of records at the quarterback position.

That decision had already been made by this time in 1971 — even though Rodgers, with an electrifying performance, had not yet sparked the #1 Cornhuskers to a victory of legendary proportions over #2 Oklahoma and Sullivan's Tigers had not yet lost to Alabama by the convincing score of 31–7 after the announcement had been made.

Sullivan's senior status — and academic credentials — were just enough to edge out Cornell's Ed Marinaro, the Ivy League's first legitimate Heisman contender in years.

And if anyone even mentioned giving Rodgers the trophy in 1971, he was probably talked out of it rather quickly — perhaps because Sullivan would have no other opportunities to win the Heisman and Rodgers would, perhaps because Rodgers was a convicted felon (and no convicted felon had won the Heisman before).

It wasn't because no one knew who Rodgers was.

He had been making contributions to the team's success all season — but Nebraska's Heisman contender in 1971 was quarterback Jerry Tagge (and he finished seventh). There were also a couple of OU players who had support in the Heisman balloting — halfback Greg Pruitt, who finished a distant third, and quarterback Jack Mildren, who finished sixth.

Anyway, what happened 40 years ago today had no influence on the Heisman balloting. In a procedure that differs dramatically from the one with which modern football fans are familiar, the winner was announced the day before Nebraska and Oklahoma played each other, and the trophy was presented to Sullivan nine days later.

And history tells us that Rodgers' Cornhuskers beat the second–ranked Sooners that day in a game that, 40 years later, folks who are old enough to remember it — and even folks who hadn't been born yet when the game was played — speak of it in hushed tones.

But Rodgers' early punt return was widely seen as the decisive play on that Thanksgiving afternoon, and it is hard for me to believe that Rodgers did not think, when he left the field that day, that he had just closed the deal on the next season's Heisman Trophy.

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