Heisman: Most successful, disappointing pros

Posted Dec. 03, 2010 @ 9:50 a.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

Since the start of the Super Bowl era, the Heisman Trophy has been presented to some of the greatest stars in the history of college football — men who won national titles and helped to build programs. But winning the Heisman alone does not assure greatness at the pro level. While some Heisman winners did produce in the NFL, others were clearly never cut out for a career beyond the college game (QBs Danny Wuerffel, Gino Torretta and Jason White come to mind). And then there are those who were tagged with high expectations that were never met.

Here are the five most productive pro careers among Heisman winners from the Super Bowl era …

Barry Sanders (1988 Heisman Winner)

During the 1988 season, Sanders gained 2,628 yards on the ground for Oklahoma State and scored a total of 39 touchdowns. Those numbers helped Sanders to collect more than twice as many votes in the Heisman race as runner-up Rodney Peete of USC. According to legend, the Green Bay Packers war room was divided over Sanders and Tony Mandarich. The winning side got its man — Michigan State's behemoth offensive tackle. The losing side missed out on a running back who gained 5.0 yards per carry and gained 15,269 yards — second most all-time.

O.J. Simpson (1968)

The Juice couldn't be stopped during his senior season — not even by a loaded Ohio State defense in the Rose Bowl. His 2,853 points remain a Heisman voting record, and next to Herschel Walker, Simpson may be the most revered player in college football history. He had good size and could run through or around defenders. He did the same in the NFL. His 1973 NFL campaign is one of the greatest single seasons by an NFL running back, as Simpson gained a record 143.1 yards per game for an otherwise mediocre Bills squad. During one five-year stretch (1972-76) Simpson was far and away the best player in pro football.

Earl Campbell (1977)

As well as the "Tyler Rose" played for Fred Akers' Texas Longhorns in 1977, one has to wonder how Oklahoma State's Terry Miller managed to steal away 125 first place votes. The NFL's No. 1 overall pick in 1978 made a fast impression. In his first year he was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year; in his second he was named its Most Valuable Player. In his first four seasons, Campbell gained 6,457 yards — arguably the finest start to a career by any NFL running back in history. And although his career was shortened by injuries, Campbell's star lives on.

Charles Woodson (1997)

Woodson's Heisman win over Tennessee's Peyton Manning was close in its final tally, but in reality Woodson secured more votes in every region but one. Voters were less concerned with making history (Woodson in the only defender to win the award) than with recognizing Woodson for being a difference maker on Michigan's national championship team. In the NFL, Woodson has built a remarkable career, first in Oakland and now in Green Bay. He has scored 11 defensive touchdowns (more than Deion Sanders), forced 26 fumbles, recorded 12½ sacks, and is approaching 50 interceptions — all of which makes him one of the most complete cornerbacks in the history of pro football.

Tony Dorsett (1976)

The 1976 Heisman pitted Dorsett against Ricky Bell. Of course, so did the 1977 NFL draft where Tampa Bay's John McKay selected his former USC pupil with the top pick, leaving Dorsett to be plucked by a Cowboys team happy to trade into the No. 2 slot. Dorsett dominated Bell in both competitions — he collected 66.8 percent of the eligible first-place votes in the 1976 Heisman balloting, and finished his NFL career in 1988 second only to Walter Payton on the career rushing list.

Here are the five most disappointing pro football careers among Heisman winners from the Super Bowl era …

Archie Griffin (1974, ’75)

In Columbus, Griffin remains an icon to one of college football's richest programs. Little more than 100 miles southwest, in Cincinnati, he came and went like a cold Ohio winter. The Heisman's only two-time winner, Griffin was picked by the Bengals with the 24th selection in the 1976 NFL draft. In seven NFL seasons he scored seven rushing touchdowns and never once led his own team in rushing.

Desmond Howard (1991)

Sure, for a few years Howard was one of the NFL's most dangerous return men, and even played an integral role in the Packers' 1996 Super Bowl run. But is that really what fans expected when the Redskins made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 1992 NFL draft? After all, at Michigan, Howard had been college football's most electrifying player — both as a returner and receiver. He was the kid who boldly flashed the Heisman pose against Ohio State. But in 11 NFL seasons, Howard played for five teams and had more than 300 receiving yards in a season just once (1994).

Ron Dayne (1999)

No college back in history has gained as many yards as Dayne, who guided the University of Wisconsin to back-to-back Rose Bowl wins in his final two seasons. He became the school's second Heisman winner in 1999, then joined Jim Fassel's New York Giants in 2000. There he was paired with Tiki Barber to form a "thunder and lightning" backfield that never materialized. Dayne argued to the Giants' coaching staff that he was never a short-yardage back but rather a featured back designed to carry 25-plus times per game. No one listened, and Dayne's career ended after just seven seasons.

Andre Ware (1989)

Heisman voters could not ignore Ware's passing numbers for the University of Houston in 1989 — 44 touchdowns and more than 4,500 yards — and neither could the Lions, who made Ware the No. 7 overall selection the following spring. When David Klingler had better success for the Cougars the following season the jig was up. Ware was a product of a run-and-shoot system and never could duplicate his passing success in the NFL. Instead, he attempted 161 passes in four seasons, finishing his career with just five touchdown passes.

Herschel Walker (1982)

To be fair, Walker had a solid NFL career. He gained more than 8,000 rushing yards in 12 seasons and caught more than 500 passes. But those numbers are nowhere near what they should have been. Walker was the best player in college football in the early 1980s. Stories of his pushup and sit-up regimen were all people could talk about. He was going to rewrite the NFL record books. Unfortunately, the USFL nabbed him, then the Cowboys made him share time with Tony Dorsett before shipping him to Minnesota. Walker had gained more than 5,000 yards in his three seasons at Georgia but managed just two 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL.


Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).