I was in the hospital when Charles Woodson beat out Peyton Manning to win the 1997 Heisman Trophy. It was my freshman year of college, and I was still fighting the battles of a pre-adolescent; my tonsils had just been removed. I was in surgery when the ceremony date arrived and I didn't find out the result until the next morning. My dad called the hospital from Nashville, and I was still a bit woozy from the surgery.
"Well," he said, "Charles Woodson won it."
I didn't believe him, but my throat was so swollen I couldn't talk to ask more questions. Eventually, I scrawled out a message on a napkin that my mom could relay to my dad.
"How," I scribbled, "did Charles Woodson win?"
I wanted the numbers, the tally of Manning's defeat. My mom scrunched up her face as she looked at my message.
"Who," she asked, "is Charles Woodson?"
Back then, Tennessee fans who could talk, myself not included, reacted with indignation. "He's the guy," we might have said, "who stole the Heisman from Peyton Manning."
Twelve years later, the anger over Charles Woodson's Heisman victory still burns as it did in December of 1997. The people of my home state, Tennessee, still cringe when Woodson's name comes up in conversation. I married a Michigan grad, of all people, and the only thing I ask my wife is that she refrain from uttering his name in our house. Generally she complies. Unless, that is, she wants to win an argument.
"Oh, yeah," she'll say, smirking a bit, "Charles Woodson."
His name is still fingernails on a chalkboard.
On a few occasions, Woodson has come to the Volunteer state to play against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. When his name is announced, boos rain forth in fury. Mention him on my radio show in Nashville, and 12 years later, it's guaranteed to lead to jam-packed lines. The anger hasn't receded, it's just moved beneath the surface, percolating, the Tennessee football boil that cannot be lanced.
Woodson is the Voldemort of Tennessee athletics, he who cannot be named.
In that same December, 1997, Eric Berry was a nine-year-old defensive back. His father, James, played for the Vols, and Eric hoped Manning, a fellow Volunteer, would take the trophy over Woodson, the man who played his position.
"I was rooting for Manning," Berry says. "When he lost, I was like, man ..."
Already, Berry was tearing up the local youth football fields in Georgia, and his climb didn't stall as he aged. By his senior season, Rivals tabbed him a five-star player, the No. 3 overall player in the class of 2007. Berry did not disappoint, starting every game of his freshman year. In his third game, Berry intercepted Tim Tebow and returned the pick 96 yards for a touchdown. It was the first interception of his career, and, as he streaked down Florida's field, juking Tebow out of his cape in the process, a Tennessee legend was born.
Eventually, Berry picked off four more passes that season for another 106 yards in return yardage. Along the way, he burnished his reputation as a devastating hitter, and Vols fans began to whisper about just how good Berry could be.
Meanwhile, the Woodson resentment did not fade.
Partly, this is the result of Heisman voters spurning the Volunteers again and again. No Vol has ever won the Heisman, yet three times a player has finished second.
First, Hank Lauricella came in second in 1951. Then Johnny Majors lost to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung in 1956. Hornung is still the only Heisman winner to play for a losing team -- the Irish went 2-8 -- and many in the state believe it was the Notre Dame name that garnered Hornung the vote over Majors. Well into the 1990s my grandfather, a former Vol football player, would gripe over the vote.
"Johnny Majors should have won, sonny boy," my grandfather would say, "he should have won."
In 1993, quarterback Heath Shuler, then a junior, finished second to Charlie Ward. Vol fans hoped Shuler would return for his senior season and take home Tennessee's first Heisman. But Shuler bolted for the NFL, opening the door for a heralded freshman quarterback named Peyton to take the field.
And so, after fifth-year senior starting quarterback Jerry Colquitt blew out his knee on the first series of the season and backup Todd Helton was himself later injured, Manning took over the starting role in October and proceeded to turn the Tennessee record book into his personal memoir. For many Tennessee fans, Manning was the chosen one, the player who would end the Heisman futility.
When Manning returned for his senior season, we celebrated like Davy Crockett had been resurrected from the grave. At long last, our time was here.
Berry's sophomore season more than lived up to the promise of his freshman year. In 2008, Berry had 72 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, and three sacks. Berry improved on his freshman totals, even though he played two fewer games, with seven interceptions and 265 return yards. Two of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns. Berry also worked his way onto the offensive side of scrimmage last year, rushing seven times for 34 yards, caught one pass for three yards and returned two kicks for a total of 28 yards.
By the end of the season, Berry was just 15 yards from setting an all-time record for interception return yardage. After two seasons of football, Berry has 12 interceptions that he's returned for 487 yards, an average of 41 return yards per interception.
Curious as to how Berry's 2008 campaign compared with Woodson's 1997 statistics, I went back and compared them. In 1997, Woodson had eight interceptions, returned for a grand total of seven yards (with no touchdowns), 47 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and one sack. On offense, he had 12 receptions for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Woodson returned 36 punts for a very pedestrian average of 8.1 yards. One of those went for a touchdown. But it came against Ohio State and helped to buttress the opinion that Woodson was an electric punt returner. In fact, he wasn't, but that one play received so much airtime that it made fans and media believe he was better than he actually was.
Woodson's Michigan defense finished ranked second in the nation, Tennessee finished tied for third.
Woodson had one more total touchdown than Berry, one more interception, and returned punts -- one of which went for a touchdown. Berry finished with 25 more tackles, 3.5 more tackles-for-loss, two more sacks, and, most significantly, 258 more return yards on those interceptions. Even if you add in the 238 receiving yards Woodson recorded in 2007, Berry still outgained Woodson by 20 yards simply by returning his picks. Plus, and this may be telling, in 2008, Berry was a sophomore, and in 1997 Woodson was a junior.
You can construct a very sound argument that Berry's 2008 campaign was every bit the equal of Woodson's 1997 Heisman campaign. Statistics, of course, don't tell the whole story. Woodson's team went on to win a share of the national title and Berry's went 5-7, but team performance isn't the final arbiter for an individual reward, or at least shouldn't be. Berry may not have deserved the Heisman based on his team performance, but was he deserving of at least one single Heisman vote? One paltry, off-the-cuff vote on one single ballot?
Not according to Heisman voters.
In 1997, Manning's Vols went 11-1 in the regular season and won the SEC. Manning finished his regular season with a 39-5 career record as starting quarterback. He lost to Florida three times, Alabama once, and Memphis once. That was it. Manning lost the Heisman to Woodson and appeared stunned. So were many in the media and in UT's sports information department.
This past fall, as I researched my new book, a member of the Knoxville media approached me and pointed at UT's long-time sports information director as he stood on the side of the field watching practice. "That's Bud Ford," the media member said, "and he still hasn't forgiven himself for Peyton Manning losing the Heisman."
In reality, there was nothing Ford or anyone else could have done. Woodson's nascent campaign caught flight at just the right moment, ESPN played up his candidacy, the Hypesman was born, and Woodson posed alongside the most storied individual trophy in all of sports.
Then ESPN's College Gameday host Chris Fowler poured gasoline on the controversy, referring to the uproar in the state of Tennessee as a "trailer-park frenzy." He was right about the last word, wrong about the first two. It wasn't just trailer parks where Tennessee fans were angry, it was every single household in the state that bled orange, from the Governor's mansion on down, from neurosurgeons to out-of-work janitors.
How unique was the surge in Woodson's candidacy? Leave aside the fact that he was the first defensive player to win the Heisman, or that the Heisman was but a pipe dream for Woodson leading into the 1997 season. Not one single defensive player has even been invited to New York since Woodson's victory.
After the Heisman loss, Manning carried his Volunteers into a potential national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl. Woodson's Michigan Wolverines faced off against Ryan Leaf's Washington State Cougars in the Rose Bowl. If Leaf and Washington State won, Tennessee and Nebraska would face off for a national championship game. If Michigan won, then Nebraska could win a title and finish undefeated; Tennessee could not.
Michigan won, Nebraska won, and the titles were split.
Manning was drafted first overall by the Indianapolis Colts and Woodson went third to the Oakland Raiders.
Now, as the 2009 season dawns, Volunteer fans look to No. 14 and wonder, is this karmic justice, a homegrown Volunteer defensive back who is better than Woodson? And if, be still our orange hearts, Berry is better in this, his junior season, can he too catch Heisman fire, repeat history, surge ahead of more established players at the quarterback position, and help to assuage the anger still held by Vols fans?
Can Eric Berry bury our Heisman anger once and for all?
The University of Tennessee thinks so. It's why they've launched the first Heisman campaign for any player since Manning. Billboards adorn the state, a huge blow-up of Berry's jersey, a Heisman Web site -- Berry4Heisman.com -- all offered in the fervent hope that Berry can be a latter day Woodson.
So much has changed in the last 12 years of college football. The Internet has taken over as the meeting place for college football fans, YouTube has joined ESPN as the locus for fan hype, and Berry has a Twitter page with over 3,000 followers where he ruminates upon seeing kids out at the mall dressed in his jersey and whether they'll recognize him. "This guy is wearing my jersey in the mall. I wonder if he knows it's me. Lol"
But what hasn't changed is the quest for Heisman redemption among Tennessee football fans.
Twelve years ago my mom asked me, "Who's Charles Woodson?" and my throat was so swollen I couldn't even respond. Twelve years later, I finally can.
Who's Charles Woodson?
He's the guy who isn't as good as Eric Berry.