To get to the actual ballot, I had to check a box saying that I would not divulge my Heisman vote prior to the announcement Saturday. This was the offshoot of the Heisman Trust movement last spring to clamp down on sports writers publicizing their votes in the days leading up to the ESPN broadcast.
Basically, the Heisman Trust didn’t want media members doing what they do for a living: voicing their opinions to the readership. They wanted a secret voting process, undoubtedly to help build suspense (and TV ratings).
With reservation, I checked the box. Then cast my vote. In the future I may join Dennis Dodd and Tony Barnhart of CBSSports.com, who renounced their ballots in the wake of the heavy-handed Heisman crackdown.
This was the last twist in one of the more eventful and odd Heisman campaigns in my 20-plus years as a voter.
It ends with only one logical winner, who may or may not wear jersey No. 5 for No. 1 team in the nation (uh-oh, that non-disclosure may be close enough to a disclosure to get me in trouble with the Heisman publicity police). It ends with a battalion of competitors – Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, AJ McCarron of Alabama, Tre Mason of Auburn, Andre Williams of Boston College and Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois – in a neck-and-neck battle for a distant second. It ends with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater wondering what they did to be left off such an inclusive invitation list.
And it ends with an anticlimactic ceremony Saturday night – although the planned Friday press conference by Patricia Carroll, lawyer for the family of the accuser in the Jameis Winston non-case, could spice up the proceedings.
It began with Manziel as the controversy-stained defending winner who opened the year with a half-baked, half-game suspension from an NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits. That now seems quaint compared to what Winston would go through months later.
Once cleared, Manziel looked for a long time like he’d have a real shot at joining Archie Griffin as the only two-time winners of the award. That appalled some folks who believe the Heisman is as much a citizenship trophy as a football trophy – they want the classy Griffin to remain a fraternity of one in perpetuity, for nostalgic/myopic reasons that make little sense. But Manziel voided that argument in the last two weeks of the year, playing poorly in losses to LSU and Missouri – and just like that last year’s 11-2 SEC darling was an 8-4 SEC underachiever.
Mariota was the hot flavor for a while, but then the Ducks lost two games in three weeks and he was dropped from most ballots faster than Oregon calls plays. The fact that he didn’t even make the group of finalists was a surprise, and seemingly an indication that even now people are not paying enough attention to the West Coast.
At the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter against Auburn on Nov. 30, after throwing a 99-yard touchdown pass, Alabama’s McCarron looked like he might have had the award won. When the clock ran out that night, the 99-yard bomb was merely the third-biggest play of the quarter and McCarron had lost his chance.
Lynch and Williams were late arrivals to Heisman Hypeville, riding prodigious statistics in from the periphery. But then both left inglorious last impressions – Lynch threw two interceptions in NIU’s blowout loss to Bowling Green and Williams suffered an injury in BC’s loss to Syracuse.
Mason was the true 11th-hour sensation. The Auburn running back got some ancillary attention for gaining 164 yards on vaunted Alabama, but it was the 304-yard explosion against Missouri in the SEC championship game that suddenly put him on ballots. That was a good way to make everyone forget the 34 yards on 10 carries he had against Mississippi State, or the 77 yards on 21 carries against Mississippi.
Which leaves one man. The only player in America who has been consistently excellent – while winning every game – is Winston. He burst onto the scene on Labor Day night, carving up Pittsburgh on the road in his first college game, and then backed up that revelatory performance 11 more times.
The only real challenge Winston had was far more serious than anything the ACC could throw at him. When a sexual battery investigation of Winston that began in 2012 bubbled back to life last month, it cast doubt on the player’s freedom, reputation and football future.
In much the way Cam Newton excelled while enduring an NCAA investigation late in his Heisman campaign – a far less serious situation than a criminal investigation – Winston kept playing great football. And when Florida's State Attorney William Meggs declined to charge him last week, the Heisman race was effectively over.
Winston’s criminal record is clear, but his reputation did take a few hits as details of the case came out. There are some who will not consider the Saturday ceremony a feel-good moment. But from a football standpoint, Jameis Winston clearly was the best player in 2013.
But I’m not necessarily saying I voted for him.
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