Saturday, November 25, 2000

Weinke not too old for Heisman

        If Chris Weinke wins the Heisman Trophy, it will be because he's the guy with the gaudiest numbers. If the Florida State quarterback does not win the coveted stiff-armed statue, it will be because of the one statistic he can't possibly improve: his age.

        Weinke is 28 years old, in case you hadn't heard, and some voters think it unseemly for a man of his maturity to be competing with callow college students. Heisman winner Leon Hart (Notre Dame, 1947) says Weinke won't appear on his ballot for this reason, and there may be enough electors similarly disposed to swing the vote in favor of Oklahoma quarterback Josh Huepel.

        Unlike another unresolved election, this campaign includes two worthy candidates and no pregnant chads. Weinke is the nation's most prolific passer. Heupel leads the nation's No.1 team. The Downtown Athletic Club cannot go too far wrong with ei
ther choice. It can go wrong only if it allows voters to openly discriminate against individual athletes for any reason other than performance.

No allowance race
               The Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious award in college football — perhaps the most prestigious individual award in American sport — because of its long history, large electorate and plain purpose. It exists to identify “the Outstanding College Football Player of the United States” for a given year. It is not, as some might suppose, an allowance race.

        This is not to say the Heisman is always an accurate indicator of the nation's best quasi-amateur football player. Far from it.

        Gino Torretta won it. So did Andre Ware.

        The best college football player in the country this year could be Leonard Davis, a tackle at Texas, but linemen and linebackers need not apply. Invariably, the Heisman is awarded to some high-profile skill player at an elite program whose games appear regularly on network television. It is influenced by regional politics, local bias and bulk mailings.

        Yet opponents of Weinke's candidacy could turn the annual popularity contest into something more sinister. It's called age discrimination, and it's often illegal. To deny Weinke a vote on the basis of his birth certificate is as objectionable as judging him on the basis of his religion, skin color or national origin.

        Heisman ballot No.1597 — the one I will fill out following the Big 12 championship game Dec.2 — states the eligibility rules as follows: “The recipient of the award MUST be a bona fide student of a recognized college or university including the United States Academies. Football players on service and professional teams and those who had already completed MORE than four years of college varsity football prior to the 2000 season are not eligible.”

Baseball put him behind
               That's it. No age limits. No grade-point requirements. No morality clauses. Weinke already has earned a degree at Florida State and is taking graduate-level courses this fall.

        Weinke is behind the chronological curve because he spent six years playingminor-league baseball. Leon Hart and others believe this experience affords Weinke an unfair advantage. He is, undeniably, older than half the starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

        “I love college football, Weinke said. “That's why I left baseball. I'm being criticized for being 28. I'm still trying to figure that one out. Some kids leave school early for the pros. I stuck around.”

        If staying in school is the wrong message, Weinke is the wrong Heisman Trophy candidate. Otherwise, his age ought to be irrelevant.


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