Sunday, December 14, 2003

Oklahoma's White wins the Heisman

Award caps QB's comeback following two knee injuries

By Josh Dubow
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - The scars, the operations, the grueling rehab. It was all worth it for Jason White.

A year after knee injuries almost ended his career, White capped his comeback by receiving the greatest individual honor in college football, the Heisman Trophy.

"Heck, yeah, it makes it worthwhile!" White said. "Going through that rehab you never would have thought that you'd get a Heisman out of the deal. I'd go through it all again."

White provided an inspirational ending to the feel-good story that helped carry Oklahoma to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

As White accepted the award, he looked out at his parents, who helped persuade him to keep going.

Ron White beamed proudly, knowing the work ethic he instilled by making his son shovel concrete as a kid helped make Jason a winner. Sue White was in tears.

The small-town kid from Tuttle, Okla., was being honored on the biggest stage in the biggest city.

"Last year about this time, I was sitting at home watching the Heisman and thought how neat it would be to be there, to be one of the finalists," White said. "I never thought, after two surgeries, that I'd be here."

The award was well deserved for the 23-year-old senior. White threw 40 touchdown passes and led the third-ranked Sooners to 12 straight wins to open the season as he beat out Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald by 128 points.

Even a subpar performance in a loss in the Big 12 title game last week against Kansas State couldn't stop White from winning the award. His three months of brilliance before that were more than enough to persuade voters to pick him.

White, The Associated Press Player of the Year, led the nation in passing efficiency, completing 64 percent of his passes for 3,744 yards and only eight interceptions.

White beat Fitzgerald 1,481-1,353. Eli Manning was third with 710 points and Chris Perry was next with 341.

Voters list three choices on their ballots, and players are awarded three points for first place, two for second and one for third.

White, the first Oklahoma player since Billy Sims in 1978 to win the Heisman, had 319 first-place votes, 204 seconds and 116 thirds.

Fitzgerald, who set an NCAA record with touchdown catches in 18 straight games, had 253 firsts, 233 seconds and 128 thirds. He was trying to become the first sophomore to win the award, but only two Heisman winners have come from a team that's had as many as four losses at the time of the award.

"I think the losses really hurt me," Fitzgerald said. "All the guys up there, their teams had good records. They're playing in big bowl games."

Manning became the third member of his family to come close but fall short for the Heisman. His father, Archie, finished fourth in 1969 and third the following year, while older brother, Peyton, came in second in 1997.

Manning, who passed for 3,341 yards with 27 touchdowns this season, had 95 firsts, 132 seconds and 161 thirds.

Perry, who was fifth in the nation with 132.4 yards rushing per game and also scored 19 touchdowns, came in fourth with 27 firsts, 66 seconds and 128 thirds.

Three of the four finalists struggled with their conference titles on the line, with only Perry delivering in a 204-yard, two-TD game in a 35-21 victory against Ohio State.

Just as one bad game didn't stop Oklahoma from making it to the Sugar Bowl, it also didn't stop White, who was helped by the 50 percent of voters who cast their ballots before that game. Fitzgerald got the most points from people who voted in the final week, but it wasn't enough to catch White.

"I'm still shocked that I won," White said. "I'm sure it's going to be one of the greatest feelings ever. My teammates should be part of this too. Because they are the ones who got me here."

White became the fourth Sooner to win the Heisman, joining Sims, Steve Owens (1969) and Billy Vessels (1952). Sims was sitting with his former coach, Barry Switzer, in the audience and yelled encouragement to White as he walked up to accept the award.

White is hoping to become the third quarterback to win the Heisman and the national title in the same season, joining Florida State's Charlie Ward (1993) and Florida's Danny Wuerffel (1996).

Recent Heisman-winning quarterbacks haven't fared so well, with Florida State's Chris Weinke (2000) and Nebraska's Eric Crouch (2001) both following up their Heisman wins with subpar title-game performances.

Kansas State running back Darren Sproles was fifth, followed by Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart, North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers, USC receiver Mike Williams, Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons.

A regional voting breakdown had White winning the Far West, Southwest and South regions. Fitzgerald won the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

The award completes an amazing transformation that began on Sept. 7, 2002, when White crumpled to the turf against Alabama with a torn right knee ligament. He had injured the same ligament on the other knee a year earlier.

"I wanted to be back on the field with my teammates," White said. "For a while, it didn't seem like it would happen."

Hours of rehab finally paid off when coach Bob Stoops told White he won a four-way competition for the job before the start of fall practice.

In a season where remaining healthy and keeping the starting job would have been a great accomplishment, White did so much more.

White quickly answered all those questions. Performing in stadiums with nearly 20 times as many fans as live in his hometown, displayed the poise and touch necessary to turn Oklahoma into a record-setting offense.

He threw at least two touchdowns in his first 12 games, including 13 in the three games before the Big 12 championship. His pinpoint accuracy helped his receivers break big runs after the catch and helped the team score at least 50 points seven times.

"His emergence as a great, great football player is the story of college football," Stoops said. "The biggest difference in our team is that Jason White is the quarterback. It ought to be pretty obvious."

It turned out it was to the Heisman voters.

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