A mind-numbing number of awards are handed out each year with great fanfare. Actors, singers, athletes, activists, journalists, and countless others are lauded for their accomplishments. Occasionally, awards are given to journalists who fabricate, athletes who cheat, singers who lip-sync, and actors who perform politically correct roles. Even the recent history of the venerable Nobel Peace Prize has relegated the award to something of a late-night TV punch line.
This is why this year’s Heisman Trophy matters. College football’s most prestigious award is given to “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”
Anyone with basic knowledge of college football knows the Heisman is infrequently given to the most “outstanding” player. Only players on championship contending teams are considered worthy of receipt. Countless other, more outstanding players go unrecognized because they play for average or obscure teams.
In the past 30 years, 23 Heisman winners were on teams ranked in the Associated Press top 10. One influential preseason 2010 Heisman watch list includes the names of two quarterbacks who have never started a college game, another with a losing record, and a couple more whose play to date has been mediocre. Their only qualifications are their memberships in nationally recognized college football programs.
This season a grassroots campaign has begun for the people’s choice, according to a number of observers. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs slipped onto the tail end of Heisman watch lists and has appeared on the short list for numerous other postseason awards.
Dobbs is not the prototypical college quarterback. At just over six feet, he is undersized, and he directs an offensive scheme that is deemed quaint and old-fashioned. Rarely does his team make ESPN’s highlight reels. Infrequently does a team victory merit mention by sports anchors. Dobbs is not even considered an NFL prospect. On top of it all, he plays for Navy. Navy!
Fifty years ago this would have been a different story, when only three years separated Heisman awards given to Navy players Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach. Staubach, who led his 1963 team to a number 2 national ranking, was commissioned a Navy officer and fulfilled his military commitment, including a tour in Vietnam, before he guided the Dallas Cowboys to five Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl wins, and earned a place in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Dobbs leads a Navy offense that is a vague throwback to the Bellino-Staubach days. Installed by then newly arrived Navy coach Paul Johnson in 2002, the “triple option” is a run-oriented offense. The quarterback must read defensive alignments before and after the snap and then make a split-second decision to hand off the ball to the fullback, keep it for a run, or pitch it to a trailing slot back. When it all comes together, the play becomes a cloud of dust and six points.
This is not the kind of pass-happy offense that excites many college football fans. But it wins games. Dobbs has not been Navy’s best triple option signal-caller when reading defensive schemes, but his uncanny ability to turn a busted play into a big gain or a touchdown gallop nonetheless electrifies fans.
Dobbs excels off the field as well. Back in his high school days he was known as the “Mayor of Douglasville,” the Georgia hometown where he had a reputation for being friendly and approachable to everyone, young and old. Dobbs exudes confidence without a showing bit of arrogance. These are some of the ideal qualities of an officer leading his men into battle.
There is a premium on leadership at the Naval Academy. Having seniors who are months away from being commissioned as Navy or Marine officers but who follow the orders of a college sophomore (as they did two seasons ago) speaks volumes. Dobbs has that effect on people. People gravitate to him. This is a young man who has set personal goals of winning a Super Bowl and being elected president. He has even picked the election year: 2040.
One of the problems with Dobbs, according to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, is keeping him from overextending himself. Dobbs has been too generous in accepting every speaking, interview, and public service request that has come his way. “Ricky, you’re still a student at the Naval Academy,” Niumatalolo often reminds him, encouraging him to not neglect his studies and military responsibilities.
The 2009 season opened the eyes of many regarding the abilities of Ricky Dobbs. Navy was only a two-point conversion away from taking Ohio State into overtime in OSU’s famed Horseshoe during the nationally televised season opener for both teams.
Dobbs’s MVP performance in the complete dismantling of Missouri in the 2009 Texas Bowl made believers of sports pundits who may have thought the OSU game was a fluke.
NAVY FANS KNEW he was special his sophomore year. As the third-string quarterback, Dobbs entered late in one game and led a listless Navy team to three straight touchdowns to send the game into overtime. Navy won on a Dobbs touchdown run.
He nearly pulled off an identical fourth-quarter comeback against Notre Dame the following week. Down by 20 points, Dobbs entered the game and led Navy to a pair of touchdowns 18 seconds apart. Navy was driving toward a game-winning score in the closing moments when the ball was turned over on downs. Amazing fourth-quarter comebacks made Elway, Favre, and Manning household names.
Capable of playing big-time college football elsewhere, Dobbs could have left Annapolis before his five-year military obligation kicked in at the beginning of his junior year. Yet he stayed. Last year Dobbs set an NCAA record for the most rushing touchdowns (27) by a quarterback. He bested the record set by Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2007, the year Tebow won the Heisman. Dobbs managed this feat while missing two games and playing through the final six games of last season with the intense pain of a busted kneecap.
There is another Navy story line worth noting. Since 2003, three former Navy football players have perished while serving their nation. Marine Lieutenants Ron Winchester and J. P. Blecksmith were killed in Iraq; Winchester by a roadside bomb and Blecksmith during the battle for Fallujah. Navy Lieutenant Commander Scott Zellem’s plane was lost in the western Pacific during training. Zellem was the naval flight officer on the second S-3B Viking submarine hunter that escorted the S-3B President George Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003.
This is the stark reality of Navy football players after they graduate. They do not become car dealers, accountants, orthodontists, or even NFL players. They trade helmets and pads for M-16s and F/A-18 Hornets. Even America at war-first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq-has not dissuaded them from attending Annapolis. Meanwhile, some players at other schools flaunt NCAA rules because they deem college life a hardship.
Today, there are players on the Navy roster who spurned scholarship offers to play elsewhere in order to attend the Naval Academy, knowing that after they are commissioned they could soon find themselves in harm’s way.
And then there is Ricky Dobbs. He could not bring himself to leave USNA and the teammates who refer to themselves as “the brotherhood.”
Most sports pundits believe Dobbs will not merit serious consideration for the Heisman unless he has another record-setting year and Navy wins 11 or all 12 of its games. But at year’s end, if he is invited to New York as one of the five finalists, then America will watch the ceremony. Because then the Heisman Trophy will matter.