Will Age Decide Heisman Winner?

Chris Weinke capped a remarkable back-to-school story tonight night when the 28-year-old Florida State quarterback won the Heisman Trophy in one of the closest votes in the history of the award.

This year’s Heisman race is too close to call between the 28-year-old Weinke and Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel. But if some of the 922 Heisman voters leave Weinke’s name off their ballot because of his age, Heupel would have an even stronger chance to win the trophy given by the Downtown Athletic Club.

“It would be a travesty if he doesn’t win because age was a factor,” Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. “That shouldn’t be a factor.”

One of the Closest in History

But because it’s there, age has become an issue. Some argue Weinke has an unfair advantage because of his maturity and his experience as a pro baseball player, and won’t even consider him a candidate. Others argue that Weinke should be admired for having the “audacity,” as Bowden calls it, to come back and think he could excel after playing minor league baseball for six years,

Ballots were due Friday, but no matter who wins and for what reason, this Heisman race might end up as one of the closest in history.

The tightest Heisman voting was Bo Jackson’s 45-point win over Chuck Long in 1985; the second-tightest was Ernie Davis of Syracuse beating Bob Ferguson of Ohio State by 52 points in 1961.

Says Weinke, who won the Davey O’Brien Award on Thursday night to go with his Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award: “If they don’t want to vote for me, OK,” he said, “but there is nothing on the Heisman ballot that says you can’t be 28.”

These two quarterbacks led their teams to a national championship game in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3 — a matchup that is likely to feature a Heisman winner against the runner-up.

“I have no idea how it’s going to come out,” Bowden said. “You’ve got one who has taken his team to an undefeated season and has done everything you’ve got to do to get there. Then you’ve got the other who has played superlative football and is unique in his age.”

Perfect season honors go to Heupel, who threw for 3,392 yards and 20 touchdowns in leading No. 1 Oklahoma (12-0) to the brink of its first national title since 1985.

Weinke led the nation with 4,167 yards passing and threw 33 TD passes with 11 interceptions. He returned to Florida State in ’97 and is trying to bring a second straight national title to the third-ranked Seminoles (11-1).

“Both candidates are deserving,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “They’re both excellent players and very valuable to the team.”

Purdue quarterback Drew Brees and TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson are the other Heisman finalists, but are considered long shots based on several Heisman surveys.

Brees led the Boilermakers (8-3) to a Rose Bowl berth against Washington by throwing for 3,393 yards and 24 touchdowns; Tomlinson topped the nation in rushing with 2,158 yards — the fourth-best single-season total in I-A history — and scored 22 TDs. The Horned Frogs (10-1) play Southern Mississippi in the Mobile Alabama Bowl.

Shining Moments Win Out

Weinke and Heupel left their final impressions two weeks apart. Weinke finished his season by passing for 353 yards and three TDs in a 30-7 win over Florida on Nov. 18. Heupel closed out his season last Saturday by overcoming three interceptions and throwing for two TDs and running for another as OU beat Kansas State 27-24 in the Big 12 title game.

Internet and newspaper Heisman polls indicate the race is too close to call. In the most recent HeismanWatch.com poll, Heupel was ahead of Weinke by three points based on ballots from 48 Heisman voters. Twenty-eight Heisman voters asked by the Rocky Mountain News gave Heupel the edge, but surveys by the Tallahassee Democrat and Tampa Tribune had Weinke with a slight lead.

Naturally, Bowden and Stoops are pulling for their own players.

“To me, Chris’ age should be in favor instead of against him,” Bowden said. “But I’m sure to some, it’s going to make a difference”

Stoops on Heupel: “What he’s done in the big games against ranked teams, that’s shown that he’s a winner. He’s brought us to this point.”

Heupel left Snow Junior College in Utah to come to Oklahoma, where he threw for 3,400 yards and 30 TDs in ’99 — Stoops’ first season. This year, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound lefty had his best run in Oklahoma’s toughest stretch — he was 66-of-108 for 949 yards, four TDs and just one interception in wins over a No. 11 Texas, a No. 2 Kansas State and a No. 1 Nebraska.

Weinke, 6-5 and 229 pounds, might have had his best game in the 27-24 loss to Miami on Oct. 7. Playing with a hard plastic covering to protect a sprained left foot, he threw for 496 yards and three TDs.