There was a highly anticipated NFL game between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, but Navy football players had not gathered in front of a television at Ricketts Hall to watch the showdown between the longtime rivals. They instead were waiting for the ESPN broadcast to reveal the finalists for this year’s Heisman Trophy.
Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds had finished first in fan voting, perhaps an indication the record-setting senior would be invited to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York for Saturday night’s award ceremony. With the Army-Navy game Saturday afternoon, Navy officials had arranged for a helicopter to transport Reynolds from Philadelphia in time for the presentation.
Anticipation soon turned into disappointment when 1998 Heisman winner Ricky Williams read the names and Reynolds wasn’t among them. The finalists selected to attend were, in alphabetical order, Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in voting among Heisman winners, the media and fans.
“We were pretty bummed out for him,” said Bernard Sarra, Navy’s nose guard and senior co-captain. “Keenan, all year, he didn’t make it seem like a big deal. He’s like, ‘I don’t care about it,’ but it meant a lot for him, and it really meant a lot for us. I mean, that’s our guy. He’s our leader on the field, off the field, so we really wanted it for him.”
Reynolds had support from not just teammates but also national pundits who questioned why major college football’s all-time rushing touchdowns leader was not invited to the awards presentation; in past years there have been up to six finalists.
In short, it’s because voters displayed a clear preference for Henry, McCaffrey and Watson over Reynolds and other candidates such as Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, Leonard Fournette of LSU and Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State.
According to the Heisman website, at least three players are invited to the ceremony each year as finalists, but any more than that depends on the closeness of the vote.
In 2008, for instance, Florida’s Tim Tebow finished third with 1,575 voting points. Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell came in fourth with 213 points. Because the disparity was so wide, Harrell was not invited to the ceremony.
Final voting results are not made public until the award show.
“It’s just bothered me that a kid who’s played extremely well, he should be given a chance to be there,” Craig James, a former college football analyst and Heisman voter, said on his “Airing It Out” podcast. “It’s a shame Keenan Reynolds will not be in New York for that. This is going to be an officer in the Navy protecting you and I, protecting us from the bad guys, who had an outstanding football career.”
Reynolds is set to serve five years of active duty immediately following graduation. Navy’s two Heisman winners, Roger Staubach in 1963 and Joe Bellino in 1960, each served four years, as was customary at the time. Staubach and Bellino both said they voted for Reynolds not because he plays at Navy but for reasons stipulated in the Heisman Trust mission statement, which reads in part:
“The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”
At one point, ESPN removed Reynolds’s name from the splash page of its sponsored Heisman House website, generating a backlash on social media among his advocates. Reynolds had been leading fan voting by a wide margin at the time he was scratched from prominent positioning on the website. The fan vote counts as only one of the 929 ballots.
Still, those wanting to vote for Reynolds had to navigate through several drop-down menus to cast a ballot. The search included having to find Navy among the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, scrolling through the Midshipmen’s entire roster and clicking on Reynolds’s name to vote.
ESPN eventually added Reynolds back to the main page with the front-runners.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Reynolds said of not being among the finalists. “But our number one priority is getting ready for Army, so moving on. We’ve got a big week ahead of us, a lot to play for.”
Henry, a junior, ran for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns, breaking 1982 Heisman winner Herschel Walker’s Southeastern Conference record for rushing yards in a season; McCaffrey, a sophomore, eclipsed 1988 Heisman winner Barry Sanders’s major-college mark with 3,496 all-purpose yards this season; and Watson, also a sophomore, is the quarterback on the No. 1 team in the country.
Reynolds is tied for second in the nation with 19 rushing touchdowns this season and was named American Athletic Conference offensive player of the year.
The Midshipmen (9-2) finished No. 21 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, with their only losses coming to No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 18 Houston.
“Your initial thought is disappointment, but then you sit back and think, whatever he was, sixth or whatever, it’s still a pretty great accomplishment,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
“I just thought for Keenan even to be in the discussion, what a great, great accomplishment on his part. That’s what I told him, ‘We’re all proud of you.’ ”