Winning the Heisman Trophy represents the pinnacle of college football greatness, but here’s a not-so-dirty secret: winning it doesn’t mean you’re destined for a career of gridiron glory.
In fact, there are scores of Heisman winners who didn’t enjoy success in the NFL. Sometimes it seems as if losing out on the big award may hint at stardom at the next level. There are plenty of players who finished second, only to enjoy better NFL careers than the stars who beat them for the Heisman. Here are nine examples.
Tim Tebow and Darren McFadden
The legend of Tim Tebow began to be cemented in 2007 when he won college football’s top prize while at Florida, becoming the first sophomore to claim the award. Darren McFadden of SEC rival Arkansas took second place for the second year in a row (more on that in a minute), capping a brilliant college career. Tebow’s NFL career has been well-documented and controversial – he led the Broncos to the playoffs, was traded to the Jets where he was a non-factor and then endured a short stint with the Patriots that ended with him not making the team. McFadden has battled injuries throughout his career with the Oakland Raiders, but you know what? He’s still in the league. Anyone seen Tebow on an NFL field recently?
Troy Smith and Darren McFadden
Before Tebow swooped in, Troy Smith managed to get his meaty paws on what would become an elusive prize for McFadden. Smith piloted Ohio State to the national championship game (where they were clocked by a pre-Tebow Florida). Smith notched a record 86.7% of the first-place votes. In 2007, he was a fifth round pick of the Baltimore Ravens, but never made much of a dent in the NFL and has bounced around in the UFL, as well as the CFL.
Matt Leinart and Adrian Peterson
Leinart may have led USC to a national championship (since vacated) with a win over Peterson's Oklahoma Sooners, but his career in the NFL never got going (some say he partied too much). A first round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, Leinart had four unmemorable seasons before landing the journeyman tag – he’s since had stints with Houston, Oakland and Buffalo. Peterson was the first freshman to finish as the runner-up in the Heisman voting – a sign of things to come for his career. He has been an all-everything back with the Vikings, earning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. In 2012, he fell nine yards short of smashing the single-season record for rushing yards in a season. Of course, in 2014, he wound up suspended for hitting his son with a switch, so the jury's still out on what happens the rest of his career.
Jason White and Larry Fitzgerald
Jason who? White battled numerous injuries in the early 2000s to claim the Heisman in a season in which he tossed 40 touchdown passes. He finished third in the Heisman voting the next year, but he wound up undrafted -- only the third winner not to get a call from the NFL on draft day. He’s now in private business. Larry Fitzgerald was a stud in college (161 catches in 26 career games, NCAA record of at least one TD catch in 18 consecutive games). He has since become a dynamic, seven-time Pro Bowler with the Arizona Cardinals, although his stats have been stunted by the franchise’s inability to find a top-flight quarterback. Even so, he’s one of the game’s elite wideouts.
Gino Torretta and Marshall Faulk
Like, Tebow, Smith and Leinart, Torretta is one of several Heisman-winning QBs who crashed and burned in the NFL (hello, Danny Wuerffel, Andre Ware, Chris Weinke, Ty Detmer). He went in the seventh round of the NFL draft to the Vikings and wound up on the roster of five different teams. He also played in NFL Europe. Faulk, meanwhile, tore it up at San Diego State and kept on tearing it up all the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A Super Bowl champ with the Rams, Faulk is the only NFL player to notch 12,000 yards rushing and 6,000 yards receiving.
Mike Rozier and Steve Young
Rozier was an outstanding back with Nebraska who won the Heisman on the strength of 29 TDs, four 200-yard games to end the season and nearly 2,500 total yards on the year. He gave the USFL a try before heading to the NFL and was voted to the Pro Bowl twice while with the Houston Oilers before finishing his career with the Falcons. Rozier was a decent player, for sure, but he pales in comparison to BYU's Young, who, ironically, also started in the USFL and had to wait for his greatness. After signing with the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers and sitting behind Joe Montana for several years in San Francisco, Young wound up leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory, while winning two others behind Montana at the helm. A tremendous runner, he is also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and won the NFL passer rating title six times.
Herschel Walker and John Elway
Make no mistake about it: Walker was a beast and a great football player. But he was no John Elway. Walker won the Heisman Trophy at Georgia and took his talents to the USFL. In the NFL, he logged more than 8,200 rushing yards (although he only had two 1,000-yard seasons). Couple that with his USFL stats and it’s about 14,000 yards. But Walker will forever be known as the man at the center of one of the most famous trades in NFL history that directly led to the Cowboys run in the ‘90s when he was sent to Minnesota for a slew of draft picks. All Elway did was earn nine Pro Bowl appearances, win a pair of Super Bowls and an MVP award. The number one overall pick in the NFL draft in 1983, Elway would retire with the most wins by a starting QB (since passed by Brett Favre) and pilot the Broncos to half a dozen AFC championship games and five Super Bowls in total. He also led one of the most famous drives in NFL history.
Gary Beban and O.J. Simpson
Beban won college football’s highest award playing QB for UCLA. Beban’s NFL career was over before it got started – he was stuck on the Washington Redskins bench behind Sunny Jurgensen and never got a chance to shine. He retired in 1970. Simpson played for UCLA’s crosstown rival, USC, and wound up winning the award himself the next season. He became a star in the NFL, becoming the first player in league history ever to run for more than 2,000 yards in a season (impressively doing it during a 14-game season) and led the league in rushing four times. When he retired, he was the NFL’s second all-time leading rusher (he’s now 18th). Of course, Beban may have won out in the long run, what with all those pesky legal issues Simpson endured -- even after the famed murder trial.