7:00 AM ET
Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
In the hours leading up to last weekend’s SEC championship game, from the streets of Atlanta to the rows of the press box high atop Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there were two primary topics of conversation. First, who would win the game — Georgia or Alabama — and how would the outcome affect the College Football Playoff?
And second, would anyone in this game — or heck, anyone in any of the weekend’s conference title matchups — finally step up and seize control of what had been a meandering if not lackluster and thus oft-forgotten 2021 Heisman Trophy race? Between the Dawgs and the Tide, the SEC game featured three would-be candidates whose names could be scribbled onto a very large pile of undecided ballots still in the hands of a very large electorate of uninspired voters for college football’s most coveted individual prize.
“Bryce Young, Will Anderson, Jordan Davis, all of these guys can still win this thing, but they need to do something to spark some imagination tonight,” said a man overlooking the SEC playing field as kickoff drew near. It was a man who knows a little something about the Heisman Trophy, which will be presented Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). Tim Tebow owns one. “I don’t know if I really believe that guys have to have that one ‘Heisman moment’ to win it, that one play that people always talk about. I don’t know if I ever had a real Heisman moment. But if there was ever a race and a night that needed someone to step up and have a Heisman moment, this is it.”
Not even an hour later, everyone standing on the Alabama sideline believed they had just seen one. It was early in the second quarter when the Tide trailed 10-7 as they faced second-and-10 at the Georgia 27-yard line. Young took the snap and scrambled all the way back nearly to midfield when he was flushed out of the collapsing pocket and decided to tuck and run. He cut left to dart past Davis. He barely shed a would-be tackler in linebacker Travon Walker. Then, just as the 70,000-plus in attendance expected the quarterback to surrender into the arms of another linebacker, Nakobe Dean, he instead momentarily broke into 1987 wishbone option mode and pitched the ball out hard to his right and into the waiting hands of running back Brian Robinson, who cut upfield. Not satisfied with that wowing of the nation, Young proceeded to run ahead, leading Robinson’s dash and throwing a dive block at a third UGA linebacker, Quay Walker.
Gain of 13 yards, first down Alabama at the Georgia 14.
“That was it! That was it! Heisman moment, y’all!” the shout came from the Alabama bench, a Young teammate waving his towel among a group of other members of the Tide.
Two plays later, Young stood tall in the pocket on second down, waiting … waiting … directing his offense with his hands like a maestro, and then threw a 13-yard dart into double coverage for a go-ahead touchdown to John Metchie. Now a corrected shout came from the same area of the Bama bench. “Wait, wait, wait! No, THAT was it! Heisman moment, y’all!”
The reality is that Young had an evening full of Heisman moments as he shredded a Georgia defense that we all had been touting as generationally great to the tune of 461 yards of personal offense (421 passing, 40 rushing). He also accounted for four touchdowns, including a zig-zaggy dive of an 11-yard run on a busted pass play at the end of the first half that, yes, looked like a Heisman moment, too.
Then again, maybe Young’s Heisman moment had already happened, when he coolly led Alabama from behind to force overtime in the kiln of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a backpedaling, quick-strike, front-corner scoring pass as the Tide won at Auburn in overtime. Or remember way back a month ago, that 58-yard TD pass against LSU in a tight one-score game? Then again, there was his Alabama-record-setting 559 yards passing to win a 42-35 shootout over Arkansas the week before the Iron Bowl. Certainly there was a Heisman moment somewhere in there, right?
“I don’t know about Heisman moments,” the 20-year-old said leading into the SEC title game. “I like the moments that keep the offense moving forward. If someone has a favorite of those that they really liked, that’s great.”
So, does he?
“Oh yeah. But in the actual moment, I don’t think we even realize. We’re already getting ready for the next play. When we’re breaking it down later, in the position room or wherever, you hope you’ve done things right to the point that when you’re watching film you can go, ‘OK now, that was a special moment.'”
With that in mind, on Saturday night after the SEC title had been won, the question had to be asked. Special moments in the film room. Like that pitch and block?
“That one,” Young said with a grin, about as overtly emotive as the even-keeled Californian gets. “Yes, I would like to see that one again.”
Everyone outside of Athens, Georgia, would. Good thing. Because the pitch to Robinson is guaranteed to be replayed throughout Saturday night’s ceremony. And if Young wins, as he is expected to, then that play will also be shown wherever he goes for the rest of his life, from the 2023 NFL draft a year and half from now to his College Football Hall of Fame induction however many years from now.
Just ask Cam Newton about his monster-truck run through LSU in 2010. Or Reggie Bush about his breaking Fresno State’s collective ankles in 2005. Or Sam Bradford about his flip over Oklahoma State in 2008. Or Desmond Howard about the only Heisman moment that paid homage to the Heisman itself.
“Yeah man, if the world decides that a certain moment is your Heisman moment, then you’d better get comfortable with it, because it’s like family. It’s going to be with you for the rest of your life,” warned Howard, the 1991 Heisman winner while at Michigan. Howard’s moment came in The Game against Ohio State, when he returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown, then struck a stiff-arm pose in the end zone as legendary announcer Keith Jackson shouted, “Hello, Heisman!”
“For me, reliving that never gets old. I still get chills, for real,” Howard said. “I think for some other guys, maybe their Heisman moment becomes like that one crazy family member you have to live with. You love them, but if you’re being honest, you get a little sick of them, too.”
Doug Flutie long ago tired of talking about his Hail Flutie pass to Gerard Phelan when Boston College stunned Miami on Nov. 23, 1984. Flutie does talk about it, he just sounds like he’s hitting play on a broken record. He’ll even remind you that most Heisman ballots had already been cast the week before that ball was thrown. It’s like the subtle rolling of the eyes one might catch if they are really paying attention when their favorite old-school rock star reaches that point in the concert when it’s time to perform the one song that everyone is there to hear, the tune that was a No. 1 hit several decades and several thousand live performances ago. (Pat Benatar, I am totally talking about “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Yeah, I saw you.)
But like those performers, the eternal greats of college football are never one-hit wonders. It’s just that we as a society love to rank stuff. What’s Steven Spielberg’s greatest film? What’s the best holiday side dish? We have always been obsessed with pinpointing that one image or moment or whatever that instantly sums up one’s greatness. We see “The Starry Night” and know it’s Van Gogh. We hear the string section go “Nuh-nuh-nunh-nuuuuuh,” and know it’s Beethoven. Then we see some guy run into his own lineman, bobble the football, catch his own fumble, scramble around like his hair is on fire only to recover and throw a touchdown pass against No. 1 Alabama, and we know it’s Johnny Manziel.
“Man, I am never going to see that play and not smile,” former Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson admitted about his hurdling of a Syracuse defender on Sept. 9, 2016. Jackson’s leap over an embarrassed defensive back and the resulting tiptoe touchdown in reality might not have been as important to his Heisman campaign as his dismantling of Florida State the following weekend or even his superhuman effort in a loss to Deshaun Watson and Clemson three weeks later. But without that moment in the Carrier Dome, we likely wouldn’t have noticed the others the way we did. “The best part of that play isn’t that it was a Heisman moment or whatever. It’s that no one can bring it up to me or show it to me without them smiling just as much as I am. It makes people happy. That’s special. I will never take that for granted.”
Nor should we take Heisman moments for granted. Instead, let’s treat them for what they are. A gift. And when they lead to a great player receiving the most coveted trophy the sport has to offer, then, to quote Cousin Eddie, it’s the gift that keeps on giving all year long … not to mention all the years to come.
“Every athlete dreams of being on a team that everyone will remember because they were able to do great things,” Bryce Young explained. “I hope we give them a lot more moments to remember before we’re done.”