Is there anything in sports more over-hyped, outmoded and unnecessary than the hullabaloo each fall over the Heisman Trophy? The hype will never be drained from the process because the cast of (almost literally) a thousand who decide who'll get college football's stiff-arm statuette want to believe their duty is sacred, and thus they're complicit in stoking the hype. Of the 920 voters, many haven't seen the top candidates play in person and are thus more susceptible to the influence of innumerable eye-glazing Heisman Updates and the tacky promotional gewgaws sent out by college p.r. types. The apples-and-oranges business of comparing linemen to quarterbacks to kick returners seems pointless once again this year, as the winner appears to be preordained to fit the usual profile, i.e., a player at a skill position for a major power.
Since the Heisman was introduced in 1935 to honor the nation's "outstanding" player, college football has turned into an ungainly, impossible-to-monitor sprawl. Scholarship reductions have sent terrific players to unexpected places with starkly different styles and systems, and there's no foolproof way to ferret them all out, let alone weigh one against another. The fact is, Alcorn State's Steve McNair (page 85) could throw for 800 yards every Saturday, and someone would still cavil about his facing "inferior competition." Likewise, Nebraska tackle Zach Wiegert could throw the key block on every Cornhusker touchdown, and the Heisman balloters would still rather honor the player who sauntered through that opening.
College basketball's player of the year awards pass with little notice precisely because that sport offers the fan something far more meaningful to concentrate on—a postseason tournament. If college football had the playoff system it should have, the Heisman would become exactly what it deserves to be: a nice dinner, a nice piece of hardware for someone's trophy case and nothing more.
December 5, 1994
Keepers of the Name
In its quest to bring home the gold, the U.S. Olympic Committee apparently believes it must send out several thousand letters every year implying that it will take legal action against businesses using, in their name or logo, the word Olympic or the interlocking rings (SI Olympic Preview, September 1988 et seq.), to which a 1978 federal law grants the USOC exclusive rights. This is a petty and merciless job, but the Lords of the Rings evidently feel somebody has to do it. There may be a popular rebellion brewing, however. When Manhattanites recently got word that one of the cease-and-desist missives had reached Spiros Nakos, the Greek immigrant owner of a restaurant called Olympic, some started a petition drive, and two lawyers offered their services pro bono. On Nov. 11, after two weeks of negotiations, Nakos agreed to remove the five interlocking rings from the sign above his establishment, though he won't have to change the restaurant's name.
The USOC emphasizes that it has not granted Nakos "permission" to use the word, and reserves the right to take action at some later date. USOC interim executive director John Krimsky Jr. says Nakos's 10-table coffee shop infringes on the rights of McDonald's, which has paid more than $40 million to be the official restaurant sponsor of the USOC. Says Krimsky, "What would McDonald's say if I don't protect its rights?"
One would hope that McDonald's would have the good p.r. sense—which the USOC apparently lacks—to say nothing. In the state of Washington, where a peninsula, a mountain range and 72 businesses in the Seattle phone book share the O-word, news of Nakos's plight has left people spoiling for a fight, lest they receive a letter in the future. "The mountains have been here since before their Games, you know," says Jeff Hutchinson, office manager at Olympic Fuel Injection in the Emerald City. Adds Dan Nelson, a physician and owner of Seattle's Olympic Spinal Care, "The general provincial attitude around here is: Screw 'em."
A source at Little, Brown and Company assures us that the USOC hasn't yet insisted that future editions of Edith Hamilton's definitive Mythology refer to Zeus' home as "the mountain in the north of Thessaly."
Jerry Reynolds, the director of player personnel for the Sacramento Kings, grew up in French Lick, Ind., the faded resort town that produced NBA legend Larry Bird. Jerry's mother, Bennice, and one of his two brothers, Randy, still live there, as does Bird. Recently, Randy was laid up and unable to take care of things around his mother's house, as he usually does. "The yard started growing a lot, and Larry Bird noticed one day," says Jerry. "He went home, got his lawn mower and mowed my mom's yard."
Did Bennice realize just who was cutting her grass? "I asked her," says Jerry. "She said, 'Oh, yes. It was one of Georgia Bird's boys, but I'm not sure which one.' "
You may recall Thurman Thomas, the Buffalo Bills' running back, as the guy who 1) complained when he wasn't drafted in the first round; 2) complained that he wasn't being accorded enough "respect" as a pro; 3) complained anew that he wasn't being accorded enough "respect," even after he was named the league's MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 1991; 4) missed the first play of Super Bowl XXVI after misplacing his helmet; 5) went on to rush for 13 yards in that game; 6) returned to the Super Bowl a year later to gain 19 yards; 7) flipped the bird at two TV news cameramen last summer; and 8) referred to members of the media as "you ——" over a live radio microphone following the Bills' 44-10 defeat of Kansas City on Oct. 30.
But four boys, ages seven to 10, have their own, much more personal remembrances of Thomas. According to a letter to The Buffalo News from the grandfather of two of the boys, George Schmelzer of Orchard Park, N.Y., the young fans made the mistake of approaching Thomas for autographs outside Rich Stadium the day after the Bills' 23-3 season-opening loss to the New York Jets.
"I don't give —— autographs," the boys say Thomas told them.
"Well, I don't want it anyway after the way you played Sunday," one of the kids replied.
"That's because I was —— your mama all night," Thomas allegedly shot back.
According to Schmelzer, Bill media relations director Scott Berchtold told him that he had witnessed the exchange and apologized to him on the club's behalf, but publicly Berchtold won't confirm or deny that the Thomas incident even occurred. For his part Thomas denies he said what the boys claim he said, although he doesn't exactly do so categorically. "To my knowledge, I can't recall that happening," he said on his weekly cable TV show. "Deep inside, Thurman Thomas isn't the type of person to cuss out a little kid, especially in the public eye with adults around."
Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz has come in for his share of grief in this space for lapses in football etiquette. But in light of the alarming spate of helmet-doffing touchdown celebrations in college games this season, we're happy to cite Holtz, much as a society doyenne might invoke Letitia Baldrige. Players like Tennessee's James Stewart and Florida State's Rock Preston, both of whom bared their heads after scoring TDs on Saturday, should be grateful they don't play for the Irish. "We have a law," says Holtz. "You can take off your headgear and point to the crowd and look into the camera if you make a good play. That's provided you also do it after a fumble, after you drop a pass and after you miss a block."
Since the fall of communism, horror story after horror story has come to light about the excesses, pharmacological and otherwise, of the various Eastern-bloc sports machines. But no tale has been quite as chilling as the account aired on Nov. 21 by RTL, a TV station based in Luxembourg and Germany. According to Olga Kovalenko, who as Olga Karasyova won a team gymnastics gold medal for the U.S.S.R. at he 1968 Olympics, Soviet sports officials ordered her al the age of 18 to become pregnant by her boyfriend and then deseed that the fetus be aborted at 10 weeks. Kovalenko, who indicated that she vas one of many female athletes directed to have sex, said doctors told her that pregnancy would cause her body to produce more male hormones, which in turn would give her greater strength and stamina. She said that girls who balked at the order were threatened with dismissal from the team, and some of those without boyfriends had sex with their coaches until they became pregnant.
Vadim Moyesseyev, who was identified as an official with the Soviet Olympic team in the late 1960s, confirmed Kovalenko's story. And one unnamed former coach told RTL, "There was a lot of coercion and manipulation to make the girls "et pregnant. In any other country it would have been called rape."
Vladimir Cerin is a kinesiologist who has worked with such athletes as Bill Walton, Jamaal Wilkes and Tracy Austin. In 1980 lie decided to become a horse trainer, too, and since then he has sometimes compared the training habits of his human subjects with those of his equine ones. Homo sapiens don't always win out. "It's very difficult," Cerin says, "for a horse to sneak out to McDonald's."
A lot can happen in four seconds. Just ask Derrick Williams, the senior quarterback of the Bonnabel High Bruins in Metairie, La. With four ticks remaining in Bonnabel's Nov. 11 Class 5A playoff game against rival St. Augustine High of New Orleans, Derrick's Bruins led the favored Purple Knights 20-13 and had the ball, facing fourth down, smack on the 50-yard line. Derrick, who had already played what his coach, Mike Villemarette, would call "the best game of his career," had just one more play to run. He was to take the snap, turn and run toward his own end zone until the clock ran out. "If they chased him, he was supposed to run right on out of the end zone and give them a safety," says Villemarette.
Which is what Derrick did—or thought he did. In fact, as soon as he crossed the goal line he stopped and, in exultation, tossed the ball into the air. It landed in the hands of a St. Augustine defensive back who had chased Derrick for 50 yards. Though one official had already signaled a safety, a five-minute rules conference produced a different call. Because Derrick had never gone down in the end zone, the play wasn't ruled a safety but a St. Augustine touchdown. The Knights scored on a two-point conversion, and Derrick and his teammates suddenly found their season over.
"I thought it was a safety," a disconsolate Derrick said afterward. "All I could think of was, We won. We beat St. Aug."
Says Villemarette, "Everyone knew we never would have made it this far without Derrick. And that's what the other players told him after the game. One by one they went up and hugged him and let him know how they felt."
Others in Metairie shared the embrace. Down at the Sav-a-Center the boss gave Derrick a day off from work. Offshore powerboat racer and Popeyes fried-chicken mogul Al Copeland, who lives nearby, hired Derrick and his teammates to put up Christmas lights at his house. And Derrick began thinking of the spring, when he'll play baseball, the sport of a certain catcher-philosopher who said it ain't over till it's over.
For years, an asterisk stuck to Roger Maris's single-season home run record like a burr. Now Barry Bonds has tied Maris's mark, only with an asterisk of his own—a computer-generated one. When Topps, the trading-card company, unveils its 1995 baseball set in December, every 15-card pack will include one of 400 Cyberstats cards, each of which projects a big leaguer's statistics for the strike-shortened 1994 season over a hypothetical full campaign. According to a computer program developed by STATS, Inc., Greg Maddux finished with a 1.69 ERA, Frank Thomas socked 53 home runs, and the Cleveland Indians beat the Atlanta Braves in a politically incorrect World Series.
When baseball went on hiatus, Matt Williams of the San Francisco Giants had hit 43 homers through 112 games, a pace that bettered Maris's to that point. But while the mainframe was miserly to Williams, who wound up with 51, it was munificent to his teammate Bonds, who had 37 when the strike began. The All-Star outfielder hit his 61st during a four-homer explosion in his 154th game of the season, only to go dingerless over the remaining five games. Evidently a computer can even simulate pressure.
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
Washington, D.C., mayor-elect Marion Barry's transition team of "established civic and business leaders" will be headed by boxing promoter Rock Newman.
They Said It
Boston Celtic guard, after straining a ligament in his knee during a recent game: "I heard a little something. Maybe it was me screaming."