Chris Weinke capped a remarkable back-to-school story tonight when the 28-year-old Florida State quarterback won the Heisman Trophy in one of the closest votes in the history of the award.
Weinke, who spent six years playing minor league baseball before returning to school in 1997, finished off a record-setting season by leading the Seminoles into an Orange Bowl matchup against No. 1 Oklahoma with a chance for a second straight national championship.
“With apologies to Lou Gehrig, I feel like I’m the luckiest man in the world,” Weinke said. “I got to pursue two dreams. The first one, baseball, didn’t work out the way I would have liked. But the second one, football, did.”
When his name was called, Weinke, wearing a blue suit and silver tie and sitting next to Heupel, smiled, stood up and walked to the podium to accept the 25-pound bronze trophy.
The 6-foot-5, 229-pounder from St. Paul, Minn., led the nation with a school-record 4,167 yards passing, threw 33 touchdown passes and had only 11 interceptions. He recovered from a serious neck injury late in the ’98 season to become the Atlantic Coast Conference’s career passing leader with 9,839 yards.
Weinke edged Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel for college football’s most coveted individual prize by 76 points in the seventh tightest Heisman race. The closest Heisman vote was Bo Jackson’s 45-point victory over Chuck Long in 1985.
Weinke had 369 first-place votes and 1,628 points; Heupel, who led the Sooners to the title game against the Seminoles by passing for 3,392 yards and 20 touchdowns, had 286 first-place votes and 1,552 points.
Purdue quarterback Drew Brees was third, TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson was fourth and Northwestern running back Damien Anderson was fifth in balloting by the 922 Heisman voters.
A breakdown of the voting showed Weinke won four of the six regions—the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, the South and the Midwest. Heupel won the Southwest and the West.
Age Didn’t Become Issue
Over the past six weeks, Weinke’s age became a Heisman issue even though voters are simply asked to cast their ballot for the “Outstanding Football Player of the United States.” Some voters indicated they would leave Weinke’s name off the ballot because the quarterback’s age gave him an unfair advantage over his younger rivals. Voters list their top three choices, with a first-place vote worth 3 points; second place 2 points; and third place 1 point.
“It would be a travesty if age kept him out,” Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said in the final days leading up to Saturday night’s announcement at the Downtown Athletic Club.
The “travesty” was avoided when Weinke finished with 83 more first-place votes than Heupel. In the final voting, only 796 of the 922 Heisman voters cast ballots.
“Success in college football is not about age but about experience,” Weinke said. “Had I stayed at Florida State when I was first recruited in 1990, I might not have played a down.
“People in this area know about Charlie Ward. Who would have thought that seven years apart two guys who were recruited together would both win the Heisman Trophy.”
Ward, now a point guard for the New York Knicks, won the award in 1993.
When the season began, it was surprising Weinke was still around because even his coaches thought he was off to the NFL. However, Weinke decided to stay, saying he wanted to win another national title, work on improving his game and finish off his degree—he graduates Dec. 16 with a 3.4 grade-point average in sports management.
The Heisman race was one of the most competitive in recent years. In the first few weeks, Weinke was among a handful of Heisman contenders, with Heupel an afterthought—at best. Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick was the front-runner, but when he sprained an ankle and was unable to play much in the Hokies’ loss to Miami, Weinke moved into the favorite’s role.
Heupel, though, was rapidly climbing the list. The lefty’s pinpoint passing in dominating wins over Texas, Kansas State and Nebraska in consecutive games catapulted the Sooners into the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 1987.
Weinke, meanwhile, was piling up amazing numbers. Even in the Seminoles’ only loss—27-24 to Miami on Oct. 7—Weinke threw for 496 yards and three TDs despite playing with a sprained left foot protected by a hard plastic covering.
And in Florida State’s biggest game of the season—against Florida on Nov. 18—Weinke came down with flu-like symptoms but still passed for 353 yards and three TDs in a 30-7 win. The victory clinched Florida State’s spot in the Bowl Championship Series’ title game against Heupel’s Sooners.
Weinke’s strong finish was in contrast to Heupel’s shaky close. After throwing for 949 yards with four TD passes and just one interception against the Longhorns, Wildcats and Cornhuskers, Heupel failed to break the 300-yard mark in any of his last four games. He was battling an inflamed bursa on his throwing arm, but said the injury did not affect his performance.
“The bottom line is he’s a winner,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said earlier in the week.
But the voters went for Weinke, who twice this season threw for more than 500 yards to help boost his record as the Seminoles’ starter to 32-2.
Vick was sixth, followed by Miami wide receiver Santana Moss, Washington quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, Oregon State running back Ken Simonton and Auburn running back Rudi Johnson.
The last four quarterbacks to win the Heisman played for a team from the state of Florida—Danny Wuerffel (Florida, 1996); Ward; and Gino Toretta (Miami, 1992).
A Chance at Football Fame
The journey to Heisman fame was a long one for Weinke. He was a 1990 Parade All-American, showed up at Florida State for four days and then signed a $350,000 contract with the Toronto Blue Jays organization. But Bowden wrote and told him if he ever wanted to return just give a call and a scholarship would be waiting.
Six years later, his lone baseball claim to fame was being the first baseman when NBA great Michael Jordan got his first hit in the minors. Discouraged he was no closer to the major leagues than when he started, Weinke’s interest in football returned.
True to his word, Bowden gave Weinke a shot, and the Seminoles passed on signing Drew Henson.
In ’98, Weinke got his break—starter Dan Kendra injured his knee before the season and was out for the year. In his second start, Weinke threw a school-record six interceptions in a 24-7 loss to North Carolina State.
He didn’t throw another interception in his next 218 attempts, then was knocked out for the year in the Virginia game with a serious neck injury that required surgery. Weinke didn’t practice again for 10 months and went through the ’99 season with a protective brace.
Last season, despite distractions from a midseason shopping scam by teammates Peter Warrick and Laveraneus Coles, Weinke drove the Seminoles to a perfect 12-0 record and Bowden’s second national title.
Now he’s close to winning another one for the Seminoles, and he’ll get a chance to do it as the Heisman Trophy winner.