The Heisman Curse

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The Heisman Trophy is hailed as the greatest individual accolade in American football. Handed to the most outstanding player in college football in the US, the trophy is an almost guaranteed ticket to the NFL. However, it seems strange to many people that players who win the Heisman Trophy do not do much better than other draft picks in the NFL. Many people interpret it in different ways but the main assertion of the Heisman Curse is that the player who wins the Heisman Trophy usually has an under par career in the NFL.

Who are some of the Victims?

The inaugural winner of the Heisman Trophy was Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago. He did not have a successful career in the NFL after drafting for the Philadelphia Eagles the following season. Of 10 Heisman winners who have been picked as No.1 draft picks since 1961, just 2 have entered the hall of fame. Of all Heisman Trophy winners just four have gone on to win the NFL MVP and all of them were running backs. Many of those who have been Heisman winners have picked up injuries, seen a drop in performance or have been caught up in unusual circumstances that have hampered their pro careers.

One of the hallmarks of the Heisman Curse is the inability of the winner to win the season’s bowl game. Since the Heisman started in 1935, 54 recipients were participating in a Bowl game that season. The success rate for such players in their respective Bowl game has been exactly 50%. However, the success rate is particularly bleak in the 6-year stretch between 2003 and 2008. In that period, Heisman winners have won just one out of five Bowl games. Since 1961, 53 percent of Heisman winners never went to a Pro Bowl game.

Quarterbacks seem to be disproportionately afflicted by the Heisman Curse especially in recent years. Roger Staubach, the first QB to win the Heisman had to wait till he served his required time in the Navy before joining the Dallas Cowboys, where he never quite nailed down a starting berth. It has now been 18 years since the last Heisman QB Barry Sanders won the MVP, in 1997. Vinny Testaverde, the 1986 winner was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had terrible numbers during the late 1980s and 1990s and only enjoyed considerable success when he joined the Browns and later the New York Jets.

Before 2000, Quarterbacks did not win the Heisman often but the decreased emphasis on hard running in recent years has seen them increase in popularity. Since 2000, only one out of the 13 quarterbacks who have won the Heisman trophy has proceeded to win the Super Bowl the following season. Out of these, only 2002 winner Carson Palmer has got close to having a decent career. It is a bit too early to tell for 2014 winner Marcus Mariota or even his Predecessor Jameis Winston.

One of the most peculiar cases of the ‘curse’ was 1993 winner Charlie Ward of Florida State. While at Florida State he excelled at both basketball and football. Upon winning the Heisman Trophy, he stated that he would only join an NFL team if selected in the first round of the 1994 NFL Draft. He was instead picked 26th overall by the New York Knicks in the first round of the 1994 NBA Draft. 1998 winner Ricky Williams developed severe drug dependency which cut short his NFL career. In 1961 Ernie Davis of Syracuse won the trophy but he was diagnosed with leukemia before his rookie season and died in 1963.


Even if the Heisman curse is real, it is one of the most disputable of sports curses owing to the large number of exceptions to the supposed outcome. While it is undeniable that Heisman winners struggle in the NFL, the idea of a curse unravels when one considers the perspective that they are not the only ones who struggle. The real scenario is that they fail to reach the high standards that they are expected to match once out of the college.

One of the rational reasons regularly put forward for this is that players collapse under the intense pressure to carry over their performance in college to the NFL. When it comes to the incredibly low success rate of Heisman QBs, it is said that the dynamics of playing quarterback in the NFL are much more complex than in college which makes game winning skill in college less applicable in the NFL.