The last greatly argued question of the college football season takes the form of a grim-faced hunk of statue, arm outstretched and looking like it's about to trip. The 53rd annual Heisman Trophy will be awarded Saturday in a klieg-lighted banquet salon, probably to Notre Dame's Tim Brown amid only moderate suspense, but unusual discussion.
Brown, a wingback who produced 35 percent of his team's yardage at a variety of positions, is favored to win the 50-pound sculpture given annually by the Downtown Athletic Club in New York to the outstanding college football player in the country.
But not everyone believes Brown is that player. Said Pittsburgh running back Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, "Let him earn it." And Miami defensive back Benny Blades said flatly, "He's not worthy."
Brown has lost 12 pounds, his last two games, and at this point is suffering from a combination of hopeful nerves and weary doubts. His unconventional season at wingback, spectacular at times, ended with two disappointing performances. He gained 112 yards in a 21-20 loss to Penn State, then caught three passes and dropped three more in a 24-0 loss to No. 2 Miami. All of which has caused this surge of skepticism about his worth.
Probably, those last two games will not affect the voting greatly: a Nov. 7 survey taken of 147 voters (about 15 percent of the total) by the Gannett News Service showed that Brown had 80 first-place votes compared to nine for Florida freshman running back Emmitt Smith and 11 for Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson. But Michigan State's Lorenzo White, Pittsburgh's Heyward, and multi-talented two-way player Gordie Lockbaum of Holy Cross also will get lots of consideration.
"I've been trying not to pay much attention," Brown said. "You never know. I'm going to be there Saturday, nervous like everybody else. At this point it's really exciting, but, if you think about it, you also just want to get it behind you, and say I made the best shot at it I could."
Debatable Heisman winners are nothing new; in fact they can be dated to the very first one: Chicago's Jay Berwanger, who won over Texas Christian's Sammy Baugh in 1935. In some quarters it is known as the trophy that is supposed to go to the best college football player and rarely does.
Brown, a receiver-running back , may have been the most effective player in America this season, returning punts, running back kickoffs, carrying out of the backfield or lining up at end. If he wins, he would be only the fourth non-quarterback or running back to get the award, the last being Nebraska wingback Johnny Rodgers in 1972.
As Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz once put it: "If I was blind, I could still tell when Tim Brown has the football."
The numbers are these: He caught 40 passes for 756 yards with three touchdowns, rushed 39 times for 157 yards with a touchdown, returned 23 kickoffs for 434 yards, and carried back 36 punts for 415 yards with three touchdowns. Many say those numbers, only fourth-best in the country in all-purpose yardage, are undeserving. But those who argue against him are perhaps ignoring some subtleties in his performance.
"He looks like the guy to me," Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said. "Maybe he doesn't lead in numbers, but if you look at the damage, judge the damage, he should win it. You've got to know where he is every second."
Opponents were continually made nervous by his presence, often altering entire defenses. ("They say they don't, but they do," Holtz said.) Brown remained effective this season despite double and sometimes triple coverage, and an injury to starting quarterback Terry Andrysiak in the fourth game of the season. Sophomore Tony Rice, an option quarterback, proved a mediocre passer and from then on Notre Dame went largely to the rush.
"There were times when I wanted the ball and we just couldn't get it to me," Brown said. "Truthfully, I felt after Pitt my chances wouldn't be too good without Terry."
But Brown continued to be threatening, particularly in the kicking game as teams tried to nullify him. Opponents feared him enough to average only 31.2 yards on punts, often squibbing their kicks short. The same was true on kickoffs, where the effort to avoid him resulted in the fact that Notre Dame's average field position was its 37.
Purdue's Fred Akers said earlier this season: "He's like trying to grab hold of a piece of electricity."
Brown also benefited from being on TV eight times this season. Still, the school did not spend a dime publicizing him, unlike UCLA's $10,000 campaign for running back Gaston Green. But the free exposure, coupled with Notre Dame's Heisman tradition (six previous winners), certainly helped him remain a front-runner while other less noticeable players were attaining good numbers.
Yet the truth is, other players' numbers were not entirely spectacular, either. White carried 322 times for 1,459 yards, but he was not even the Big Ten player of the year; Indiana receiver Ernie Jones was. Heyward carried 357 times for 1,655 yards, but is a junior and admits he probably has a better chance next year, although he argues strenuously against Brown.
"No one expected me," he said. "So what the heck, maybe I'll get some votes for next year. . . . If you want to base the trophy on stats and ability to make the big play, I look at myself and Don McPherson. If you want to base it on publicity then give it to Tim Brown."
McPherson might have suffered by going unnoticed until too late. He experienced a major popularity surge as Syracuse's unbeaten season became more startling. He completed 129 of 229 passes for 2,341 yards and 22 touchdowns, leading the nation in efficiency.
No one went more unnoticed than Lockbaum of Holy Cross. A two-way player, he caught 77 passes for 1,152 yards and nine touchdowns and carried 85 times for 403 yards with 13 touchdowns. But Holy Cross' schedule was weak, no highlight films were to be found, and the team appeared on national television only once, an ESPN telecast against Villanova in his last game of the season.
The runners-up can console themselves with the knowledge that they are in great company; some of the losers from over the years seem far more inexplicable than this group. In 1964, for instance, John Huarte won over a cast that included Joe Namath, Gale Sayers, Tucker Frederickson and Dick Butkus.
In '66, Florida's Steve Spurrier won despite Mel Farr at UCLA and Ken Stabler at Alabama. Oklahoma's Steve Owens won in '69, the year Mike Phipps quarterbacked Purdue and James Street led Texas. In '74 and '75 Ohio State's Archie Griffin enraged whole communities by winning twice while Joe Washington ran rampant at Oklahoma and Anthony Davis did the same at Southern California.
The list and arguments go on. Strangers to college football might wonder why there is so much disagreement every year over a slab-like sculpture modeled on an old Fordham halfback and named after a relatively little known coach whose most notable achievement was inventing the center snap.
"There are a couple thousand athletes who'd love to be in this place," Brown said knowingly.