CRAWFORD | Lamar Jackson: An appreciation
Eric Crawford on Lamar Jackson's Louisville legacy.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Over the course of 25 years in journalism, you're bound to cover some surprising things.
There was a Triple Crown from American Pharoah after we’d all but given up hope of ever seeing one. There was the day the Atlantic Coast Conference said it had voted to accept the University of Louisville as a member. I never thought I’d see it.
I remember covering the U of L women in the NCAA championship game. Twice. I also remember going to their games at Manual High School a time or two as a student. I never thought I’d see the day that Rick Pitino would be named Louisville basketball coach. I also never dreamed I’d see the day when he would be fired.
There were near misses. I covered Butler in back-to-back NCAA title games, and nearly saw Gordon Hayward win one of them with a halfcourt shot. Back when Indiana let its class basketball champions play each other, I covered tiny Tecumseh High School, which came from a town that didn’t even have a McDonald’s, as it nearly beat Indianapolis North Central, which was led by a McDonald’s All-American.
There have been many upsets, many surprises, many twists that I never saw coming.
But I have never covered anything like Lamar Jackson’s rise to the Heisman Trophy podium at the University of Louisville. Never. In some ways, I still don’t believe it.
In the month leading up to his debut at U of L, I wrote about Reggie Bonnafon. A lot. On Saturday, I expect the two played their final games in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium at the same time.
Jackson’s first season was raw energy. He harnessed it in his final two games, a relief effort to beat the University of Kentucky, and a starting role to beat Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl that gave him some buzz heading into his sophomore year.
Buzz, yes. Heisman Trophy buzz, no.
This, after all, is Louisville. Sure, it’s a far cry from what it was, a once nearly-extinct program revived by a legendary coach, playing in a shabby stadium, in front of few fans. They had little money. They had no conference. This program was a wannabe for much of its existence, with the occasional meteor shooting over the landscape, Johnny Unitas the brightest of all.
Even after the program arrived, an Orange Bowl win, a Sugar Bowl victory, it still wasn’t the kind of place you expected to see a Heisman Trophy come to rest in 2016.
Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Florida, Florida State, USC, these are the default destinations for the Heisman Trophy. Coming from Louisville to win it was like coming out of nowhere.
I’ll never forget Lamar Jackson stepping off the bus in Manhattan, a block over from Broadway, and thinking that you couldn’t have written this script. A kid not too far removed from playing video games and dreaming of winning this award would, a day later, stand in the PlayStation Theater in Times Square and accept it.
I can count the number of games I’ve seen him play at Louisville where I didn’t shake my head in astonishment at something he had done on two fingers. Even in defeat, he usually has been the one who delivered.
The spins. The devastating cuts. His uncanny ability to set up a defender 10 yards away for a slight move that sends them in another direction.
These, you can’t teach.
The stats are impressive. Some of them unprecedented in the history of college football. But there has been plenty of talk about his numbers.
Here’s what I appreciate as Jackson nears what we all expect to be the end of his college career.
He has handled it all with authenticity and class. He’s not a polished public figure. His Heisman acceptance speech bore the marks of him being the youngest player ever to win the award, and the astonishment I think most of us felt. It wasn’t oratory. It was original. It was Lamar. He was himself.
On Saturday, the likely Heisman Trophy winner for this season, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, made headlines and viral videos around the nation when he grabbed his crotch and yelled obscenities at the opposing bench. (And this isn't a bash-Mayfield column. We all do things we regret in the heat of the moment, and Mayfield expressed regret and apologized after this one.)
I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast with the guy who currently holds the Heisman Trophy. Let me tell you what Lamar Jackson did with his hand before Saturday’s game. It’s the same thing he has done with it his whole career.
Each home game, the Petrino Family Foundation chooses one child from Norton Children's Hospital or elsewhere to accompany the captains out to midfield for the pregame coin toss. Each game, Jackson does the same thing. He heads to the child on the sideline. He bends down to talk to them. He reaches down for their hand. Out on the field, after the toss, as the players are exchanging handshakes, he often reaches down and takes the child’s hand again. It’s not a show. Jackson has developed a heart for these kids.
(An aside. Jackson also accounted for more yards, and touchdowns, than Mayfield on Saturday. Against a better opponent. Jackson played his final game in front of a handful of fans in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. That was the one part of the script that ought to be rewritten. Inclement weather kept many fans away from what was expected to be his final home game. There was no big sendoff. He said goodbye, most likely, the way he said hello. With little fanfare. He just showed up, and amazed whoever watched.)
There is some celebration in Lamar Jackson’s game. There is joy. There is energy and even electricity.
But there has been no taunting. There was the occasional Heisman pose last season. But after games, there was just respect. When Kentucky beat Louisville, Jackson gave them credit. He did the same after LSU and Houston. After a crushing loss at Wake Forest this season, Jackson said, “Give them credit. They came in well-prepared and executed well.”
A lot of folks, after the fact, complained that Deshaun Watson deserved the Heisman instead of Jackson last season. Jackson didn’t argue with them. He has done nothing but praise Watson, before the vote and after.
This season, Jackson is considered an also-ran for the trophy he won last season.
“I haven’t worried about that,” he said. “All I worry about is winning games. I wish we could have won a few more.”
He’ll be in New York whether he is voted there or not. As a Heisman winner, he’ll always be invited to the ceremony.
The record will show what many of us suspected. He has been a better player than last season, and will get less recognition for it. He has actually generated 21 yards per game more than he did a season ago. He’ll wind up throwing for more yards, and may wind up running for more. He’s thrown and passed for 40 touchdowns. A year ago he threw and passed for 51. He's the only underclassmen in NCAA history to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in back-to-back seasons. But there's a chance he may not be voted one of the top five players in America by Heisman voters.
He also hasn’t said a single word about it. He hasn’t speculated publicly about how much recognition he hasn’t gotten, just like he never said much about the recognition he did get last year.
I thought, after he finished his Louisville career, that in terms of off-the-field poise, influence and class, we’d likely never see another Teddy Bridgewater in these parts. And I still believe that. It was my experience that among athletes I’ve been around, his presence was not like any I had encountered before.
But it’s probably the highest praise I can offer that Lamar Jackson, in his own way, has operated within that same mold. He has done the right things. He has said the right things.
During a period in which the university faced intense public criticism, the worst thing Jackson ever fumbled was a football. And those things happen.
He isn’t a polished speaker. He wasn’t a Heisman winner out of central casting. And I’m not saying he’s perfect, because none of us is. He’s a college kid, with all that entails. But he also found himself thrust into the national spotlight, something just as difficult and fraught with trap doors as operating amid adversity, and he didn’t allow it to change him, didn’t succumb to the temptation to act out or do things to draw attention to himself. He probably handled it better, as the youngest guy ever to win that award, than I'd have handled it as an adult.
On his left arm is tattooed a Bible verse, because his mother told him it was a favorite of hers. Mark 6:4 – “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own town.”
If he has played his final game in this city, which certainly is one of his own towns now, Jackson can say he completed his time here with honor.
And that, as much as any touchdown he scored or any statistic he produced, deserves to be remembered, and respected.
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