This was supposed to be Peter Warrick's night. This was supposed to be the evening when family and friends would celebrate with him, and a nation would applaud him as he was presented with the Heisman Trophy that had all but been conceded to him since last summer.
That trophy would signify what Florida State fans already knew: Peter Warrick is the best and most electrifying player in college football, a dazzling game-breaker of a wide receiver and a lock to be a high first-round pick in next spring's NFL draft.
Warrick may believe he should be given the Heisman Trophy that Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne is favored to win tonight. He also knows why he won't. Warrick's chances ended this fall when he was involved in a Tallahassee department store scam that got him arrested and briefly thrown off the Seminoles. His reputation was badly tarnished, so much so that he wasn't even invited to attend tonight's presentation ceremony at New York's Downtown Athletic Club.
The embarrassment doesn't end there. On Thursday, Warrick wasn't even recognized as the nation's best wide receiver. The Biletnikoff Award was given to Stanford's Troy Walters, who had 74 receptions for 1,456 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games. Warrick had 71 receptions for 934 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games despite being frequently double- and triple-teamed.
Ironically, the Biletnikoff Award is presented by the Tallahassee Quarterback Club Foundation. Biletnikoff Award officials said it was the closest voting in the history of the award, but would not disclose the vote by a nationwide panel of writers and broadcasters.
Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, who won the Chuck Bednarik Trophy as the nation's top defensive player Thursday night, dedicated his award to Warrick.
"That was a very nice thing to do," Warrick said as he hurried out of the building at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, site of the "College Football Awards" show. "LaVar was all class. They [the Biletnikoff voters] made their decision and it's over with. Whether I won something or won nothing, it wasn't going to affect how I play [at the Sugar Bowl]."
Why did Arrington dedicate his award to Warrick?
"I glanced back and saw Pete looking kind of sad," Arrington said. "Right is right. I'm not going into details about what Pete did. I just think if Peter Warrick isn't the best college football player in America, I don't know who is."
As for Warrick, he insists he's more excited about graduating from Florida State on Dec. 18 than winning the Heisman or playing Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship on Jan. 4.
"This is something that people can't take away from you," Warrick said. "I know a game is nothing like football. I love football, but football is not going to be there all of my life."
The Heisman looked as if it were going to be part of his life. From poster-size calendars to pocket-size trading cards, Florida State officials cranked out a massive campaign to enhance Warrick's chances this season.
Those chances ended Oct. 7 when he and teammate Laveranues Coles were arrested for receiving $412.38 worth of clothes from a clerk at Dillard's for $21.40. Warrick was charged with felony grand theft and suspended two games. He returned to the team after the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor.
After he returned, opposing fans taunted him by waving Dillard's bags and screaming insults. Warrick publicly brushed off the insults, but admitted that not being invited to the Heisman ceremony did hurt.
"What can you say?" said Warrick's mother, JoAnn Williams, upon hearing about the Heisman decision. "We are just praying--we felt Pete should have been invited to New York."
While Williams and Warrick's stepfather, Charles Williams, plan to be in New Orleans on Jan. 4, JoAnn said she's also looking forward to seeing her child graduate from Florida State. Warrick almost skipped his senior year for the NFL, but changed his mind after talking with his mother.
"I am real happy as a mother that he decided to come back and finish his education," said JoAnn Williams, 44, who raised her son as a single mother before she married Charles, a minister, five years ago.
Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden also is happy Warrick remained at FSU and helped the Seminoles to a 12-0 record and No. 1 ranking in the polls.
"Our team went through a lot of testing this year and Pete went through a lot of testing," Bowden said. "But because of his family, their faith and prayers for him, he got through it."
JoAnn and Charles Williams have attended all of Warrick's college games, including the two he missed while serving his suspension.
"I am not a millionaire," said Charles, an assistant pastor at Mt. Raymond Full Gospel Baptist Church in Bradenton, Fla., who also works as a boat builder. "But when you know your family is in the stands, your focus is a whole lot better because you know somebody is supporting you no matter what."
"When we first got the message [about her son's arrest], we went into prayer," JoAnn said. "As a mother you worry--you don't want to worry but you worry. I prayed, but it was just too much for me to bear. I just gave it to God."
Special correspondent Joey Johnston in Orlando contributed to this report.
65th Heisman Trophy Award
TV: 8 p.m., ESPN
Where: Downtown Athletic Club, New York.
Finalists: Purdue QB Drew Brees, Wisconsin RB Ron Dayne,
Georgia Tech QB Joe Hamilton, Marshall QB Chad Pennington and Virginia Tech QB Michael Vick.