An Open Letter of Recommendation to the Heisman Committee
by Perry Meisel
Joe Theismann changed the pronunciation of his name to try to get it in 1970, but this year - despite sophomore Herschel Walker's durable Georgia magic - the Heisman Trophy for best college football player of 1981 will almost certainly go to the University of Southern California senior, Marcus Allen, the first running back in the history of collegiate play to rush for more than 2000 yards in a single season. There is little reason for doubt short of mass amnesia among those casting the ballots (1050 sportswriters, editors, and broadcasters), plus a few other factors presumably mild under the circumstances: a sentimental slant toward the youngster Herschel (last year's third-place entry behind Pitts Hugh Green and Saintly winner George Rogers from South Carolina); the typical mouthing that USC wins it too often (Mike Garnett in 1966, O.J. Simpson in 1968, Charles White in 1979); and, most genuinely problematic, dazzling quarterback performances by Brigham Young senior Jim McMahon and Pitt junior Dan Marino.
Despite Walker's improvement over last year's unparalleled freshman display (1666 yards so far for 1981, with one game to go, compared to 1616 in 1980), even these legendary stats pale next to Allen's almost inconceivable total of 2342 yards. Last year, Marcus (or M.A., as he's called, even without his B.A.) piled up 1563 yards and 14 touchdowns (second in the nation), but didn't even place in the top 10. Compared to Walker, he was still a virtual unknown this September. But with 2123 yards even before USC's final game against UCLA two Saturdays ago. Allen had already surpassed Tony Dorsett's record of 1948 yards at Pitt in 1976.
Whether the difference between Allen and Walker is the difference between a sophomore and a senior or between Shaw and Shakespeare is probably impossible to tell before they reach the pro ranks. What is predictable when the award is announced on December 5, however, is that (1) the Heisman will, as (almost) always, go to a running back or a quarterback (the only exceptions were receivers in 1936 and 1949); and that (2) sportspeople across the country will ritually apologize for the purported - and in fact real - bias among the voters against those players who do not handle the ball.
The list of past winners is enough to convince anyone that the bias is quite deliberate among the numerous achievements of Coach John W. Heisman - including a 220-0 Georgia Tech victory over Cumberland - was the legalization of the forward pass in 1906. Besides, there are equally deliberate compensations. Case in point: Hugh Green finished a historically significant second in last year's voting, then went on to receive the Vince Lombardi trophy for collegiate defensive player of the year. To be sure, the record shows other prophetic high-ranking Heisman finishes by defensive players (Dick Butkus in 1964, Ted Hendricks in 1967, Brad Van Pelt in 1972), but history also proves the Heisman to be no particular guarantee for prostardom at all - witness double winner Archie Griffin (1974-75) or the beleaguered Charles White today at Cleveland.
It's also clear why the bias toward backs exists on an ideological level. Linemen and even defensive players simply perform too technical and, to the nonexpert, too invisible a task for the amateur eye to delight in (add to this the inherent bias of the camera). After all, the price of pleasure in any art, or the enjoyment of any commodity, lies in the successful erasure of the way what you see gets made. Even if the line and the blocking backs open the holes, the game's most obvious thrill lies in spotting the men who handle the ball. Add to this obvious line of argument that Vietnamization of the tactile senses necessary simply to watch without getting a headache, and boom! the Heisman comes to represent a virtually institutionalized repression of football's interior means of production.
The following brief portraits of some key Heisman candidates (and some early prospects fading rather faster than anticipated) are, however, productions of a different sort, due largely to the growing availability of college football on cable television (especially the new 24-hour rivalry between the USA Network and ESPN).
Along with Lady Di's tiara, the space shuttle, and replays of the Sadat assassination, Marcus Allen has been this fall's greatest visible sensation (for opposing defenses he has also been - like inflation or herpes - among its greatest invisible ones, too). To compare any back with Herschel struck me as a mad occupation when Georgia opened its season against Tennessee and Walker ran 30 times for 161 yards, toppling people down like dominoes (more Vietnamization). But only two weeks later - watching a replay of USC against Indiana - my throat grew dry when I realized that Marcus had almost jumped the 100 yard mark before the close of the first quarter (he went on to average almost 213 yards a game for the season).
Though he plays for the Trojans and not Arkansas, Allen is a razorback in the true sense of the word, cutting through gaps sometimes as tiny as those cajoled into seams by the Giants' offensive line at the start of the year. Of course, Allen's uncanny slicing ability is heightened by an outstanding USC offensive line and by his superb blocking fullback, Todd Spencer. If you could make a single athlete out of Bruce Harper and Dave Winfield, you'd come up with Marcus Allen.
If not Marcus Agonistes, then Herschel Walker. My gut prediction - and, frankly, my advice - is that Herschel will go pro next year. As a freshman, he reminded me most of Earl Campbell - he'd run you down even if he didn't see you standing there. If Marcus squirts by you like O.J. Simpson, Herschel mauls you the way the Oil of Campbell does. Walker also has the added advantage of the picky stutter-step of a Franco Harris and (last year more than this) the vision to accelerate through a seam once the opportunity is there. Still, Herschel doesn't seem to have what Howard Cosell has called the "gears" of a sleeker runner like Dorsett. Indeed, the affinities to Campbell include not just an equivalent symmetry of frame (big up and down, not just leg-strong like the Pruitts, or headstrong like the Muncies). They also include a faint but creeping kind of danger; you can see it in the minuscule loss of instant blastoff power behind the line of scrimmage at decision time. And yet the same evidence may also suggest a more confident Walker, a patient and masterful student of downfield opportunities.
To sum up the classic differences between Allen and Walker: Herschel features quickness and Marcus speed, a difference nonexistent in only one runner I've ever seen - Jim Brown. Herschel runs at and over you, Marcus by you or (even scarier) through you, as though he were some kind of spirit or goblin. If Herschel is brawny brains, Marcus is brainy brawn (each stands at six foot two inches, though Walker has a weight advantage of 18 pounds). Not, mind you, that either is in any way lacking in what predominates in the other. Far from it - it's just a matter of accent or inflection. Marcus can cut too (and Herschel can fly in the open field), though it's perhaps Allen's better vision that makes up for his propensity to move straight ahead rather than to pick his spots.
Though not a factor in this year's Heisman due to an injury that caused him to miss four-plus games, University of North Carolina junior tailback Kelvin Bryant was easily en route to smashing the NCAA season TD record of 29 (held by Lydell Mitchell) with 15 in his first four games. He is arguably more awesome than either Allen or Walker because of what looks like an even greater efficiency in the use of his physical assets.
With the exception of Dan Marino and Jim McMahon, the season's early quarterback contenders for the Heisman, chief among them Ohio State's Art Schlicter and Stanford's John Elway, have, as one cable commentator recently put it, "simply fizzled out."
Ohio State's starting quarterback for 47 consecutive games and sixth in the 1980 Heisman voting as a junior, Schlicter is doubtless an irritating enigma to many pro scouts. Theatrically jockish in that nonchalant, Bert-Jonesy, pigeon-toed kind of way, Schlicter can look both too slick and too sloppy. His staggered, and staggering, run to save the season's concluding game against Michigan (it kept the Wolverines out of the Rose Bowl even if it didn't put OSU in) declared his strengths and quality more eloquently than his accurate but wobbly way of throwing the ball. Like Herschel, he actually had the chutzpah to stop in his tracks and think about it behind a wall of blockers, near enough to the goal line to turn what looked like indecision into choice and judgment.
It is, however, passing that is both his signature and his weakness (172 for 324, 2392 yards, 21 TDs, nine interceptions). If, mercifully, he is no Nolan Ryan, he may perhaps err too far the other way by putting too much touch on the ball. If the difference between speed and quickness is hard to see in a runner, the difference between touch and plain old lobbing is only a hair easier to discriminate in a quarterback; Schlicter seems "too touchy" as a passer, a bit of a (s)lob about it.
I have not seen Jim McMahon at all. McMahon himself complained about BYU's underexposure before the start of the season. Answer: if Utah interests Norman Mailer, it's good enough for the rest of us. Here are some of the fundamental stats for a senior year in which he's broken (at last count) no less than 47 NCAA records: 272 for 423, 3555 yards, 30 TDs, seven interceptions. McMahon may be the sleeper candidate.
Dan Marino I've seen aplenty, and I wonder if maybe he isn't as good as you can get, especially as a junior. This guy is cool - like an NFL veteran, he backpedals away from the center at least as often as he drops straight back (after all, he grew up in Pittsburgh watching Terry Bradshaw). Nor is his arm anything but perfectly adopted to the throwing circumstances, whether they require the placement bullet, the lob arc, the low shot, or the touchy sideline cruise-out. No wonder Pitt has held the number one ranking longer than any other team in this year of big-college parity. And with an offensive line of unfair size and power, the question of Marino's mobility is hardly even an issue (including last Saturday's surprise debacle, he finished with 200 for 339, 265 yards, 36 TDs, and, alas, 36 interceptions).
Stanford's Jim Plunkett won the trinket back in 1970, so there is even less reason to believe Stanford senior John Elway will get it this year. Elway's most characteristic - and most touted - faculty is his rifle throwing arm (no wonder George Steinbrenner has already bought him and assigned him to Nashville for next summer; my hunch is he'll end up a pitcher or shortstop). But a rifle arm is an ambiguous virtue in a young quarterback; it's a potent resource but it can also become a thoughtless habit (no matter that Elway's dad Jack is a respected head coach at San Jose State). Along with his admittedly impressive stats (214 for 366, 2674 yards, 21 TDs, 13 interceptions), the gunslinging habit is too central to his reputation. Firing redhots to his receivers, Elway is like the power hitter who refuses to go to the opposite field with an outside pitch. Of course, if he puts his mind to it, he can lob or float the ball out to a release back - as he did on an exemplary scramble late in the second quarter against Oregon - but the result, alas, was an interception. With 13 on the year, even the rifle is liable to backfire.
Let me conclude this anthological appreciation by rashly impaling myself on the following predictions: Allen will win, going away, unless sleeper McMahon has gotten into enough bonnets (and video screens) to turn the tide; Walker will place third behind Allen and McMahon unless McMahon wins; Marino, as a junior, will do better than Schlicter's junior year sixth place, coming in fourth or fifth behind the first four. After that, your guess is as good as mine.
Originally published in The Village Voice, December 2, 1981