The curse of the returning Heisman Trophy winner
Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior WriterNov 2, 2023, 09:03 AM ET
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
It was Dec. 13, 2008, in New York City and time for the three Heisman Trophy finalists to take their place at the front of the room, awaiting the announcement of who would win college football’s most coveted individual award. But one member of the trio was missing. The one who had been there before.
“I was in the bathroom throwing up,” Tim Tebow confessed nearly 16 years later. The Florida quarterback was there not simply as a Heisman finalist, but as the reigning Heisman winner, seeking to become the second two-time Heisman honoree and first in 33 years.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to win it. I wanted to. Of course, I did. But when you watch the ceremony, what do you see? There’s us on the front row, and then there are all the people sitting behind us. Coaches and staff from your school, the president of the university, everyone. My entire family was there. My sister had flown in from a mission trip to Bangladesh, just for this. I knew there was a party after, with all those people, win or lose, and if I’d lost, I’d felt like I had let them all down. That’s why I got sick.”
Tebow didn’t win. He finished third behind a pair of quarterbacks — Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford and Texas’s Colt McCoy — despite earning more first-place votes than either of them.
“Winning the Heisman changes your life, there is no doubt about it,” Tebow said. “And people think, ‘Well, you won one, so the pressure’s off on the second.’ But it’s not. It’s a position every college football player wants to be in, but no one knows what that is like until they experience it.”
Caleb Williams is experiencing it now. The fame, hype, expectations, assumptions, all of it. And he’s the first to do so in this still-new NIL era, his Saturday performances — good and bad — punctuated by television commercials starring him. After a hot start to 2023, Williams and USC have scuffled midseason and his Heisman odds have plummeted.
The one person who has hated seeing that more than anyone not dressed in Trojans colors is the only man to have pulled off what increasingly feels impossible. Archie Griffin does not have any desire to be the only member of the two-time Heisman Trophy winner club. Honestly, he’d enjoy the company. It’s been pretty lonely in his corner of the room for the past 48 years.
“I don’t have to be the only two-time winner and I don’t really want to be,” the 69-year-old Ohio State legend said earlier this fall during a conversation about Williams. “I was the first. That’s plenty enough of an honor for me. I can’t wait to welcome the second.”
No. 45 let out a giant laugh with a shake of the head.
“But I’ve been waiting for a long time, haven’t I?”
Griffin, who stood at the front of the room at Downtown Athletic Club in 1974 and 1975, is and has long been, the living, smiling, complete opposite of that awards show scenario. He still returns to New York every December. And he still makes sure to shake the hand of every fellow Heisman Trophy winner in attendance, especially the person who has just become the newest designee as “the outstanding college football player in the United States…”
Archie Griffin won the Heisman in 1974 and 1975. Long Photography/USA TODAY Sports
“In 1978, three years after I won it for the second time, I shook the hand of Billy Sims, who has become a dear friend,” Griffin said. “I thought, ‘Well, he’s a junior just like I was and he has a great team coming back at Oklahoma just like I did at Ohio State, so he will definitely be back here winning this again next year!’ But he didn’t. And there have been so many guys that I was so excited thinking about them maybe getting to experience that thrill a second time, especially now, when so many amazing young talented underclassmen win it. It’s crazy to think about, really.”
Yet, here we are. It would take a miraculous turn for Williams to repeat. Since Jason White finished behind Matt Leinart, this century alone, those who have returned to college for another shot at bronzed glory have gone 0-for-10, eight who went 0-for-1 and Tebow, who went 0-for-2.
But the possibility of claiming two stiff-arming statues didn’t begin with Griffin or begin to be scrutinized with a recent run of elite quarterbacks.
Times change, failure to repeat does not
The first winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1935, one year before the award was named for John Heisman, was Chicago running back Jay Berwanger. He was a senior. And so were the first 10 winners of the award. The junior who snapped that streak in 1945 was Army’s Doc Blanchard, who in turn became the first candidate for a Heisman repeat. Unfortunately for the fullback known as “Mr. Inside” there was also a “Mr. Outside,” as in teammate Glenn Davis, who took the award in 1946 while Blanchard finished fourth.
Over the Heisman’s first four decades, from Berwanger through Griffin’s second win, those who had hoisted the stiff-armed trophy at season’s end had tallied 35 seniors and only five juniors, the first four failing to repeat, including the great Roger Staubach, who won the award in 1963 and then failed to even crack the top 10 the following year.
Army’s Doc Blanchard was the first junior to win the Heisman. AP Photo/ File
Sims came up one spot short in 1979, behind USC’s Charles White. And while the other failed Heisman defenses had been handled with gentlemanly grace, Sims growled his disappointment, saying when asked about his chances of a repeat after a disappointing midseason performance against Texas, “I don’t care. I have one already!” And after White’s Heisman win, Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer angrily stumped at a news conference, suggesting that NFL scouts vote on the award, not the media, and adding, “Billy’s two years were better than Archie Griffin’s two years that he won the thing!”
“I think when you look back on that stuff now, you realize the pressure that came with it,” Sims recalled during a 2016 chat in his Tulsa barbecue joint sitting beneath a framed Sports Illustrated cover of himself and White playing tug of war with the trophy with the headline: “Hey Man, That’s My Heisman!”
“The year I won it I was kind of an unknown guy who kind of came out of nowhere. I was a great story. The next year, man, every question after every game was, ‘Well, do you think you can win the Heisman again? Charles White just did this and the quarterback at BYU [Marc Wilson] just did that. Did you do enough, Billy?’ I don’t care who you are or how tough you are, you are still a college kid. It’s a lot.”
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Sims was just the sixth junior to win the award over 43 years. Of the 43 awarded since, 21 have gone to underclassmen. Of the first seven of those, from Herschel Walker in 1981 through Charles Woodson in 1997, all but one left early for the NFL. The lone holdout was BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, who returned after his record-setting 1990 campaign and battled through injuries to finish third in 1991. As he arrived in New York for the ceremony, he confessed, “I’m here to watch Desmond Howard win it.”
After Woodson, seniors ruled again. White, the Oklahoma quarterback who won in 2003 was a senior, but received an injury waiver to return and defend his Heisman the next year. He lost to Leinart, beginning the current era when a stunning 14 of 18 winners were juniors or younger. That “or younger” is no small development, as a longtime unwritten ageism agreement between Heisman voters was finally put to pasture by voters smitten with Tebow in 2007, the start of a three-year sophomoric streak. Then, in 2012, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel won it as a — deep breath — freshman!
How did none of them win again? Those who came up short of sitting alongside Griffin give us a not-short list of reasons.
Heisman pressure is very real. So is temptation. Exactly what forms that takes is something that changes and evolves along with every other aspect of being an athlete at a high level college football program, as does how those athletes react to it. Griffin didn’t have to deal with social media or even cable television, but even still, Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes assigned a staff member to help Griffin manage the flood of requests from media and Ohio State supporters because, as Hayes explained at the time, “The kid is too nice. He has to learn how to say no.”
After Manziel became the first freshman winner in 2012, the following offseason, then-Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman assigned two staffers to the kid who had just been pinned with the now-infamous Johnny Football moniker — one to manage his schedule and the other to field autograph requests. Alan Cannon, who has overseen A&M’s sports information office since 1999, called his friends at Florida to see how they’d handled Tebow’s repeat performances. “They warned us that this wasn’t going to be about ESPN and CBS anymore,” Cannon recalled. “It would also be about the National Enquirer and TMZ.”
Hyman sat down with Manziel and his family, stating flatly: “Johnny is not a freshman. He’s not a sophomore, junior or senior. He’s a Heisman. We can’t act like this is normal because it’s not.”
Johnny Football mania derailed Manziel’s follow-up season after winning the 2012 Heisman. Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
As we know now, Hyman was a prophet. Manziel spent his entire Heisman defense becoming notorious, from exploding cigar-smoking party Twitpics to a pay-for-autographs scandal that nearly cost him his eligibility for the season. By the time he threw for 3,732 yards and 27 touchdowns — a 313-yard, three-touchdown improvement over his Heisman year — he lost by a whopping 1,501 points to another redshirt freshman, Florida State’s Jameis Winston.
Winston stated at ACC preseason media days in the summer of 2014: “If I get Manziel disease, I want all of you to smack me in the head with your microphones.”
The reality is that he already had. He won the 2013 award despite 13% of voters left him off their ballots completely, due to a sexual assault investigation that ended with no charges filed only nine days before he became the youngest Heisman winner. Winston would also lead FSU to the 2013 national title. Then he proceeded to crash through a 2014 Heisman follow-up campaign that is still remembered less for football and more for questions about the handling of the sexual assault allegations, crab legs allegedly stolen from a grocery store in April 2014, and a bizarre midseason student center tabletop screaming incident that resulted in a half-game suspension for the biggest game of the season against Clemson.
It all resulted in a sixth-place showing behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, the worst Heisman finish for a uninjured returning winner.
“I think in the decade since then, we have learned a lot about how to handle these things better, whether it’s a coach or a player or an entire athletic department,” Jimbo Fisher, Winston’s coach at FSU and now at A&M, said when asked about then versus now. “I know that the players handle the spotlight better, because now the great ones, they have been in the spotlight since they were kids, when you really think about it. But I don’t care who you are or your background or whatever, fame is fame. And being famous is hard.”
As Hyman recalled it in relation to Manziel: “At the end of the day, it’s a kid who’s trying to become a grown-up. They all are. You can’t babysit them night and day. All you can do is try and educate them on what they are now, a celebrity, and the world they are now living in. Even as that world seems to be constantly changing.”
Manziel wasn’t the only active Heisman winner to post better or at least just as impressive numbers the following year but was still unable to impress voters like he did the year before. Not even close.
The all-time example of that was Detmer. In 1991, the BYU quarterback went against the norm and returned to Provo for his senior year, the first Heisman winner to come back since Sims. His 1990 statistics were ridiculous, setting 21 NCAA passing records and tying five more as the Cougars finished 10-3 with a signature win over No. 1 Miami in Week 2. BYU marketers devised what is considered the first true Heisman campaign, mailing out paper neckties to hundreds of voters to remind them of, you know, Ty.
As the 1991 season started, Detmer was warned by LaVell Edwards, his Hall of Fame head coach, to not become too obsessed with topping the year before, and to remain in the here and now. It didn’t work. Detmer suffered injuries and BYU opened the season 0-3 against a slate of ranked teams. He was already in his own head before October.
Ty Detmer had 4,031 passing yards and 35 touchdowns in his senior season. Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports
“We are taught as football players and athletes that your goal is to always be improving, and how do you do that?” Detmer recalled last year. “You do it by being better than your last game. But if your last game was a dream game and your last season was the dream season, that’s a measuring stick that can be difficult to manage.”
He says now that the 0-3 start was an unintended blessing. It sent the spotlight elsewhere, for a while. But when BYU didn’t lose again (there were two ties) and he finished the year with another 4,000-yard season, it was enough to earn the Davey O’Brien and Sammy Baugh awards and another first-team All-American selection. But he finished third in the Heisman vote.
“I think that’s probably the greatest challenge, to top what you did, but for me it wasn’t so much about what others expected, though that definitely is on your mind,” said Bryce Young, who won the Heisman in 2021 as he led Alabama to a national championship. Young fought through a season of physical dings to “only” a 10-2 record and didn’t just finish sixth in the Heisman vote behind Williams, but was third among SEC quarterbacks. “For me, the expectations I had for myself were much greater. That’s where my pressure came from. Not to be unfair to myself.”
Bradford, as Gators fans love to remind us, lost to Tebow in a grinder of a 2009 BCS National Championship Game, but was returning the following fall with an Oklahoma team that looked even better than the one that had just set a slew Big 12 offensive records.
In the season opener against BYU, he had just thrown a pass that topped fellow Heisman winner White’s Oklahoma career passing yardage mark but was blasted by a hit on the next play. He struggled with a severe shoulder sprain all season and became the first returning Heisman winner since Staubach in 1964 to finish outside the top 10 in voting.
Running back Mark Ingram won instead, becoming Alabama’s first Heisman winner. Days before the 2010 season opener, Ingram injured his knee and ended up having surgery. By the time he returned to action, he was forced to share carries with another future Heisman finalist, Trent Richardson. Ingram also finished outside the top 10.
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“The one aspect of football you can’t control is getting hurt,” Bradford recalled in 2014, when an ACL tear cost him the entire 2014 NFL season with the Rams. “But what drives you to get back is to do right by your teammates. Every injury is frustrating, but it’s especially frustrating when you know you had a team that had a chance to do something special if you hadn’t let them down.”
Their team was too good
Sometimes, that team around a would-be Heisman repeater is also loaded with other stars.
It’s always been a crucial component to a candidate’s portfolio that they be on a team that makes a postseason run. But to do that, there has to be more than one great player on a roster. Sometimes that Heisman winner has to share stats, stage and votes with one of those teammates.
“Oh, I knew when I came back in 2004 that if someone on my team was going to win the Heisman it was going to be Adrian,” said White, who returned to Oklahoma after his 2003 Heisman win to share a backfield with Adrian Peterson. A self-described Heisman history buff, White knew about Army’s back-to-back Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside winners and wanted to do the same with himself and Peterson, who would set several NCAA freshman rushing records in 2004. Instead, they both went to New York as finalists, but lost to Leinart. Oklahoma fans still say that the split between Sooners cost one or the other the trophy. White’s response to that: “Great problem to have.”
Leinart, in turn, was back in New York the following year, having thrown for nearly 500 more yards than his Heisman season. He finished third behind USC teammate Reggie Bush and the player they faced a few weeks later in the BCS championship, Texas QB Vince Young.
“I wasn’t upset at all to lose to Reggie,” the former USC quarterback said. “You know, every Heisman winner gets a ballot. I had him No. 1 on my ballot. I was worried that I was going to take votes away from him and cost him the Heisman, not the other way around.”
Their team wasn’t good enough
Just call this the “Lamar Jackson Rule” — that unwritten rule about one’s team needing to compete for titles to remain Heisman relevant.
The Louisville quarterback won the 2016 Heisman, electrifying college football with a stat line of 3,543 yards passing with 30 touchdowns, 9 interceptions and a rating of 148.8, along with 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns with his feet. The following season his stats were a nearly identical 3,660/27/10/146.6 in the air and 1,601/18 on the ground.
Yet, he went from runaway winner to distant third-place finisher behind Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Bryce Love of Stanford. The difference? Jackson’s 2016 Louisville team spent the entire season on the big stage, ranked as high as third and ending the year 15th, even after a three-game skid that landed them at 9-4. The 2017 Cardinals never cracked the top 10, and after four pre-November losses, dropped out of the top 25 and out of mind.
Lamar Jackson had better numbers the year after his Heisman win, but his team had a worse record. AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt
“You can’t do it all by yourself,” groused then-Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino after Jackson accounted for 491 yards of offense and four touchdowns against Wake Forest … and lost 42-32 to drop to 5-4. “He’s had to. I think what he’s done has been more impressive than last year, but the voters won’t see it that way. They’ll want another guy.”
Petrino’s complaint isn’t uncommon. And he’s not wrong. Mayfield, who threw for 4,627 yards and 43 scores and took OU to the College Football Playoff, deserved the 2017 award. Even Jackson, whose family became close with the Mayfields during that awards season, has said that. But he has also recognized the reality of voter fatigue.
“I think once you’ve had an incredible season and it’s been a great story, everyone loves it, but maybe they want to learn about a new story, a new guy, something they’ve not seen before,” the Baltimore Ravens quarterback said last month. The 2019 NFL MVP started laughing as he said, “I’m not saying that people get tired of you when you’ve been around for a while, but then again maybe I am.”
Let’s go back to Tebow. He had comparable stats on the field in 2008 compared to his Heisman year and did it while winning the SEC and the BCS titles. And he did garner more first-place votes in 2008 but finished third because 153 of 902 voters left him off their ballots completely.
“Do they get sick of you? Well, I think some definitely got sick of me,” said the only player to attend three ceremonies as a Heisman finalist after he finished fifth his senior year (and helped winner Mark Ingram and runner-up Ndamukong Suh work off nerves in the hotel weight room). “But I will tell you this, and I think every guy who has won it and comes back for another year will tell you. I’d rather be blessed with success and they get sick of me and my team than them not think about us at all.”
Someday someone will finally win their second Heisman. It’s inevitable. At least it should be. Everyone believes that, from all of those winners who didn’t pull it off to the one guy who did. Though, yeah, if they’re being honest, even they are beginning to wonder.
“Yes, one day someone will do it. At least I think so,” Griffin said, again chuckling. “I just hope that when it does, I am still here to congratulate them in person.”