We got our Heisman

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

Well, we finally got our Heisman Trophy.

Sort of.

It belongs to Chris Weinke. It is here in spirit, as long as he is on the Tennessee coaching staff.

We have endured, lo, these many years, without even a good photograph of a Heisman. Hank Lauricella, John Majors, Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning were runners-up and George Cafego once finished fourth in voting. But, there was this great void.

The Heisman is a terrific conversation piece and supposedly a great recruiting tool. Weinke can talk authoritatively about one if visitors ask. He got his in 2000, a byproduct of leading Florida State to No. 1.

As you may recall, Chris contributed to Tennessee’s national championship. The quarterback was blindsided in the Virginia game of November 1998, turned upside down and spiked. He suffered ligament damage and a ruptured disk. A bone chip lodged near a nerve in his neck. He underwent surgery in December.

Weinke attended that wonderful Fiesta Bowl but was helpless as the Vols defeated his Seminoles. Considering his age, he was good as new the next time out.

He is very strong now as a Tennessee assistant coach, nationally known, blessed with a remarkable background, going back to Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He was famous there, even in stiff competition. That school sent forth a flock of future NFL stars, distinguished politicians, Joe Mauer and manager Paul Molitor, now of the Minnesota Twins, and a spectacular gangster of the prohibition era, Bugs Moran.

The Florida State segment of Weinke’s life is an almost unbelievable tale.

Chris was a genuine prep star, first baseman, Parade all-American quarterback and captain of his school hockey team. He had 72 college football scholarship offers (including Alabama) but Bobby Bowden persuaded him that his future was in Tallahassee.

He signed in 1990, arrived as scheduled, stayed four days and signed a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays that included a $375,000 bonus.

Bowden understood the choice. In a magnanimous statement of historic significance, the coach told young Weinke that if he ever wanted to come back, his scholarship would be waiting.

Chris Weinke rode buses and batted baseballs around the minors for six seasons. He had 87 RBIs in 139 games for the Tennessee Smokies in 1994. That was the year Michael Jordan played for the Birmingham Bulls.

Jordan became one of Weinke’s favorite baseball memories. The basketball superstar would fraternize with rival players around the batting cage. Jordan called Weinke “Wink-Dog.”

Weinke divided the ’96 campaign between Syracuse and here. That was when he met Peyton Manning. The Vol sophomore said college football was everything it was reputed to be. That insight became a factor in the eventual decision that changed Weinke’s life.

He was enough of a realist to see that the baseball big leagues might be out of reach. He phoned Florida State to see if the old scholarship offer was still in cold storage. Mark Richt, offensive coordinator of the Seminoles, tried to talk Weinke out of coming. He was recruiting Drew Henson and didn’t want to risk losing him.

Bowden said “Come on down.”

Henson signed with Michigan.

Rip Van Weinke, 26, enrolled at Florida State. He was sensitive about his age. Kevin Long, a friend, center for the Tennessee Titans, said he should not be concerned.

“Lots of men your age are still going to school. It’s just that most of them are doctors.”

On Aug. 31, 1998, Weinke was the starting quarterback against Texas A&M in the Kickoff Classic at the Meadowlands. On the first play, he lined up in the shotgun, rolled left and completed a 30-yard pass to Peter Warrick.

That team was 9-1 and ranked second in the country when Weinke was injured. Tennessee took full advantage.

As a well-again junior, he led the undefeated Seminoles to the national championship, defeating Michael Vick and the Virginia Tech Hokies. As a senior in 2000, Weinke led the nation in passing with 4,167 yards and won the Heisman, Davey O’Brien and Johnny Unitas awards.

His seven-year NFL career was less spectacular. In fact, he was quarterback in 18 consecutive losses.

In retirement, he was coaxed into the financial world with Triton investments in Austin, Texas, became a vice president, probably lost money in a Ponzi scheme but got out while still clean.

In 2010, Weinke teamed with coach John Madden and became director of the IMG Football Academy in Bradenton, Florida. In 2011, he coached the Carolina Panthers’ No. 1 draft pick Cam Newton for two hours a day during the NFL lockout.

In 2015 and 2016, Weinke was quarterbacks coach of the St. Louis Rams. In 2017, he was an analyst for Nick Saban at Alabama. Most insiders think he was a very smart choice of Jeremy Pruitt to coach running backs at Tennessee.

I think he is as close as we have ever been to a Heisman Trophy.

Marvin West invites reader response. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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