CRAWFORD | Game over: Louisville's Lamar Jackson wins Heisman Trophy
Louisville sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson has been named the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner in New York City, the first Louisville player ever to win the award.
NEW YORK (WDRB) — The dream was born as dreams sometimes are in these modern times — in front of a video screen, with a controller in his hand. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson said the thought of winning the Heisman Trophy first came to him in middle school, when he was playing EA Sports’ NCAA Football games in his room.
When he was able to win the Heisman Trophy with a quarterback on his screen, it started Jackson thinking what it would be like to win it in person.
Maybe, then, there could have been no more appropriate place for that dream to come true than the PlayStation Theater in Midtown Manhattan Saturday night. Jackson became the 80th winner of the most famous award in all of college sports, besting four other finalists after being an overwhelming favorite for most of the season.
Jackson was a runaway winner, with 2,144 points in the balloting of 929 voters. Clemson's Deshaun Watson was second with 1,524 points, followed by Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield with 362 points, Oklahoma's Dede Westbrook with 209 and Michigan's Jabrill Peppers with 208.
Jackson is the youngest winner in Heisman Trophy history. He not only is the first player to win the award in University of Louisville history, but the first Cardinal ever to reach New York as a finalist. He was accompanied to Friday’s award presentation by his mother, Felicia Jones, longtime mentor Van Warren, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino and athletic director Tom Jurich, among others.
Jackson, a 19-year-old sophomore, called winning the Heisman, “A dream come true.”
It was a dream for many people in Jackson’s life.
He wore a bright red tuxedo jacket he bought at Macy’s in Louisville, with two friends. It was, he said, the second jacket they showed him. The first one was black, he said, “And when they brought out this one I said, ‘That’s it. I don’t care if it doesn’t fit. If it’s too small, you’re going to have to do something.” He wore matching socks and belt given to him by a cousin.
Much has been said about the people who helped Jackson rise to the level he reached in his sophomore season — a statistical level few others have seen during a college season. But something must be said before all of that.
Jackson has talent that is difficult to describe. His speed on the football field can electrify crowds. His ability, with a single lean or step, to send a defender in a direction other than the one he’s running is uncanny. His acceleration, once he finds his spot, is a gift. Jackson received a great deal of leadership and direction from others. But you can’t teach someone how to do what he’s able to do with a yard of daylight and a seam to run through.
For the University of Louisville football program, the arrival of a Heisman trophy elevates the entire enterprise. Still smarting from falling short of the College Football Playoff, then losing unexpectedly to rival Kentucky on their home field in the regular-season finale, the Cards were rooting hard for their teammate.
“No other choice,” Louisville running back Brandon Radcliff said when asked. “Nobody can do what he does. He’s the most exciting player in the game.”
In the city of Louisville, one by one, buildings were illuminated in red in honor of Jackson’s achievement and his Heisman opportunity. The administration building on Louisville’s campus. The Humana building downtown. The KFC Yum! Center on game nights. And the Muhammad Ali Center, whose namesake loved Louisville football games.
Ali used to lie in his backyard and tell his brother of his dream to be “the greatest.”
There’s no such crystal clear premonition from Jackson’s life. Except maybe this. On his high school practice field in Boynton Beach, Fla., a group of teammates and Jackson took to telling each other, “Meet me in New York,” at the end of practices, a nod to one of them making it, and winning the Heisman trophy.
“Sometimes,” author Frederick Buechner once wrote, “wishing is the wings the truth comes in on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.”
Truth and talent are good. But Jackson also needed a chance. Some of the best football minds in the college game didn’t think he could play the position, or at least, weren’t ready to let him try to grab hold of the quarterback job on the day he arrived on campus.
At Louisville, Petrino took a chance, and gave Jackson a chance. He knew Jackson was a great running quarterback. But Jackson earned a chance to play with his arm strength. The first time Petrino saw him throw it in person, Petrino said, “I really liked the way he could snap his wrist. And that’s when you’re thinking, we might have something here.”
You can’t tell the story without giving Petrino credit. He took the raw talent and shaped it into a great college quarterback. He gave Jackson a system with the freedom to create, but with the discipline to become a pocket passer.
After Jackson led a comeback win over Kentucky and threw for 227 yards and ran for 226 in the Music City Bowl against Texas A&M last season, Petrino told him to forget about running the ball for a while. They didn’t even work on running plays. All he wanted Jackson to do was learn the offense, learn to read defenses. He wanted him to become a student of football.
Jackson had to watch video of every game he played last season, and when he found himself making a mistake, he had to write out what mistake he had made and why on a piece of paper, longhand. It was Petrino’s way of imprinting those things on Jackson’s memory. Jackson did his part. He showed up at the Howard Schnellenberger complex at 6 a.m. most days.
In Louisville’s spring game, Jackson showed he had made progress. Over the summer, he made even more. By the time he went to ACC Football Media Day, Petrino was comfortable calling him the face of Louisville’s program. In reality, he was much more than that.
Jackson wouldn’t have accepted the Heisman Trophy on Saturday if he hadn’t been an uncommonly hard worker. If he hadn’t been driven by a no-nonsense mother, Jones, who rarely praises his big plays but constantly keeps him grounded by focusing on his flaws. She gave her most extensive public comments during ESPN's awards show Saturday. Jackson was overcome with emotion talking to her during his acceptance speech.
On stage before he won the award, Jackson said, "I lost my father at a young age. I lost my grandmother on the same day. She told me, 'Don't cry. We're going to do better. We're going to amount to something.' Well mom, we're here now."
Even so, a lot of players have good coaching, and good parenting. A great many have tons of talent.
Jackson needed some things to go right. He needed a little magic, especially as the quarterback at Louisville, which is absent from Heisman history. Think about this — history tells us if you don’t play for Notre Dame, USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan, Miami, Florida or Florida State, you already have two strikes against you.
Jackson threw for six touchdowns and ran for two in the season-opener against Charlotte. At Syracuse, he ran for 199 yards and threw for 410, an ACC record for total yardage, and became the first major college player ever to run for 175-plus yards and throw for 400-plus yards in a game. He jumped over a defender on a touchdown run, likely the highlight play of the season in college football. He had a 72-yard touchdown pass and a 72-yard touchdown run during the game’s first plays.
A week later, on national television, Jackson shredded a Florida State team then ranked No. 2-in the nation, with ESPN’s College Game Day in attendance at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. He rushed for four touchdowns and ran for one.
When Sports Illustrated came out the following week, Jackson was on the cover. And the Heisman hype was established.
During the first game of the season, wideout Traveon Samuel sat down next to Jackson on the sidelines. Someone snapped a screen shot of the backs of their jerseys, which read, “Samuel L. Jackson.” Three weeks later, when the actor was on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon, he was sown that picture. And both men talked about Jackson’s talent, and mentioned him as a Heisman leader.
Those are the kinds of things that have to happen if you want to win this honor. You can’t create that kind of hype.
But Jackson managed to back it up. Even though the Cardinals lost at Clemson in another showcase game, he led the back from a deep deficit to take the lead late in the game on the road. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and others said that while Louisville lost, Jackson had been the more impressive quarterback in the showdown with fellow Heisman contender Deshaun Watson.
The road continued. By early November, Jackson was such an overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman that the sportsbook Bovada.LV stopped taking bets on him. He was off the board for nearly two weeks.
But he didn’t finish the way he wanted to. He was sacked 11 times in a 36-10 loss to Houston. He threw an ill-advised deep interception and lost a fumble inside the Kentucky 10-yard line, on a possession that likely would’ve sealed the win, in a major upset loss.
“Did Jackson fumble the Heisman?” was a major storyline after that.
As it turns out, he didn’t.
Simply speaking, there was no one close to him.
He became the first player in major college history to rush for 20 touchdowns and pass for 30 in the regular season. Tim Tebow and Cam Newton, both Heisman winners whose pictures Jackson stopped to look at this week, did the same thing, but needed postseason games to do it.
Jackson wound up ranked second in the nation in points per game, points responsible for and total offense. He was fourth in the nation in rushing touchdowns. He was ninth in the nation in rushing yards per game. He was 11th in the nation in passing touchdowns and fourth in rushing touchdowns.
He won the Maxwell and Walter Camp Foundation Awards, both presented to college football’s player of the year. He swept the ACC player of the year awards from coaches and media.
He is, easily, the most decorated player in Louisville football history, and now, with the Heisman, life for him will change.
Jackson already was a star when he arrived in New York City. Louisville shut off his autograph signing in mid-season to avoid NCAA issues with those who wanted them for resale. Now, he’ll be a marked man. His arrival for a football game will make it a big deal. He’ll have to learn to live with the spotlight, and with the extra motivation for opposing teams.
Winning the Heisman brings more scrutiny on your game. There’s nothing Americans like better than picking apart a winner.
But winning the Heisman also makes you one of the immortal names of college football. It carries a luster that few awards in American sports can boast.
To see it won by a player from Louisville, by a player who just wanted a chance, by a player who can keep fans in the seats during blowouts just for a chance of seeing him make one more “I was there” play, is a remarkable thing.
Commentators all season said Jackson put up “video-game” type statistics. They were right. What happened in the PlayStation Theater on Saturday confirmed that Louisville’s Lamar Jackson is college football’s finest this season. There may be some games left to play. But for that debate, it’s game over.
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