Search for an unsung hero fizzles, so pass the Heisman to Detmer

JOHN EISENBERG

December 01, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

Before me, on my desk, was my Heisman Trophy ballot. My first ever. I had signed it. I had addressed the envelope. I had licked a stamp and put it in the upper right-hand corner. I had, in sum, done everything required of a good, conscientious voter, ,, including watching as many games as possible, studying statistics and schedules, and deliberating over my selection. The only thing left to do was vote. And I couldn't do it.

This was late Tuesday afternoon, the last possible day that I could vote in time to get my ballot to The Downtown Athletic Club before the deadline for today's announcement. Before me, on my desk, was the ballot -- blank. The clock on the wall was

tick, tick, ticking. The day's last mail pickup was fast approaching. I was, frankly, at torment.

From the day I had learned I was getting a Heisman vote, I had promised to be not only diligent, but also different. I wouldn't just automatically vote for the best quarterback or running back. It had always struck me as silly that the award always went to a high-profile star. Surely, a grunt deserved it at least occasionally. I was hoping a lineman with a long Polish name would surface.

I had pledged to consider everyone, linemen, defensive players, even a small-college player if one was deserving. I wouldn't just settle for the one with the most touchdowns on television. I told myself I was The Heisman Radical ("He looks normal, but his vote isn't") and carried that with me all fall, somewhat smugly. But now that it was time to vote, with the clock ticking and a blank ballot before me, I was in trouble.

See, the two players I was down to were, ah, um, Brigham Young's Ty Detmer and Notre Dame's Raghib Ismail. A `f quarterback and a game-breaker. There wasn't a defensive player in sight. No lineman with a long Polish name. The Heisman Radical was, it turned out, about as radical as a roomful of accountants. I couldn't fill out the blanks. After my great pledge to be different, I guess I felt defeated.

I had tried, oh, believe me. Throughout the fall, I had called various scouts and coaches and NFL personnel men, people who spend their lives watching films of college games.

"Gimme a name," I said. "I want a lineman. A linebacker. Give me the best player no one knows. You're talking to the anti-Heisman here."

They told me about an offensive lineman from Tennessee. They told me about a defensive lineman from Miami. I craved more. I wanted options, alternatives. "Does Shippensburg have anyone?" I asked. "Juniata? I hear Hofstra's loaded."

Oh, yes, I tried. I watched the lineman from Tennessee. His name is Antone Davis. He's a superb lineman. I watched him against Notre Dame. He made some terrific blocks. Most of the time, you couldn't really tell what he did. Meanwhile, Ismail broke tackles and scored touchdowns. He was the best player in the game, by far.

I watched the defensive lineman from Miami. His name is Russell Maryland. He's also superb. I watched him against BYU. He made some terrific plays. But he spent most of the game chasing after Detmer, who made one great play after another and led BYU to an upset.

"You know," one of the scouts told me, "it's just not that great a year for underdog players like you're looking for."

I didn't want to hear that. "I don't want to hear that," I said. "I hear Grambling has a great defensive back. What about the junior colleges? Please, any linemen with long Polish names?"

The silence on the other end of the line spoke volumes. "If I had a vote," the scout finally said, "I'd vote for Ismail. Or Detmer."

Toward the end of the year, I thought I had made a breakthrough. The All-American lists came out, and on them for the second straight year was a tackle from Colorado, Joe Garten. I called up Mel Kiper, the Baltimore draft wizard. He knows everything about every player in shoulder pads from Samoa to Munich. "I hear Joe Garten's a player," I said, trying to sound smart.

There was, again, silence on the other end of the line. "Don't get me wrong," Kiper finally said. "He's a nice player and all, but kind of an overachiever. We are talking about the Heisman here, right?"

Kiper said he'd vote for Detmer if he had the chance. That was it. The last straw. I gave up. There was no lineman with a long Polish name. No miracle worker from Juniata. I would have to sell out to the publicity gods, forsake the grunts. But I still had to make a pick. Detmer will throw for a record 5,000 yards this year. Ismail seemed to break up just about every game he played.

It was a tough choice. I thought about it for a day. Two. Three. Finally, it was Tuesday afternoon, and my ballot was still blank and I still wished I had a lineman named Kowalski in my corner, and somewhere a mailman was coming my way.

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