It's hard to believe that it has been already 20 years since one of the more iconic and still often-debated Heisman Trophy races in college football. That was the year, Michigan do-everything defender Charles Woodson “upset” Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning to take home the hardware.
It was one of the more deeper Heisman classes as well. Along side Woodson and Manning were Marshall wideout Randy Moss and Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf. Though just about everyone in America — Moss, Leaf, even Woodson to a degree — was sure that the Heisman was heading to Knoxville for the first time ever.
Ultimately, Woodson ended up winning the award by 272 ballot points; not exactly a landslide but certainly not the closest of ballots either. Don't tell that to Tennessee fans, though. Often times, you'll hear from Volunteer Nation referring to it as the “HeisTman” Trophy.
Woodson recently reflected on his award-winning moment, as way of celebrating the 20th anniversary of that famous race in 1997.
“It's one of the greatest moments of my life. As an individual, you want to stand out. Even though it's a team sport, you want to be so good at what you do that you stand out among the rest, whether it's your team, your conference or the country. You want to be recognized as one of the best. So for me to win the Heisman, especially with quarterbacks and wide receivers the numbers they put up, it's certainly special. It ranks up there pretty high. I could never put it over a championship because championships are team-oriented. As a professional athlete or college athlete, the ultimate goal is to win it all, and I was able to do that at the college level and in the NFL. Those are my top moments, but right up under that would be the Heisman Trophy.”
Woodson for Michigan in '97 was a human Swiss Army knife. In addition to being a master pass defender, he logged four total touchdowns in three different ways: receiving (x2), rushing and punt returning. Woodson ended up being part of an undefeated Wolverines team that were victors in the Rose Bowl and eventually declared a co-national champion.
Manning of course was the senior standout that threw for over 3,800 yards and 36 touchdown passes for the Vols. For as much success Manning and Tennessee had in the late 1990's, his lack of it against Florida continues to be a knock against his legacy, fair or not, and perhaps a knock on his Heisman voting as well.
Manning also looked back on that moment in 1997 when he didn't hear his name announced, saying he doesn't think about it too much:
“I just don't have a lot of thoughts on [if beating Florida would have given him the Heisman] or a lot of analysis on it. I've never really gone down that road before.
My disappointment was for the University of Tennessee. That's who I hurt for, all of the great fans and all of the great people there. Tennessee has never had a Heisman winner, but four second-place finishers– Hank Lauricella, Johnny Majors, Heath Shuler and myself. I really wanted to win it for my school, so I was disappointed for that.”
Both Woodson and Manning put together decorated careers in college and parlayed into equally as if not more impressive at the professional level. Woodson remains the only primary defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
Only 18 primary defensive players in college football have ended up on the Heisman voting ballot in the 20 years since Woodson bested Manning. The closest we've come to having a second defensive player winning the award came in 2012, when Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o finished runner-up to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel by 323 ballot points.
More recently, another former Michigan defensive standout in Jabrill Peppers earned a invite to the announcement ceremony for the Heisman in 2016; he ended up finished 5th overall in voting. Fittingly, Peppers' chances were gauged via “The Woodson Test” around this time a year ago.
This Saturday, December 9, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner will be announced. The consensus amongst the general public and media is that it is Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield's award to lose. Louisville signal-caller Lamar Jackson has returned to “defend his title” so to speak and despite putting equally as impressive numbers for an encore, it's unlikely we will have our first repeat Heisman winner since Archie Griffin in 1974-75.
You can click here to view a piece completed by ESPN in its entirety that features quotes and comments from various prominent figures on the 1997 Heisman Trophy race, including other aforementioned candidates Randy Moss and Ryan Leaf, as well as Woodson's and Manning's respective head coaches, Tennessee's Philip Fulmer and Michigan's Lloyd Carr.