What the Heisman Trophy Says About Us

This past Saturday, the 2015 Heisman Trophy was awarded in New York City. The previous Monday night, I excitedly watched live as the finalists were announced. When only three names were read, and Keenan Reynolds (senior quarterback at Navy) was not one of them, I felt an overwhelming disappointment.

First let me say, congratulations to all three Heisman finalists. They are worthy recipients and I wish not to diminish their accomplishments. Let me also say, I am a lifelong Navy football fan (USNA daughter, wife and mom) so its fair to say I am biased.

Why am I so saddened about this year’s Heisman Trophy? I’ve spent some time reflecting about this. (Believe me, I rarely get worked up about anything sports-related.) I am disappointed because it was an enormous missed opportunity. The Heisman Trust and voters had a chance to boldly look past cultural norms of success (Big Schools, Big Money) to choose someone who clearly embodies the aspirational qualities the Heisman purportedly stands for.

The Heisman Trust Mission Statement reads:

The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. Heisman.com

I hate to single out the Heisman, but the award is emblematic of a larger problem in our culture, where role models are increasingly entertainers and professional athletes, and power and money equate with success, yet we lament the “moral decay” of our society. If we truly value integrity, we must proactively spotlight alternative role models who exemplify exceptional character. I think about some past Heisman winners, who may have been excellent football players and played for top college teams and pursued successful NFL careers, but whose high-profile conduct off the field (played out in the media) exhibited questionable character and choices.  Are they good models of excellence with integrity?

If I were in charge of awarding the Heisman Trophy, I would give it to Keenan Reynolds, a young man who personifies excellence with integrity.

Keenan Reynolds, Navy Quarterback (Navy Athletics)

Keenan Reynolds, Navy Quarterback
(Navy Athletics)

Reynolds deserved serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy based on his football accomplishments alone. In 2015, previously independent Navy joined the American Athletic Conference (amidst high anxiety as to how Navy would fare), and Keenan led the team to a 10-2 record, victories over Air Force and Army (securing the coveted Commander-in-Chief Trophy), and a national ranking of #21. Saturday he became the first quarterback in the history of the Army-Navy series to go 4-0 against its rival. This season, Reynolds received national attention for setting the record (previously held by past Heisman finalist Montee Ball) for most rushing touchdowns in NCAA Division 1 history (85). The list of his records and accomplishments is astounding. See NavySports.com for a more comprehensive review.

More remarkable is the unprecedented impact Reynolds has had on the entire Navy football program, more than any Navy player I can remember. As a four-year starting quarterback (highly unusual at Navy) his mastery of Navy’s complicated triple-option offense is unmatched. This offense capitalizes on quickness and QB decision-making to equalize Navy’s perennial size disadvantage. The triple option requires the QB to make the right split-second decision on every play, and under Keenan, the Navy offense clicked into high gear. The success of the Navy football team under Reynolds’ leadership infused the entire Naval Academy, indeed the entire US Navy, with enormous pride.

His on-the-field accomplishments are particularly extraordinary given that he achieved them as a Midshipman at the Naval Academy. In addition to football, Keenan carried a significant academic load while undergoing rigorous military training. When he graduates from the Academy in May, rather than cashing in on a lucrative NFL contract, he will serve a five-year military commitment in the U.S. Navy. His service assignment is Information Warfare (Cyber security) a highly competitive slot in which 25 physically qualified midshipmen interviewed for five spots.Keenan Reynolds balances football, intense course load

We watched, over the course of his four years at Navy, as Reynolds grew into a true leader of leaders. Since he overlapped three years with our son at USNA, we attended many of his home games and witnessed the excitement he brought to the program. As a senior, he was voted team captain and led by example, on and off the field. I read and watched countless articles and interviews with Keenan, and was always struck by his humble, selfless approach. He consistently deflected individual attention and gave credit to his teammates for every accomplishment. The Navy football team gathered after practice on Monday to watch the Heisman finalist announcement, expecting to celebrate together. They were reportedly “bummed” and stunned that Keenan was not named a finalist. Washington Post

Although only counting as one vote in the overall tabulation, Reynolds won the 2015 Heisman fan vote (partly due to a highly mobilized Navy fan base). Overall, Keenan finished fifth (the highest finish in the Heisman balloting by a Service Academy player since Navy’s Roger Staubach won the award in 1963). According to the Heisman website, between three and eight of the top candidates are invited to New York for the trophy presentation, and these are considered the Heisman Finalists for that year. Presumably because the vote totals dropped significantly after the top three candidates, only three finalists were invited to New York.

Even more disappointing than Heisman voters overlooking this extraordinary young man was the failure of the Heisman Trustees to invite five finalists to New York. Since the Army-Navy football game (in Philadelphia) was the same day as the Heisman Trophy ceremony (in New York), Navy had plans to helicopter Keenan and his family to the ceremony. What an honor, indeed a source of national pride, it would have been to see Reynolds at the ceremony, on national TV, in his Navy service dress blue uniform. Would it have been such a stretch to invite two more finalists to the ceremony?

A Heisman Trophy, even just an invitation to the ceremony, would have meant the world to not only Keenan and his family, but to all the Service Academies and to the men and women serving our country. It would have sent an important message recognizing one of their own as a shimmering example of “the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” I rooted for Keenan Reynolds for the Heisman not only because he’s Navy and deserves the award as a player, but also because he so impressively embodies those qualities we should demand in our role models. Although I am sad for him, I suspect Keenan Reynolds will have a bright future, with or without the Trophy.   What our awards say about us is what makes me most sad.

4 thoughts on “What the Heisman Trophy Says About Us

  1. It just proves that the Heisman trophy has become an atrophy! It has lost its meaning and its core values.

  2. Betsy, Great blog post. Recommend send to every newspaper editor you can to give the Heisman Trust something to think about. JoeG On Thu, 17 Dec 2015 04:15:54 +0000 Betsy’s Be

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