By: Joe Donatelli
Something happens to Heisman Trophy winners between the time they receive college football’s most revered individual honor and what should be the prime years of their pro football careers. For reasons that defy rational explanation, their talent and, sometimes, health fails them like so many Danny Wuerffel passes. They suffer the Heisman Curse. They are labeled Heisman Busts. Their careers never blossom. Time was you could list them from memory. There was Florida’s Wuerffel, Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam, Miami’s Gino Torretta, Houston’s Andre Ware, etc. Now the list of Heisman failures has grown so long that it is actually easier to name the Heisman Trophy winners who went on to success.
Alabama running back Mark Ingram accepted the 2009 Heisman Trophy over the weekend. Mr. Ingram, do not do as Wuerffel did. Do as these guys did.
Carson Palmer, QB, USC, 2002
Palmer is having a great career with the Cincinnati Bengals, which is saying something when you consider this sentence contains the rare combination of the words great and Cincinnati Bengals. Palmer is a gifted leader and when he is healthy and surrounded by even modest talent he is capable of winning games. The secret to his success? He keeps the college spirit alive. When USC traveled to Ohio State for a regular season game in 2008, Palmer told a Los Angeles radio station, “I cannot stand the Buckeyes.” The fact that he was not assassinated upon his return to the Buckeye State is a testament to his talent and popularity.
Eddie George, RB, Ohio State, 1995
George started every game during the first eight seasons of his nine-season career, and in those eight seasons he was one of the NFL’s most reliable backs. George was a grinder and it probably took years off his career. With the two-back rotation that is now in vogue in the NFL, it is likely that if George was drafted today, he might have played longer. During the 1999 season the four-time Pro Bowler helped bring the Tennessee Titans to just inches away from a Super Bowl victory. The secret to his success? Reckless disregard for the Heisman. While passing through airport security, George put the trophy in an X-ray machine that proceeded to amputate the tip of tiny Heisman’s right index finger while also bending its middle finger – one hopes in the direction of the tight-ass security guard.
Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State, 1988
The numbers are staggering. Playing for the woeful Detroit Lions, Sanders led the league in rushing yards four times and retired with 15,269 yards. He made the Pro Bowl in all ten of his NFL seasons. Most importantly, he gave Americans a reason to watch the Lions game on Thanksgiving. Yes, we always expected the Lions to get pasted, but with Sanders in the game, there was the possibility he would rip off an amazing 70-yard run. The secret to his success? He made people miss him – on several levels. He was an elusive runner, which was smart, because he weighed about 35 pounds. But he also made people miss his presence by retiring in his prime, just short of breaking the all-time rushing record.
Tony Dorsett, RB, Pittsburgh, 1976
If you grew up hating the Dallas Cowboys, you grew up with a healthy loathing for either Emmitt Smith or Herschel Walker or Tony Dorsett. It seems like the Cowboys always had a superior running back who just killed other teams and that tradition was cemented in 1977 with the drafting of Dorsett. The Hall of Fame running back followed up a national title-winning season at Pitt with a Super Bowl-winning season in Dallas his rookie year. His defining moment came in 1982 when he ripped off a 99-yard touchdown run from scrimmage against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football while the Cowboys only had 10 men on the field. The secret to his success? He was not O.J. Simpson.
Roger Staubach, QB, Navy, 1963
It kills me to put two Cowboys on this list, but Staubach deserves it. The Dallas quarterback spent four years in the Navy (serving in Vietnam), entered the NFL at age 27 and did not win the starting job until his third season in the league. In his nine seasons as a starter he took Dallas to four Super Bowls and won two of them, earning a Super Bowl MVP. He was known for last-second heroics and his ability to scramble out of trouble and make big plays. What was the secret to his success? Coach Tom Landry called him, “possibly the best combination of a passer, an athlete and a leader to ever play in the NFL.”
Paul Hornung, HB/FB/QB, Notre Dame, 1956
Paul Hornung did things players don’t do anymore, and the Green Bay Packer dynasty of the 1960s owed itself in large part to “The Golden Boy,” its most clutch player. Hornung was dangerous near the end zone. He ran. He caught. He passed. He blocked. He even kicked. (Imagine Adrian Peterson kicking.) Hornung scored 760 points in nine 12-or-14 game seasons. He famously scored 19 points during the 1961 NFL Championship game win against the New York Giants while he was on Christmas leave from the Army. The secret to his success? Hornung loved the ladies. Actual quote: “Never get married in the morning. You never know who you might meet that night.” Alright, alright, alright.
Doc Blanchard, FB, Army, 1945
He’s on the list, but not for the same reasons as the other guys. It is because he did something great with his life. After “Mr. Inside” Blanchard and “Mr. Outside” Glenn Davis led Army to a 27-0-1 record from 1944-46, Blanchard was selected third overall in the 1946 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but was required to enlist in the military. He graduated from West Point in 1947 and chose the Air Force over a career in football. He served in Korea and flew 84 missions in a fighter-bomber over North Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in 1971 a colonel. The secret to his success? He chose a life of armed conflict over living in Pittsburgh.
Also just as worthy of inclusion on this list: Notre Dame’s Tim Brown, Georgia’s Herschel Walker, USC’s Marcus Allen, Texas’s Earl Campbell and USC’s O.J. Simpson.