NEW YORK — Charles Woodson came up with the interception of a lifetime Saturday night--the Heisman Trophy.
Woodson, Michigan's All-American cornerback who also starred as a wide receiver and punt returner, made Heisman history as he became the first primarily defensive player to win college football's most prestigious award.
In one of the biggest surprises in the 63-year history of the Heisman, Woodson won over Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, who had become the preseason favorite for the trophy when he announced last spring he was returning for his senior season.
While Manning threw for 3,819 yards, 36 touchdowns and led the third-ranked Vols (11-1) to the Southeastern Conference title and an Orange Bowl, the Heisman voters chose Woodson, who went from sublime to sensational whenever Michigan was on national TV.
Woodson's dominance in the Wolverines' 20-14 win over Ohio State on Nov. 22 may have been the Heisman clincher. In that game, he intercepted a pass in the end zone to stop a Buckeyes' scoring threat, caught a 37-yard pass to set up Michigan's first touchdown and then broke open a tight defensive struggle with a 78-yard punt return for a score--his fourth touchdown of the season.
Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr summed up Woodson's season after that game when he said: "Great players play big in big games."
The closest a defensive player had come to winning was in 1980, when Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green finished second behind South Carolina running back George Rogers in 1980.
Since then, other defensive players have finished in the top five, including Marvin Jones (fourth, 1992); Steve Emtman (fourth, 1991); Brian Bosworth (fourth, 1986); and Terry Hoage (fifth, 1983).
But this year, the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Woodson came out on top--and it wasn't really close.
Woodson beat Manning by 272 points, with Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf third, Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss fourth and Texas running back Ricky Williams fifth.
Woodson, from Fremont, Ohio, received 433 first-place votes and 1,815 points in balloting by the media and former Heisman winners.
Manning, who finished eighth last year behind winner Danny Wuerffel, had 281 first-place votes and 1,543 points.
The closest Heisman vote was in 1985, when Auburn's Bo Jackson edged Iowa's Chuck Long by 45 points. The largest victory margin was in 1968, when USC's O.J. Simpson beat Purdue's Leroy Keyes by 1,750 points.
Last year, Florida's Danny Wuerffel beat Iowa State's Troy Davis by 189 points.
In the regional breakdown, Woodson won five of the six voting regions, with Manning taking only the South.
Leaf, who led the No. 8 Cougars (10-1) to their highest ranking ever and a berth in the Rose Bowl against Michigan, had 70 first-place votes and 861 points. Leaf, a junior, threw for 3,637 yards and 33 TDs.
Moss, who set a major college record with 25 TD catches in leading the Thundering Herd to the Mid-American Conference title in the school's first season in Division I-A, had 17 first-place votes and 253 points.
Manning, the All-American son of former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning set 33 school records in leading the Vols to their first SEC title since the league split its divisions in 1991. But another loss to Florida--33-20 on Sept. 20--may have cost him Heisman votes just as it did last year, when he threw four interceptions in a 35-29 defeat and Wuerffel went on to win the trophy.
This year, it was Woodson's turn to pick off the award. The former Mr. Ohio Football--he is Ross High's all-time leading rusher with 3,861 yards--had seven interceptions, caught 11 passes for 231 yards and two TDs and scored on a 33-yard reverse and his punt return.
Woodson became the third Michigan player to win the Heisman. Desmond Howard won in 1991 and Tom Harmon won the award in 1940.
While Manning was among the leaders in most "Heisman Watch" lists, Woodson was only a consideration--until he started to excel on offense, too.
On Nov. 9, in a 34-8 win over Penn State, Woodson broke open the game with a 37-yard touchdown catch from Brian Griese that put the Wolverines ahead 17-0 early in the second quarter.
Two weeks earlier, in a 23-7 win over Michigan State, Woodson was at his defensive best, picking off two passes in the second half to break open a close game at East Lansing, Mich.
The first interception may have been the best individual effort by a player this season. Michigan State's Todd Schultz tried to throw out of bounds, but Woodson made a tremendous leap, snatched the ball with one hand and then managed to keep one foot in bounds as he tumbled to the turf.
When Woodson arrived in Ann Arbor, the coaches figured he'd want to play offense.
"I told them defense was my first choice," Woodson said recently. "In 10th grade, I started playing defense. Mainly because we already had a great tailback. Once I started playing it, it just started growing on me. I liked it a lot.
"I think it's a lot more aggressive. You have 11 people running to the football, trying to get there at the same time. There's a big celebration after the hit. It's kind of hard to describe."
Kind of like winning the Heisman.