- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 29, 2001

Heisman Trophy candidates have been blowing tires left and right in recent weeks. UCLA's DeShaun Foster and Boston College's William Green got themselves suspended (which eliminates them from consideration under the Peter Warrick Provision). Eric Crouch's Nebraska team went belly-up big-time at Colorado. Oregon State's Ken Simonton, one of the media's preseason darlings, might not even rush for 1,000 yards.

With nobody who's helmet-and-shoulder-pads above the crowd, I feel totally within my rights to vote with my heart this year. And my heart says I should cast my ballot for Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson.

That's right, Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson. I might be totally alone on this one in fact, I'd be surprised if I wasn't totally alone on this one but that's never stopped me before. I'm the guy, you may recall, who voted for Jay Walker in 1993.

Once a decade, it seems, I find myself in this situation. After Walker quarterbacked Howard never much of a football school to an 11-0 regular-season record and its first berth in the NCAA playoffs I found it impossible to not vote for him. A performance like that simply needed to be acknowledged.

And I feel the same way about Henderson. His inspired play 150 tackles (nearly twice as many as anybody else on the team), 28 for losses, six sacks, two blocked kicks, two forced fumbles and an interception helped the Terps dethrone Florida State and earned them their first major bowl bid since 1977. Every time I saw him in action this year, he was the best player on the field. If he wasn't returning a fumble for a touchdown against Georgia Tech, he was picking off a pass against Clemson or shutting down N.C. State's Ray Robinson in the game that wrapped up the ACC title.

You won't see a linebacker have a better season than Henderson did this fall. He was everywhere and is the main reason Maryland currently ranks seventh in the nation in rushing defense. And it was all so wonderfully unexpected, both for him and the Terps. Did you know that when the Butkus Award people came out with a preliminary list of candidates back in August 69 linebackers E.J. wasn't even on it?

And now he's getting my Heisman vote. Unbelievable.

Here's something else that's unbelievable: A middle linebacker that's Henderson's spot has never won the award. Chuck Bednarik (1948) and Dick Butkus ('64) finished third and Brian Bosworth ('86) a steroid-enhanced fourth, but that's as close as a middle linebacker has come. Of course, it wasn't until '97 that any defensive player won the Heisman (Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson). Still, middle linebacker being such a classic football position, you would have thought that one of the lugs who play it would have carted off the trophy by now.

It's enough to make a guy submit a ballot with nothing but defensive players on it and this year, that's what I'm doing. My second-place vote goes to Oklahoma strong safety Roy Williams, who can hit, cover and reminds me a little of Ronnie Lott (a safety in college who switched to cornerback in the pros). My third-place vote goes to North Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, the possible first pick in next year's NFL Draft.

All you need to know about Peppers is that he's good enough to play major college basketball, too. The last football player who could say that was Tony Gonzalez, and he turned out all right, didn't he?

Sorry, I didn't have room on my ballot for any quarterbacks this year. But if I did, I wouldn't have scribbled in Florida's Rex Grossman, Miami's Ken Dorsey, Oregon's Joey Harrington or Nebraska's Eric Crouch, glossy though their numbers might be. I would have opted for lesser-known Kurt Kittner, who has guided Illinois which went 0-11 not long ago to a 10-1 mark and the Big Ten championship. (I also gave consideration to another offensive dynamo, Brigham Young running back Luke Staley, scorer of 24 touchdowns and possessor of an astounding 8.5-yard average for the unbeaten Cougars.)

In the end, though, it had to be E.J. Henderson. Call me provincial, if you want. Accuse me of getting swept away by the romance of Maryland's magical season. Go ahead, give me your best shot.

It won't change a thing. In my mind, E.J. is still "the Outstanding College Football Player of the United States for 2001."


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