Will a Lineman Ever Win the Heisman?


Orlando Pace (left) and Danny Wuerffel were finalists for the 1996 Heisman Trophy. Both were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday. (Credit: National Football Foundation)

Do we need to bring back the pancakes? Is that what it’s going to take for someone other than a quarterback or a running back to win the most prestigious individual award in sports?

In 1996, offensive lineman Orlando Pace was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. He was invited to New York for the ceremony and finished fourth. It was an incredible achievement—not since 1973 had an offensive lineman finished that high in the voting. The award was, and still is, typically given to the players who score touchdowns: of the 78 winners, 70 have been quarterbacks or running backs and only five played outside the offensive backfield. This year’s winner will be announced on Saturday night. There are six finalists; four quarterbacks and two running backs.

How did Pace manage to get serious consideration? In addition to being a dominant left tackle, he was aided by a campaign created by then-Ohio State Sports Information Director Steve Snapp. Pace routinely pushed defenders to the ground, flattening them on their backs like human pancakes. Snapp decided to keep track of these kinds of knockdowns, calling them pancakes and publishing the numbers in Ohio State’s weekly game notes. He designed a refrigerator magnet shaped like a stack of pancakes with the name “Pace” in the middle and crown on top and sent 500 to Heisman voters around the country, along with a mock Heisman ballot encouraging voters to select “the best player in America.” Pace even appeared in a promotional video in which he gave commentary, while wearing a No. 75 apron and chef’s hat, on what makes the perfect pancake, with his football highlights sprinkled throughout the video.

“I kind of opened up the door for people thinking outside the box,” Pace said earlier this week in New York, where he was being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Sure enough, Charles Woodson won the Heisman the year after Pace’s fourth-place finish, becoming the only primarily defensive player to claim the award. Woodson did play some receiver and returned punts, however. He scored four touchdowns that season.

Since Woodson’s win in 1997, the Heisman has gone exclusively to quarterbacks and running backs. Surely one of those years the best player in the country had to play a different position, right? After all, the award is supposed to go to “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.” While that’s a bit vague and alludes to attributes unknown to many voters—how do we judge integrity?—it certainly doesn’t imply anything about scoring touchdowns.

Asked if a lineman might ever win the Heisman, Pace expressed doubt. Members of the media as well as former recipients make up the voting constituency. Pace agreed that it would take a change in voting philosophy, and possibly even in the voters themselves. “If coaches really got down and evaluated players correctly, there could be some linemen, linebackers, defensive ends who win—someone other than just a quarterback or running back.”

Danny Wuerffel, the Florida quarterback who beat out Pace for the Heisman in ’96 and was part of the same Hall of Fame class, would love to see a lineman win but said it’s not the “nature” of the award. “The object of the game is to get the football into the end zone,” he said. “There are a lot of people that play a part in making that happen, but they’re all paving the way for a few people to [do it]. Those are the guys scoring, getting their name on TV, and I think that’s why they win.”

Tedy Bruschi, another inductee for his standout career as a linebacker at Arizona, is more blunt: “The Heisman Trophy is an offensive award. That’s the way I see it and I think that’s the way everyone should see it.”

Tedy Bruschi, a Hall of Fame linebacker, has no problem with the Heisman going to offensive players every year. (Credit: National Football Foundation)

Let the top defensive players take home the Bednarik or Nagurski awards, Bruschi said. While there are major awards for individual offensive positions, none recognize the top offensive player. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the Heisman serving that purpose, even if it’s not explicitly stated as such.

On Saturday night in New York, a quarterback or running back will receive the 79th Heisman Trophy. Most likely, it will go to Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. A capable runner as well as passer, Winston is the type of player the original trophy committee had in mind when designing the statue.

In 1935, the committee decided “the trophy should be the replica in bronze of a muscular footballer driving for yardage.” Sculptor Frank Eliscu went to work, and the finished product “faithfully depicts a skilled and sinewed football player, sidestepping, and straight arming his way downfield to a mythical touchdown!” That doesn’t sound like a left tackle.