NEW YORK -- Even after a record-breaking season full of last-second touchdowns and monumental upsets, even after a week of pre-ceremony coverage in which his victory became increasingly inevitable, it was not until Robert Griffin III heard his name called and walked to the stage of Best Buy Theater on Saturday night that the once-unfathomable become reality.
A Baylor football player has won the Heisman Trophy.
"It's the biggest event in Baylor athletics history," said local radio broadcaster John Morris, the "Voice of the Bears" and a 1980 graduate. "How many schools around the country can say they have a Heisman Trophy winner?"
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For the most part, schools like USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Texas can. If you go back far enough you'll find ones from Oregon State, Minnesota and, of course, Yale and Princeton. All of them cherish the heroes who earned them gridiron glory, but none suffered more painfully, on and off the field, in the years and decades before enjoying a moment like this one.
"Everyone associated with Baylor University has a reason to celebrate tonight," Griffin -- replete with Superman socks hidden under his suit pants -- said during an eloquent and emotional acceptance speech. "To Baylor Nation, I say this is a forever kind of moment. May we be blessed to have many more like it in the future."
In throwing for 3,998 yards and 36 touchdowns, rushing for 644 yards and nine scores and posting what would be an NCAA-record 192.3 efficiency rating, Griffin helped deliver a much-needed national re-branding for a long stigmatized institution and city.
"It's a transformative moment for Baylor football and the university," said athletic director Ian McCaw. "The Baylor brand has been changed based on what's happened this fall."
In the 1990s, Waco, the school's hometown, was synonymous with David Koresh. For part of the 2000s, Baylor athletics was synonymous with the murder of one of its basketball players, Patrick Dennehy, at the hands of a teammate. In football, Baylor was mostly a punchline, the school that was lucky to get into the Big 12 in the first place and proceeded to win just 11 conference games in its first 12 seasons.
"For a lot of those years, if you did a survey of Baylor fans, the goal was just trying to get out of the cellar of the Big 12," said Morris. "It's not a very lofty goal, but that's where we were."
Then a charismatic, dreadlocked quarterback with track star speed arrived on the scene in 2008. Sought after by most as a receiver or defensive back, Griffin heeded newly hired coach Art Briles' pitch to come play in his wide-open offense and "in two or three years, you'll be a Heisman finalist." Last year, he led the Bears to their first bowl game in 16 years, and that seemed like a pretty significant landmark.
A year later, Baylor is enjoying a Top 15-ranking and its first nine-win season in a quarter-century, and Griffin proved more than a finalist. On Saturday, he beat out a decorated Stanford quarterback, a highlight-popping Alabama tailback, a record-chasing Wisconsin runner and a championship-shaping cornerback for top-ranked LSU to claim college football's most prestigious prize.
"All along I've said it's not an individual award. It's about Baylor Nation," Griffin said Saturday night. "We'll bring home this award and hopefully it will inspire people to chase their dreams. I achieved mine, and I couldn't have done it without the people around me."
The interior façade of Baylor's Floyd Casey Stadium is marked by two enormous banners honoring the history-deprived program's two most recognizable icons: Grant Teaff, the coach who led the Bears to two Southwest Conference championships and eight bowl games from 1972-92; and Mike Singletary, the two-time All-America linebacker who went on to greater fame with the Chicago Bears.
A new name will soon be added to the pantheon.
"It speaks loudly and clearly to what I've always believed since I was at Baylor and that's Baylor can compete with anyone," said Teaff, now the head of the American Football Coaches Association. "It says there's an extraordinary young man that came to Baylor, and it brings significant value to not just the individual, but also to the institution."
Some found it cocky when, after the Bears' season-ending 48-24 rout of Texas, the fourth-year junior declared: "I think Baylor just won its first Heisman." Maybe it was. But throughout a season in which his school heavily promoted him for the trophy, whenever asked about it, he constantly referred to it as Baylor's potential award. No Bears player had even finished in the Top 5 since Don Trull in 1963.
"It's monumental, to have the first Heisman Trophy in Waco, Texas, where things haven't been good for a very long time," said Griffin. "What we've done over the past couple years has been groundbreaking for Baylor University and the city of Waco."
These are certainly happier times at Baylor and in Waco. The women's basketball team is No. 1 in the country, the men No. 6. But in Texas, more than anywhere, football is king. A Top 15 season might not seem like much to an Oklahoma or Texas fan, but for Baylor, beating Oklahoma and Texas in the same season is every bit as gratifying as a national championship is for others.
And yet, on the day that season began, on Sept 2, news elsewhere threatened Baylor's entire football existence. Hours before Griffin threw for 359 yards and five touchdowns in a Friday night upset of reigning Rose Bowl champ TCU, comments from Oklahoma president David Boren indicated the Big 12 was on the verge of extinction (again). Over the weeks that followed, Baylor President Ken Starr and school publicists launched a massive campaign in hopes of securing the program's future, with Starr leading the charge threatening to sue SEC defector Texas A&M.
Three months later, the Big 12, and Baylor's place in it, is finally safe, and now, thanks to Griffin, it's no longer so easy to automatically dismiss the Bears' football pedigree.
"It's been a dry spell, and the last couple of years have been refreshing," said Briles. "We feel like we're a program on the rise on the national scene, and this kind of solidifies it."
Griffin said he hasn't decided yet whether he'll turn pro after the season, but it seems hard to believe he won't. Whether Briles' program can keep climbing up the Big 12 hierarchy without his prized player remains to be seen, but its days as the automatic cellar dweller pick appear to be over.
Griffin will now forever be part of the Heisman fraternity, but, "Baylor is and always will be a fraternity," he said. "We never had any [trophies] hanging up. Now we have one."
One is all they needed to help erase two decades of misery and transform a forlorn program's image.