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Chris Dufresne ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Heisman Hype Can Have Its Cruel Side

September 05, 2002|Chris Dufresne

We can't wait for No. 1 Miami versus No. 6 Florida this Saturday in Gainesville if only because the game pits quarterback Rex Grossman against quarterback Ken Dorsey in the season's first Heisman Trophy elimination match.

Of course, no one asked Grossman or Dorsey if either wanted to be a Heisman candidate, but what say do they have in this matter?

The Heisman is college football's Academy Award, the kind of pinnacle prize that would lead Notre Dame to convince Joe Theismann to change the pronunciation of his name to rhyme with Heisman (it didn't work; Theismann finished second to Jim Plunkett in 1970).

So, who wouldn't want to be touted for the Heisman?

More players than you would think.

Archie Manning already has informed Mississippi not to promote his talented quarterback son, Eli, for the award, partly because of the pressure and backlash that came with son Peyton Manning's heartbreaking 1997 Heisman loss to Michigan's Charles Woodson.

"After talking with Archie, we took the position that we would not use the 'H' word around Ole Miss," Mississippi media director Langston Rogers said this week.

Heisman campaigns can be disasters. Last year, Oregon State pushed running back Ken Simonton onto the Heisman stage to counter Oregon's drive with quarterback Joey Harrington.

Harrington thrived under the spotlight, led Oregon to a No. 2 national ranking, finished fourth in balloting, and became the third pick in the NFL draft, signing a $36-million deal with Detroit.

Simonton had a sub-par year, was not drafted, and was last seen back home in Pittsburg, Calif.

Nevada Las Vegas quarterback Jason Thomas still hasn't recovered from last year's decision to promote him for the Heisman.

Thomas was coming off a stellar sophomore season and UNLV was looking to use the player to gain some national publicity.

"We were trying to sell tickets," John Robinson, the team's coach and athletic director, admitted recently. "We never had a player anyone paid attention to since Randall Cunningham, and I don't know how much attention they paid to him."

UNLV forged ahead with Heisman campaign 2001 even though Thomas was coming off surgery on his throwing shoulder.

"I just kind of went along with the program," Thomas said. "I was not comfortable with it. There were times when I even said, 'I don't look at myself as a Heisman candidate.' "

Thomas felt pressure to carry his team and was a complete flop in the team's opener at Arkansas, a game UNLV would have won if not for its quarterback's poor play.

Thomas couldn't grip the ball on a humid night, completing only four of 13 pass attempts for 40 yards with three interceptions.

"It was torture," he said of the game. "I remember going to the locker room and falling on the floor. I was just apologizing to everybody, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I blew it, I'm sorry.' I shouldn't have felt like that. No one player loses the game. That should have been a sign right there I put too much pressure on myself."

Not the best way to kick off a Heisman campaign.

"Every time I'd go to a stadium, that's all fans were talking about," Thomas said. "They'd say, 'You're no Heisman.' It's tough on you physically and mentally. Every team wants to hit you and hit you hard and knock you out of the Heisman race."

In leading UNLV to an 8-5 record in 2000, Thomas completed 52.7% of his passes for 1,708 yards, with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Last year, the junior Thomas had more interceptions than touchdown passes, 12 to eight, and his completion percentage fell to 42.8%. Worse, UNLV fell to 4-7.

Thomas had a lot of additional responsibilities to handle, including the impending birth of a daughter.

"I had a big slice of humble pie last year," Thomas said. "Pressure from the media, pressure from my family, pressure from myself. So many things were coming to a head at one time. It was like a nightmare."

Robinson says Thomas probably let the Heisman talk go to his head.

"I think he'd grown up with this 'I'm a superstar' thing and it causes you to take some things for granted about playing the game," Robinson said.

Thomas originally signed to play at USC out of high school before transferring to UNLV. Life was good last year when the school plastered Thomas' picture on a Las Vegas Strip billboard; not so good when they painted over his face.

"You've got to take the going up and you got to take the coming down," he said of the street-side process.

The last thing Thomas wants to see around town is a picture of himself next to Wayne Newton's.

"No billboards," Thomas said. "We want team billboards. I think that was one of the things that separated us from the team. It was one guy put there on the pedestal. No matter what you say it affects you in the locker room. Guys treated me differently and I might have treated guys differently.'

Footnote: Thomas isn't quite out of his funk yet.

In last weekend's 27-7, season-opening loss to Wisconsin, Thomas had two interceptions and two fumbles.

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