“Those who stay will be champions.” – Bo Schembechler
It was Johnny Football. Now it’s Johnny Heisman. Texas A&M’s phenom freshman quarterback spent his Saturday night hoisting the iconic trophy (and a few well-earned celebratory drinks, if I had to guess… wait he’s how old?), becoming the first-ever freshman to win the award. Recent votes have skewed away from the once-dominant seniors, which begs the question — is the talent just getting younger? There’s evidence to back the theory up: it took 70 years (and one Tebow, under God) for a lower-classman to take home the prize, and not a single senior has won since.
Certainly, the emphasis on identifying talent at an early stage has reached an all-time high — when coaches play tug-of-war with pubescent 4-and-5-stars like crazed Christmas shoppers who just found a Turbo-man, you know this shit’s getting real. But the influx of ready-to-play, “how-are-you-that-huge-and-only-seventeen” prospects only tells half the story. It’s not that these recruits are some class of super soldier — there just aren’t as many elite upperclassmen who stick around to challenge them. More and more, their premature exits to the NFL threaten to devalue the sport… and it’s all the fault of Todd McShay.
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I’m kidding, but only sort of. Full disclosure: I used to enjoy Mel Kiper, Jr. He of the Mitt-Romney-in-retrospect haircut and the hopefully-consensual-but-still-kind-of-creepy love for his “big board” of prospects. Like Santa Claus, Mel spends the year in preparation for a single day — April’s annual NFL draft. The internet informs me that Kiper’s been employed by ESPN since 1984, and I have fond memories of the days in late February when they’d dust him off, and he’d work himself up over how high players jumped at the combine.
But just as sure as strands of grey began to sprout up in Kiper’s lacquered-up ‘do, he reliably appeared earlier and earlier every calendar year. Until one fateful day in 2006, when he arrived. Bright-eyed and bushy-haired, the young Todd McShay entered the fray to feud over players and projections. While Kiper’s solo act was an endearing look at a man slavishly devoted to something mundane (like a precursor to Nate Silver, before we figured out he was a witch), the network’s hiring of an additional analyst signaled a shift in their coverage of college football. Today you can’t watch a game in the first week of the season without seeing “McShay’s Top Ten Free Safety Prospects(!!)” scroll by your screen.
Those who love the sport on its own terms don’t constantly need it presented through the lens of how players “project.” It’s so much more than just a breeding ground for the NFL. But consider the case of two current seniors — Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and USC’s Matt Barkley. Both came off colossal statistical seasons — Ball tied Barry Sanders’ single-year touchdown record, and Barkley passed notable names on the stat sheets for school, conference, and country — and they rocketed to the tops of McShay and Kiper’s boards. So why are neither of them yet playing on Sundays? Three simple, elegant reasons (to once again quote a legend) — “The Team, The Team, The Team.”
Barkley’s Trojans fought from under the cloud of a two-year bowl ban brought on by the Reggie Bush recruiting scandal, and Ball’s Badger squad came mere seconds away from upsetting Oregon in the Rose Bowl (a game on which my thoughts are now well-documented). The pair chose to return for their senior years (Barkley citing, “unfinished business”), and the McShay/Kiper brain-trust could only sputter and reshuffle their cue cards.
Barkley and Ball both struggled to reclaim their past individual glories this season (though Ball does have an almost-inexplicable chance to claim that elusive Rose Bowl title), and as a result they’ve faced waves of deafening, “I told you so” backlash. To some degree those players (and many others like them) might regret the money they supposedly left “on the table,” but there’s a reassuring sentiment for fans of the sport expressed in their decision. Aside from the obvious educational value of completing a college degree, they returned for reasons that only exist on a college football field. They weighed millions of dollars against one more year of magic, and guess what mattered more?
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I’ve been thinking a lot about those seniors. From the future Tom Bradys to the many future “guy who holds clipboard on the sideline”-s, to the silent majority, who will (to quote the admittedly-corny commercial), go pro in something other than sports. The intensity of watching college football for a fan is amplified by the nagging knowledge that every player’s tenure is finite. Four years can seem to eclipse in what seems like a single set of downs. Why, then, do they leave such a profound impression? Think of it this way: in the NFL, teams pick the players. In college football, players pick their teams.
Loyalty in pro sports is hypothetical because players are literally under contract. Kiper and McShay are just business consultants — advising thirty-two companies on how best to recoup their investments. College players choose not just a school or a team, but an ever-growing family that they’ll always be a part of. With thousands of fans that also count themselves as alumni, it’s a more tangible bond — traditions pass down between both those who attend and those who compete.
When some choose to transfer, feelings fray on both sides (almost like divorce in miniature). But it’s easy to see why so many stray from their starting points — as the so-called “coaching carousel” of college football threatens to spin off its axis (what team can Todd Graham screw over next?), many players are left with something they never bargained for. Nobody should blame them for acting in their own interest, whether that might mean attending a new school or departing early for the NFL.
But college football, at its best, is about more than those individuals — it’s about what they represent. No matter how infrequently that standard’s upheld, it’s an ideal that couldn’t exist in any form without the willing concession of every player involved. Consider current Michigan quarterback, Denard Robinson (who I have absolutely no bias toward or unrequited love for, promise). “Shoelace” has been by-turns electric and infuriating since arriving in Ann Arbor four years ago, a schizophrenic performance aptly summarized by his first collegiate snap (that he fumbled… and then took forty yards for a touchdown).
When coach Rich Rodriguez was fired after Robinson’s breakout sophomore season, he elected to honor his commitment to his current teammates and the program, summarizing his decision succinctly: “There’s nothing like this.” Robinson doesn’t project as a pro quarterback on Kiper or McShay’s big boards due to his diminutive stature, but that will never matter to the Michigan football family, for whom he will always be revered.
The feats accomplished by Johnny Manziel this year have won him legions of fans from all across the country. Admirers of his skill who will one day maybe cheer him on in the NFL. But whether he’s able to re-strike the iconic Heisman pose in years to come won’t be the barometer of how he’s perceived by his most important supporters, the Aggie faithful. It will be the possibility of whether he — like all of this year’s wonderful, gone-too-soon seniors — can one day enter into a completely different elite group. Not just those who came, who played, or who gave us chills.
But those who stayed.