If you want to anger the soul of a loyal Tennessee Volunteer, just bring up 1997.
Tennessee fans can give you every detail of that exhilarating, frustrating year. It was the year that they lost to the Gators 33-20 in Gainesville but then won the rest of them in the regular season. It was the year that the Vols won their first SEC championship under Phillip Fulmer with quarterback Peyton Manning leading the way. On the night of SEC championship game Manning rallied Tennessee from a 20-7 deficit by throwing for 373 yards. That total included a 73-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Nash early in the fourth quarter, which proved to be the game winner, 30-29.
Afterwards, Manning was named the game’s MVP and capped off the evening by directing the Tennessee band as it played “Rocky Top.”
I was convinced that one week later, Manning would add one more shining star to his resume by winning the Heisman Trophy. I was wrong. Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson was handed the hardware at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York. How shocking was it? Woodson was the last non-quarterback/running back to win college football’s most prestigious award.
Tennessee fans haven’t gotten over it. The fact is they’ll never get over it. Peyton Manning was the best player in college football in 1997. To me it wasn’t close. But for the fourth time in Tennessee’s illustrious football history, Volunteer fans had seen one of their greatest players finish second for the Heisman. Shoot, it had only been 41 years since Johnny Majors (whose Tennessee team was 10-0) had finished second to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung, who played on a 2-8 team in 1956. Forty years from now the Big Orange Nation will still feel deeply that Manning got cheated out of a Heisman Trophy.
That’s why a little part of you should be rooting for Eric Berry.
Tennessee has announced that it will launch a Heisman Trophy campaign for Berry, the junior safety from Fairburn. Here is his website:
I met with Eric during SEC media days in Hoover, Ala., and asked him about the Heisman.
“I just appreciate the fact that the Tennessee people think that much of me,” said Berry. “People have asked me if a defensive back can win the Heisman. It has happened before. I just want Tennessee to win football games.”
Berry has been the best defensive player in the SEC since he walked onto the Tennessee campus. He is so good that he only needs 15 interception return yards to break the NCAA career record of 501 set by Florida State’s Terrell Buckley (1989-91).
“You just don’t run across talent like that every day,” said head coach Lane Kiffin, who announced when he took over that 21 out of 22 positions on the team were up for competition. Berry’s was safe. “He’s special. He’s a difference maker. I’m glad he’s playing for Tennessee.”
Are the odds against Berry winning the Heisman? You bet. It is a major long shot. Three quarterbacks who went to New York last year—Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy—are back. Tebow and Bradford already have one Heisman in their trophy cases. If one of those guys doesn’t get the Heisman it will be a huge, huge upset.
And Kiffin has said that as tempting as it is, he won’t use Berry on offense. Berry is coming off shoulder surgery. If Berry were on making plays on offense, some of the Heisman voters might notice. But I agree with Kiffin. It’s too great a risk for a team that will rely on its defense to win in 2009.
But wouldn’t it be a delicious irony that if 12 years after the bitter disappointment of watching their beloved Manning finish second to a defensive back, Tennessee fans could see Berry waltz in front of those rock-star quarterbacks and snatch the Heisman like one of his 12 career interceptions?
Just call it Peyton’s Revenge. How cool would that be?
What do you think? Is it still possible for a defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy?