Kenny Mossman suspected Sam Bradford would win the 2008 Heisman Trophy, an award now forever attached to his name, before the former Oklahoma quarterback was announced the winner in New York City.
The Heisman Trophy Trust, which works to uphold the award’s integrity, didn’t inform Mossman, the director of athletics media relations at Oklahoma at the time. Rather, he noticed camera crews starting to make their way to Bradford and his family during the commercial break immediately preceding the announcement on ESPN, positioning themselves to capture the recipient’s reaction.
Nearly four decades earlier, Steve Owens found out he won the 1969 Heisman secondhand while walking on campus in Norman. He later got a phone call that confirmed his achievement, but unlike Bradford, there was no public relations team like the one Mossman led to promote Owens as college football’s most outstanding player or a live ceremony on national television to announce his victory.
“There was no campaign,” said Al Eschbach, a sports talk host on WWLS-FM in Oklahoma City. “Nobody talked about it, nobody was writing about it in the paper or anything. There was no talk radio then.”
In the modern day, television rights, award sponsorships, social media and digital-savvy public relation teams have transformed the landscape of the Heisman Trophy and how a candidate is promoted. Still, there isn’t a perfect formula to promoting a Heisman hopeful. Flashy numbers are a key factor into what defines the best player in the country, but at some point in the season, everyone has statistics, Mossman said. What it comes down to is who has the most intriguing backstory, the most attractive highlight reel and a creative public relations team to accent everything special and talented about that player.
Halfway into this season, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield checks many of those boxes. He’s thrown for 2,347 yards passing, 19 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. He planted the flag after defeating Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, threw the game-winning pass against Texas and played through a shoulder injury in a win at Kansas State. All that after walking on to his second Big 12 football program and earning the starting job.
If Mayfield receives his second-consecutive invitation to New York as a finalist in December, the annual presentation on ESPN will be all the more dramatic for Oklahoma fans after he finished fourth in 2015 and third in 2016.
The significance and tradition that follows a Heisman Trophy winner is unlike any other in college football. And in Norman, Mayfield’s likeness would soon be cast as the sixth statue standing east of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium — the same place where he attended Sooner home games, hoping to one day stand among the heroes he watched as a kid — if he were to win.
“I don’t even think I could use words to describe it correctly,” Mayfield said. “Coming up to tailgate and playing backyard football right there by Heisman Park, before Bradford’s (statue) was there and right around the time Jason (White) was earning his, to realize I was there cheering on the team at that point in time before their statues were even there, so that obviously just shows I was their biggest (fan). Having something like that next to them would be such an honor, and we’ll see what happens.”
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It was just 40 years ago the Heisman Trophy presentation truly took off as a national spectacle, televised for the first time in 1977.
Eschbach remembers the era in college football before the award wasn’t exhaustively discussed and debated nonstop from the conclusion of one season to the end of the next.
The commercialization of the Heisman Trophy was initially met with some skepticism. The late Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, former vice president of the University of Notre Dame, once told The New York Times the Heisman “was not designed as a vehicle for selling soap or beer.”
The prestige of the trophy seemed to be in danger as television rights were shopped for the presentation of college football’s most-coveted individual prize. It had done just fine without sponsorships and television since its inception in 1935, honoring college football immortals like Davey O’Brien, Doak Walker and Ernie Davis.
In 1952, Oklahoma running back Billy Vessels was the first of five Sooners to capture the award. One of his teammates, Merrill Green, fondly recalls the days playing alongside Vessels with memories of the tough and rugged tailback that highlighted the early stages of the Bud Wilkinson era.
“(The Heisman Trophy) was not that prominent, especially back in our part of the country,” Green said. “It was not like, ‘Gee, looks like Billy’s probably going to win to the Heisman,’ like today. You start about (October), people start thinking about who the possible candidates are for the Heisman. That didn’t happen at all.”
It wasn’t to say the Heisman Trophy wasn’t a big deal. It just wasn’t the presentation fans have come to tune into each December with myriad cameras and lights shining on a handful of college football’s finest players with their coaches and families behind them and the past winners in attendance, waiting to initiate the next member into one of sports’ most-exclusive fraternities.
The humble roots of the Heisman Trophy, however, lend to its significance today.
“There’s so much tradition tied up in that award, that all of a sudden you get this sense that this is something that’s going to happen that is going to forever impact the life of the person who wins it,” Mossman said of seeing the live ceremony. “They talk about that a lot when you’re up there. Once you’re a Heisman winner, that’s really what you are the rest of your life. You’re going to be identified as that.”
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Not every Heisman candidate is made equal in the age of television and social media. Increasingly, the Heisman moment can propel a campaign in the era of viral video.
Desmond Howard’s stiff arm. Johnny Manziel running for his life against Alabama. Bradford’s helicopter flip at Oklahoma State.
Nearly two decades has elapsed since Superman arrived for a brief moment at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl.
Two minutes remained in regulation, and the No. 5 Longhorns trailed the No. 3 Sooners 7-3 on Oct. 6, 2001. Oklahoma safety Roy Williams soared over a Texas running back and flew headfirst toward quarterback Chris Simms.
As the Texas quarterback dropped inside his end zone, he cocked his arm with the football in his left hand vulnerable to the airborne Sooner, who draped himself like a cape over Simms. Oklahoma linebacker Teddy Lehman was perfectly planted a few yards away to snatch the ball his teammate knocked free, walk in the score and spoil any of hope of a late rally for the rival Longhorns.
Williams’ play is now regarded as one of the most iconic moments in the Red River rivalry’s fabled history, and for Mossman, it was just as important in the weeks to follow.
“‘Superman’ was a gift on a platter for us,” Mossman said.
The junior safety’s signature play was as clear as the Texas skies the day he etched his name in Sooners lore. The play was perfect to promote a Heisman Trophy candidate, and Williams became a strong contender for the award with the aid of his highlights and the campaigning from the Oklahoma athletics department.
“Defensive players are so much harder to promote for that award,” Mossman said. “So we had to get a little bit more creative, and I felt like we are able to do that. Roy helped a lot quite honestly, because he made some spectacular plays that got a lot of national video coverage. I just felt like we took a defensive player and really made him a serious threat.”
Williams ultimately finished seventh in the voting. It’s a feat Mossman is still proud of to this day, considering Williams’ primary kryptonite was playing defense.
Two years later, Mossman made it to his first Heisman presentation with Jason White. The trip was as grand as the city that hosts the ceremony. It made it even better coming during the holiday season, he said. Once the day arrives, however, tension gradually builds inside the intimate confines of the 2,100-seat venue where the ceremony is held.
It’s an overwhelming process only 80 men who’ve been presented the trophy have experienced, but the relief following the show is well worth the wait to go down forever in history as a Heisman Trophy winner.
“The buildup is very significant,” Mossman said. “And then, of course, right before they present the trophy, they go to commercial, so they take it out even longer. It’s really overwhelming.The other thing I think that’s overwhelming about it — you do get some sense of this on television — is so many of the past winners are there, and you’re talking about a who’s who of college football.
“The greatest names to ever play the game.”