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THE RELUCTANT STAR : The Heisman Trophy Is Missing, and the 1988 Winner--Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders--Really Doesn't Care

December 18, 1988|BILL PLASCHKE | Times Staff Writer

WICHITA, Kan. — Where is the Heisman?

William Sanders, 51, puffs on a cigar, checks his Sun Bowl watch and shakes his head. As if on cue, the three men sitting with him at a wobbly table in the back of Georgio's Cafe shake their heads.

"That thing should have been here by now," Sanders says. "They told me they were sending the trophy home from New York same time they sent me home from New York. Except I'm here, and it ain't."

Sanders recently visited New York City and slept in the Downtown Athletic Club, a place so wondrous, he says, "it has a swimming pool on each of the first eight floors."

That was a couple of weeks ago. He was there for the presentation of the Heisman Trophy to his son Barry, an Oklahoma State running back. One copy of the trophy went to the college, the other to Barry, who promptly gave it to his father, mostly because the sight of it made him feel funny.

His father then promised to display it in Georgio's soul food place, mostly because Georgio makes him good coffee every morning.

Georgio has already cleared a table. Amid the smoke and big cheeseburgers and chitlin specials, it's the only table not draped with a plastic Christmas tree-covered tablecloth. It's empty, it's ready. Bring on that bronze boy. Georgio's, home of the Heisman.

So, where is the Heisman?

"Maybe it got lost in the mail," says Mr. Armstrong, a friend of Sanders who, like all his friends, is introduced only as Mister.

"They wouldn't actually mail it, would they?" asks Mr. Sanders.

"This is just barber shop talk," later says Mr. Kinnard, the barber, "but folks are saying that the powerful people in this town called the people in New York and told them not to send you nothing."

"Who says?" Mr. Sanders says.

A younger gentleman pops his head in the door. He is not introduced.

"I know where the Heisman is," he announces. "Somebody said it was in the trunk of a car parked out on Kellogg Street."

"They said it was where?" Mr. Sanders asks.

Two hours south, in Stillwater, Okla., Barry Sanders puts his head in his hands. He is not laughing. He doesn't know where the Heisman is. He doesn't care where the Heisman is. He only wishes people to understand one thing.

He never asked for this.

"Every day I pray--man, do I pray," he says. "I can't handle what has happened to me, so I pray that God will handle it for me."

Driving through the Oklahoma plains up Interstate 35 from Oklahoma City, you see just one sign telling you that you are within 1,000 miles of Stillwater. And that sign is just 2 miles before the exit.

Out Oklahoma way, they figure you know where you are going.

Out Oklahoma way, where the wind can make you cry and there are fewer trees than there are radio stations that broadcast Paul Harvey, strength is measured in terms of conviction.

"We're mostly down-to-earth people," Pat Jones, the Oklahoma State football coach, said. "We accept a man for who he is, not for a lot of glitz."

Into this area, on Dec. 3, barged King Glitz, the Heisman Trophy, the 25-pound symbol of the best college football player in the nation. It then kicked in the door of the one top college football player who wasn't listening for the knock.

Barry Sanders, a 20-year-old college junior, has all but denounced it. Before he won it, he half-jokingly rooted for another player to win it. He then nearly had to be dragged in front of a camera to accept the award via satellite television. And afterward, he gave his copy to his father, who still hasn't seen it.

With apologies to one of Georgio's best dishes, the Heisman is being treated with all the reverence of a ham hock.

"You wonder, biggest award possible, why doesn't this guy go bananas?" said Oklahoma State offensive guard Chris Stanley of Sanders. "You wonder, why doesn't he come out and say everything he's wanted to say all his life?

"When he didn't want to be on television to accept the Heisman, I volunteered to go in his place. Shoot, I'll take that thing."

Sanders, himself, shrugged as if in pain. He is not aloof or forbidding. He won't sit still for an interview very long--he was once 4 1/2 hours late for one--but he talks pleasantly and without pause. It's just that he just doesn't say the things people are listening for.

"Life doesn't stop with football," he said. "Happiness does not come from football awards. It's terrible to correlate happiness with football. Happiness comes from a good job, being able to feed your wife and kids. I don't dream football, I dream the American dream--two cars in a garage, be a happy father . . . "

He sighed. "It's not that I don't want the award. It's just that the award doesn't mean everything."

Is Sanders serious?

Oklahoma State quarterback Mike Gundy has heard this question so often that he's worried he might call it in the huddle one day.

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