The Heisman Trophy is supposed to serve as recognition of the best player in college football; the single greatest indicator of the best that the college game has to offer. The award is annually given to a player who separated himself from the rest of the pack by demonstrating superior skills and leadership while commanding a team that is usually tops in the country.
But with so many Heisman winners’ success not transferring over to the professional level, it’s got people scratching their heads and wondering if there is some sort of curse that is associated with the prestigious award. The most recent Heisman recipient was Baylor’s spectacular quarterback, Robert Griffin. You can rest assured that all eyes will be on him as people eagerly tune in to see if Griffin will be the latest victim of the Heisman Curse.
There are those naysayers that shrug the Heisman Curse off as just another bit of sports nonsense such as the Curse of the Billy Goat or the Madden Curse. But they’re wrong; the Heisman Curse is legit. Just take a look at the frightening statistics: Only six Heisman winners in 50 years have played on Super-Bowl winning teams, Heisman winners have lost 17 of the last 32 bowls games after receiving the award, and 9 of the past 15 winners are either out of football or don’t start on their current teams.
Logic would have us think that the best college players would at the very least develop into a competent player on an NFL roster. But history proves otherwise.
When discussing the biggest busts in Heisman history, there are quite a number of names to consider, so narrowing the list down to just five is quite difficult. The following is my attempt to do so.
5. Charlie Ward- QB, Florida State (1993 Winner)
Before the 94 NFL Draft. Charlie Ward made it clear that he would not consider playing in the NFL unless he was drafted in the first round. He proclaimed that he "deserved to be a first rounder." After the Draft concluded and Ward's name was never mentioned, it was apparent that NFL teams did not feel the same way.
Winning the Heisman trophy signified that Ward was the best player in all of college football during the 93 season. But only a few months later, no NFL team would even take the chance of wasting a draft pick on him. Doesn’t make much sense, does it? In his defense, teams were hesitant about drafting a player that was undecided about whether he wanted to play professional football or basketball (Ward eventually would go on to be drafted 26th overall by the New York Knicks in the 94 NBA Draft).
Some football fans have actually wondered if the Heisman voting had been fixed in order for Ward to win. Keep in mind, this is the year that Marshall Faulk finished fourth
behind Ward, Heath Shuler and David Palmer. Shuler had a joke of an NFL career and I honestly have no idea who Palmer even is.
After leading the Seminoles to the national championship, Ward went from being the top player on the top team in the country to not even being able to crack the Knicks’ starting five. Even though he would eventually go on to snatch the starting point guard spot, Ward finished his 10-year NBA career with a mediocre 6.3 points per game average.
4. Gino Torretta- QB, Miami, FL (1992 Winner)
Gino Torretta is a name that is synonymous with “Heisman Bust.” Torretta won the 1992 Heisman award after leading the Miami Hurricanes to the national championship game. Dominated by Alabama’s defense, Miami was held to only six offensive points in a 34-13 blowout loss. No one can be certain whether this accounted for Torretta’s falling draft status- he slid six rounds before finally being picked by Minnesota in the seventh- but the game proved to be a preview of his underwhelming NFL career.
Three years after being drafted by the Vikings, Torretta finally got a chance to showcase his skills. In the most playing time he would ever see in his career, Torretta completed 5 of 16 passes for 41 yards and a touchdown. He would also run the ball twice for 12 yards. Those statistics would mark the total numbers for his entire career. He would go on to be cut eight times by five different teams, including four times by the San Francisco 49ers.
One would think this would be the final deciding factor in Torretta calling it quits, but he remained hopeful and tried resurrecting his career with a one-week stint for the Colts in 1997, before finally taking the hint and allowing himself to fade into obscurity.
3. Andre Ware- QB, Houston (1989 Winner)
Andre Ware skipped out on his senior year for the NFL draft after recording 4,669 passing yards and an incredible 46 touchdowns for the Houston Cougars in Coach Jack Pardee’s run-and-gun attack.
Ware never even came close to matching his college numbers in the NFL though, and hardly ever even saw the field. In four NFL seasons with the Lions and Vikings, Ware completed 83 passes in 161 attempts for 1, 112 yards and only five touchdowns. Ware would eventually give up on his NFL dreams and reunited with his college coach in the CFL in 1995 as a member of the Ottawa Rough Riders. A change of scenery didn’t do much to help Ware’s career though, and he bounced around to three different teams in three years before finally retiring in 1997.
2. Ron Dayne- RB, Wisconsin (1999 Winner)
Ron Dayne seemed well on his way to NFL prominence by becoming one of the most productive rushers in college football history in his four seasons at the University of Wisconsin.
As of 2011, his 6,397 career yards still stand as the most in Division 1-A history. He also won two Rose Bowl MVPs and solidified his college dominance by rushing for 246 yards and 4 touchdowns in the Rose Bowl against UCLA his senior year. His impressive play would earn him the title of 1999 Heisman award winner and the #11 overall draft pick of the New York Giants.
At 245 pounds, Dayne was too slow against faster linemen and linebackers and never even came close to matching the success he experienced in college. The final stat line for his 8-year career was 3,722 yards, a meager 3.8 yards-per-carry average, 28 touchdowns, and one nickname- “The Danish.”
1. Eric Crouch- QB, Nebraska (2001 Winner)
After winning the most acclaimed in all of college sports, Eric Crouch responded by proceeding to never take a professional snap. Many include Crouch’s name when discussing some of the best running quarterbacks who could also accurately throw a ball, but that’s about where the discussion ends.
Crouch completed 105 of his 189 passes for 1, 510 yards and seven touchdowns, and ran 203 times for 1, 115 yards and 18 touchdowns for the Nebraska Cornhuskers during his 2001 Heisman campaign. The Rams drafted him 95th
overall in the 2002 draft, and planned to convert him to wide receiver in order to utilize his quickness. Crouch had different plans though and unexpectedly retired before ever even playing a regular season game, alluding to several small injuries as the reason behind his retirement.
So why does Crouch get the unfortunate distinction of being the biggest Heisman bust of all-time? Because he gave up before he even had a chance to fail.
These other guys at least went out there and tried to make some sort of a name for themselves (well except for Ward, who made a name for himself elsewhere). Crouch, on the other hand, took the much easier route and decided to call it quits because the team that drafted him didn't want him playing quarterback. If he was a real football player, he would have accepted the challenge and tried to prove himself as a wide receiver. Clearly he didn't have the drive or the testicular fortitude to play in the NFL.
So exactly what are the reasons for the high level of disparity that is seen between a Heisman winner’s success in college football compared to the NFL?
One reasonable explanation could simply be the elevated level of talent that it seen at the professional level. Guys are bigger, faster, and stronger, and defenses are much smarter. Trickery that could fool an opponent in college makes opposing defenses chuckle in the NFL. Also, since teams play each other much more frequently in the NFL than they do in college- especially if two teams are in the same division- players begin to see the same opponents and offensive strategies year after year. Defenses in the NFL are more geared to shut down a team’s quarterback. And if you’re a rookie coming off a hot year in college, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Another reason for many Heisman winners- especially quarterbacks- not living up to their potential in the NFL can be attributed to something that is completely out of their control: some great college players are simply just a product of the system that they play in. This concept can be applied to RG3, whose success many credit to the spread offense that Baylor utilized throughout his Heisman season- an offense which appeared to be ideal for the athletic gun slinger.
Once their comfort zone disappears, so do the highlights and impressive stats. Take into account Andre Ware, who flourished in Houston’s pass-happy offensive scheme. Take that same player and put him into an NFL system which doesn’t place so much emphasis on the pass, and what you get is one of the most overhyped quarterbacks to ever come out of college.
This same concept can be applied to Gino Torretta, a quarterback who just happened to be taking snaps for a powerhouse Miami team. When your surrounding cast was as good as Torretta’s, it can make you look a lot better than you really are, and Torretta’s pathetic NFL career is a clear example of a guy who was in the right place at the right time.
The Heisman Trophy is an innocent looking 25-pound bronze statue whose voodoo turns the careers of promising young college stars into sad examples of what could have been. Any future Heisman winners should proceed with caution. Because as any first year player will tell you, the journey to the top is one filled with many obstacles. And what history shows us is that the odds are stacked against any Heisman winner. Any recent winner coming into the league will be making that climb to NFL stardom with an additional weight resting heavily on their shoulders: the burden of the Heisman Curse.