MIAMI – Generally speaking, they don't start calling a Heisman Trophy winner a complete bust until he bombs in the NFL.
Jason White can only dream of being treated so kindly.
The backlash started even before Oklahoma's quarterback won the award in December 2003. A week prior to the ceremony, White threw two interceptions in an ugly Big 12 championship game loss to Kansas State. If so many Heisman votes hadn't mailed in before that, White may never have won it at all.
Then White went 13 of 37 for 102 yards and two picks in a BCS championship game loss to LSU. He threw balls at receivers' feet, way over their heads and, most unfortunately, into the hands of LSU defensive end Marcus Spears, who returned an interception for the decisive touchdown.
Out came the critics.
"The biggest thing that sticks in my head was the emails I got after the Sugar Bowl," White said as he prepared his Sooners for Tuesday's Orange Bowl against Southern California. "They said I need to give back the Heisman, quit the team. One of my friends sent a newspaper clip that said they needed a recount of the Heisman."
The Heisman is perhaps the most bizarre individual award in sports; promotion, pedigree and program matter more than actual performance. White was very good last year, but hindsight says the best player (let alone quarterback) in college football in 2003 was Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger.
But White didn't create the system that got him the award. It isn't his fault he won it.
And if there is one thing White has proven these last 12 months, it's that he doesn't owe anyone a recount.
If football is a game of character, then Jason White deserves all the awards his parents' house back in little Tuttle, Okla., can hold. And not just for recovering from two different season-ending injuries. Not just for balancing fatherhood (he and his live-in girlfriend have a 2-year-old daughter) with football.
But for taking all of the heat and channeling it into a masterful senior season in all the ways that matter.
Oklahoma is 12-0 and, one year removed from a most miserable day, has a shot at redemption. The 24-year-old didn't win a second Heisman (USC's Matt Leinart got it), but he has a second chance at another national title (the Sooners won the championship four seasons ago when White was a backup).
"I didn't come back to win another Heisman," he said.
He came back to wash the taste of a bitter championship game from his mouth. After the Sugar Bowl debacle, the blue-collar kid did what people in Tuttle do: He turned adversity into a motivational tool to work even harder.
"His dad is the owner of a cement company, and all his life he'd take Jason out to pour cement," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Chuck Long said. "He said it is either this or go to school."
So what's a little criticism? In fact, White is at his best with a chip on his shoulder, and last year's late-season slide assured there would be no coasting on his credentials. Within days of the Sugar Bowl, White was back in the weight room.
He stayed in Norman all summer to fine-tune the Sooner offense. He worked on staying healthy. The emails were in the back of his mind during every early-morning therapy session.
"I guess last year wasn't enough," he said with a shrug.
In the process, White eschewed Heisman hype. He did what was asked of him, but when super freshman Adrian Peterson rumbled onto campus White gladly let the running back take the spotlight. The fewer media interviews the better for White, even if it may have cost him Heisman votes this fall.
This season White has been more accurate, thrown fewer interceptions and hit for about the same average yards per completion as a year ago. With Peterson, the Sooner offense is not only more balanced but just plain better.
If the true measure of a quarterback is winning, White's been perfect this season.
None of which will matter, he knows, if the Sooners don't finish the job on Tuesday.
White's perspective is unique. He has been to the mountaintop individually, only to be reminded within a month that fans are fickle and that it means nothing without team achievement.
So now he is back for a second chance, back to shut up those critics, back to prove himself, one last time.
Mostly, though, he is back for the title.
He'll let the other guy have the Heisman.
- Jason White