I’ve never paid much attention to the awarding of the Heisman Trophy, given to the young man voted best college football player for a particular season. Begun in 1935 as an exercise in self-promotion by the Downtown Athletic Club, a now-defunct Manhattan men’s club, it honors individual performance in the quintessential team sport, and is more a product of hype than anything else.
Like many things in our culture, it’s gotten more objectionable as it’s gotten bigger, with the ESPN program that announces its awarding resembling nothing so much as a cheesy game show (“And the winner is….”). Caring who gets it is a sure sign that something’s lacking in your life.
However (and you knew there’d be a “however”), I have a candidate for this year’s award-- Ricky Dobbs of Navy. Not only was he the best and most exciting collegiate player I saw last season, and promises to be that again this year, but there’s every reason to believe that he’s an actual student at a university that exists for reasons other than fielding a football team. If those things eliminate him from consideration by the actual electors, so be it. I’d rather lose with Ricky than win with a more-conventional candidate from some Enormous State U.
The Heisman is about football, so a few words about Mr. Dobbs’ qualifications in that activity are in order. He’s a quarterback, the right position for the award (almost all the winners have been QBs or running backs), but not a usual sort of one, just as Navy isn’t your typical big-time football team. It runs what’s called the triple-option offense, which is based more on deceiving opponents than overpowering them. That’s because Navy doesn’t field the dozens of stud-jock aspiring pros that some of its foes do.
In the triple-option, the quarterback (Ricky) gets the ball from center and then must decide whether to pass it, pitch or hand it off, or run with it himself. It’s a reaction call based on what the defense does, and thus requires decision-making skills as well as physical ones. In practice, Navy’s is a running offense, and last season, en route to a 10-4 won-lost mark, it ran the ball about eight times as often as it threw it, a most-unusual ratio. It depends on crafting long drives with 4-, 5- or 6-yard gains, thus controlling the ball and keeping foes’ offenses off the field.
That doesn’t sound very interesting, but it can be. The best college game I saw last year was Navy versus Missouri in the Texas Bowl. Navy thoroughly flummoxed lummoxy Missou, going through, around and over it for a 35-13 victory, with the bouncy Dobbs running for 166 yards, passing for 130 more and scoring three touchdowns. He scored 27 TDs over the season, a national record for quarterbacks. In other games against the big boys last season, he helped Navy beat Notre Dame and lose narrowly to Ohio State.
It’s remarkable in itself that Navy can compete with the likes of Missouri, ND and OSU. While athletes undoubtedly get preferred treatment for admission to the U.S. Naval Academy (as they also do at Ivy League and other schools that award no athletic scholarships, per se, but still field varsity teams), by all accounts they get no breaks once they’re there. Freshman year at Annapolis begins with seven grueling summer weeks of what amounts to basic training, and every midshipman (that’s what a student is called) has to complete a four-year course load heavy with math and the physical sciences in addition to military subjects.
School days begin with 6:30 a.m. reveille and end with lights out at 11 p.m. Uniforms are worn everywhere and there’s lots of marching and formations. Dorm rooms must meet white-glove neatness standards. (Yours did, too, right?) After graduation there’s a five-year service obligation that can involve getting shot at. You have to wonder how those guys keep their minds on football even part time.
If anyone can juggle multiple obligations, apparently it’s Ricky. Not only is he captain of this year’s Navy team—a signal honor-- he’s also vice-president of his senior class. In high school in his native Douglasville, Georgia, just west of Atlanta, his nickname was “The Mayor,” indicating an active and gregarious nature.
His Navy web-site biography notes that his birth date, January 31, 1988, was the day Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory. Young Mr. Dobbs says he’d like to do that, too, once his Navy stint is ended, then go on to be president… of the United States.
The kid doesn’t make it easy on himself, does he? That alone deserves a trophy these days.