Somebody has to say it: Thomas Jones got screwed.
Imagine my surprise as I scanned the list of finalists for the Heisman Trophy Monday afternoon. Heavy favorite Ron Dayne from Wisconsin was there. So were Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton, and fellow signal caller Drew Brees of Purdue. But they'd been on the short list of top contenders for the Trophy throughout the season. Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington made the cut, after leading his team to an undefeated season, and Virginia Tech's Michael Vick rounded out the list.
In the eyes of the 219 who vote for the award, those are the five individuals most deserving of the Heisman Trophy.
I'm sure if you saw Jones on the street today, and asked him about the snub, he'd say it didn't bother him.
Throughout the season, the humble hero of Virginia football emphasized the team over himself. He credited his pugnacious offensive line over his own accomplishments. I bet when Jones saw the list of finalists, he wasn't upset. And he's got enough records, right?
I'm not saying that Jones should win the Heisman Trophy. But I find it very hard to believe there are five other players in America with better claims on the Trophy than Jones. ESPN had Jones listed as high as fourth late in the season; CNN listed Jones as the third-best candidate. So if Jones is among the top five pro prospects, how can he be omitted from a list that supposedly contains the top five college players?
It just doesn't add up, especially when you consider all that Jones accomplished this season after coming into the 1999 campaign mired in anonymity. From week to week, more sports journalists jumped on the Jones bandwagon, and why not? Jones epitomized many of the traits you look for in a Heisman contender. He stepped up in the big games, running roughshod against both Florida State and Georgia Tech. He was a team leader. Even Virginia Coach George Welsh, who historically has refrained from praising individual players, lauded his tri-captain.
Some, however, knocked Jones for playing on a mediocre Virginia team. The Cavaliers' double-overtime loss to Duke led CNNSI.com to drop Jones from their list of Heisman candidates, only to bring him back after outstanding showings against Florida State and Georgia Tech in consecutive weeks. Drew Brees and Purdue finished the season with the same record as Virginia -- 7-4 -- but their four defeats came against four ranked teams.
But the fault in Jones's snubbing doesn't lie with his teammates and coaches. It also doesn't lie with Virginia's Athletic Media Relations Department. Attacked by some for a failure to promote Virginia's star back, Rich Murray and his staff only helped Jones's cause with the creation of their "Thomas Jones for Heisman" Web site.
So where then, does the blame lie?
Quite frankly, it lies with the Heisman itself.
For an award that is supposed to represent the pinnacle of excellence in college football, the Heisman has lost a lot of luster in recent years. It began in 1997, when ESPN replayed a couple of nifty plays by Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson ad nauseam, convincing enough voters to wrest the Trophy away from Tennessee's Peyton Manning, the rightful winner, and give it to Woodson.
For the past two years, the media unofficially awarded the Trophy well before the close of the regular season. Last year, Texas running back Ricky Williams seemed to wrap up the Trophy sometime around Labor Day. When Dayne broke Williams' career rushing record this year, the media treated his coronation as an afterthought. Even the commercial on ESPN hyping the award ceremony does all but announce that Dayne will win. Such preordained finishes belong on pro wrestling shows on Monday nights, not in the Downtown Athletic Club.
Even the ballot itself draws confusion. The only direction it gives you is that the Heisman is intended for the "Most Outstanding Player." Such a vague criterion only makes the issue more clouded. Does that statement mean the award should go to the best player in a given season? The best in a total career? The best athlete? The one who means the most to his team? Each has a different list of candidates, and makes the voting all the more difficult.
Jones wasn't the only one to get screwed Monday, but his oversight seems a little more unjust than that of Peter Warrick. Jones wasn't given a spot among the elite like Dayne or Warrick: He earned it. And while he may not deserve to walk away with the statue, his omission from the ceremony at the Downtown Athletic Club is an insult.