He two players sat next to each other, eating lunch and quietly sharing disgruntlement. Wisconsin senior tailback Ron Dayne whispered to Purdue junior quarterback Drew Brees, "I'm really sick of all this Heisman talk." Brees nodded and whispered back, "I'm with you on that. It's too much."
We're down with their distress. After all, once Heisman hype gets attached to a candidate, it becomes almost impossible to shake. What's more revealing is that Brees and Dayne had that conversation at a Big Ten function in August, before a football was snapped this season. It has been that long.
Last Saturday evening, as Dayne was surrounded by reporters on the grass in the middle of Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium after the Badgers' 28-21 victory over the Boilermakers, a cluster of Wisconsin fans in a corner of the field chanted, "HEIS-man! HEIS-man!" A man in a red Badgers sweatshirt ambled past the group and yelled, "If there are any Heisman voters among you, you know what must be done." At that moment Brees muscled into the mix and leaned toward Dayne. "Great game," he said. "You deserve the Heisman."
The race that Brees and Dayne dreaded in late summer is nearly finished, and like this college football season, it has been one of the most inscrutable in recent history. No obvious Heisman choice has emerged, no Charlie Ward of Florida State (1993), no Danny Wuerffel of Florida ('96), no Ricky Williams of Texas ('98). There has been no sudden Superman tearing down the marquee front-runner, as Michigan's Charles Woodson did Tennessee's Peyton Manning in '97 Since the Seminoles' brilliant senior wideout, Peter Warrick, whom most players and coaches regard as the best player in the country, effectively removed himself from the race by incurring a two-game suspension because of a misdemeanor, there isn't a dominant player on any of the teams chasing the national championship.
At last, however, there is a front-runner in the Heisman race. On Saturday afternoon the 5'10", 260-pound Dayne drilled Brees's Boilermakers for 222 yards on 32 carries and left himself needing only 99 yards to break Williams's year-old NCAA career rushing record (6,279 yards). Dayne's performance was a tour de force in a high-stakes game that left Wisconsin (8-2 overall, 6-1 in the Big Ten) in a tie for first place in the conference with Penn State. Two plays in particular showcased Dayne's talents.
With 11:41 left and the score 14-14, Purdue sophomore linebacker Jason Loerzel chased Dayne 41 yards down the right sideline and into the end zone, certain until Dayne reached the goal line that he was going to catch the load in front of him. "I was like, 'O.K., I've got him,' " said Loerzel after the game. "Then I didn't have him. It's not as if he's fast, but in the open field, when he gets rolling, that's a lot of weight behind him."
With the Badgers needing one first down to seal the win, Loerzel stepped in front of Dayne on a toss sweep to the left side. Dayne ran through him en route to an 11-yard gain that ensured Brees would not get a last shot for a comeback. "He lowered his whole body," Loerzel said. "There was a collision. My head was ringing. I hope his was, too."
While Dayne may have taken the Heisman lead, the race isn't quite over yet. Brees sensed as much after the game, in which he was nearly as heroic as Dayne, throwing for 350 yards and one touchdown and rushing for a career-high 85 yards and two touchdowns. As Brees stood outside the Boilermakers' locker room, he confirmed his congratulatory words to Dayne, but he was fearful that he may have endorsed his candidate too quickly. "How did Hamilton do today?" he asked a writer, meaning Georgia Tech senior quarterback Joe Hamilton, who has been fighting Brees, Dayne and now-slowed-by-injury Alabama tailback Shaun Alexander for Heisman consideration through most of the season. Told that Virginia had upset Georgia Tech 45-38 and that Hamilton had been good but not spectacular, Brees sighed. "Before today I thought Hamilton deserved it," he said. "Now I think it should be Dayne." Long pause. Smile. "I think."
Truth is, four candidates are left: Dayne, Hamilton, Brees and tailback Thomas Jones of Virginia. Here are the positives and negatives of each of these players, who are listed in reverse order of their probability of winning the Heisman.
? Jones. Plus: A 5'10", 205-pound senior, Jones leads the nation in rushing, with an average of 165.1 yards per game. He gained 213 yards on 39 carries in Virginia's win over Georgia Tech. The previous week he had 164 yards on 26 carries as the Cavaliers took a lead into the second half against No. 1 Florida State. He has stalked the Heisman by getting better with each game in his senior season. "He's always been a good back," says Duke senior safety Eric Jones, "but this year he's jumped up. He shakes and bakes, makes guys miss, and he seems a lot stronger, too."