Dec. 12, 2004
By Brian Curtis
Senior Editor, CSTV
NEW YORK, NY -- It's a shame that the Downtown Athletic Club no longer hosts college sports' most prestigious event. There's just something missing seeing the Heisman Trophy awarded on a third-floor banquet room of the New York City Hilton. But though the venue was bit un-historical, everything else played out like the crowning of a king.
Guests began arriving around 6:00 pm, and those with special passes enjoyed fine beverages and full buffets at a pre-event reception, while those without passes lingered in the outside hallway. The media assembled their laptops down the hall and were kept away from the party.
The banquet room was a who's who of college football. There was Matt Leinart, playing it cool, standing off in a corner but graciously shaking hands with well-wishers. Alex Smith taking photos with family members and his coach, Urban Meyer. Reggie Bush dressed to the hilt holding court on one wall while Adrian Peterson remained calm while signing Heisman swag.
Bob Stoops was there, as was Desmond Howard and a plainly dressed Eric Crouch among many former winners. USC athletic director and former winner Mike Garrett entertained Trojan Trustees while young kids (how did they get in?) calmly approached anybody who looked like somebody and had them sign a poster or football.
I had the chance to chat with Leinart, who appeared calm, but whose eyes darted around, as if distracted. The lights flickered, indicating it was time for the main event. We headed up to the third-floor and entered the room, flush with ESPN cameras and lights and some flowers. A voice came over the PA, introducing himself as the director of the television coverage, who in turned introduced the host, Chris Fowler. Fowler welcomed us all and asked us to follow the directions of the two stage managers as to when to applaud and when to be quiet.
As the five candidates stood patiently waiting to be introduced, I imagined what it must be like to be in their shoes, right now. Millions watching around the country, knowing that in less than 60 minutes one of their lives would be changed forever. All five looked calm, though Alex Smith and Jason White cracked some smiles.
As the hour-long show progressed, complete with taped features and live interviews with all five players, and family and coaches, the tension in the room grew. Even during commercial breaks, there was little sound. Stage managers ushered players from the stage to the far back of the room where they were interviewed. The former Heisman greats sat in the front row, patiently waiting to welcome the new honoree.
With a season's worth of hype and a tremendous build-up during this week, the moment of truth actually came quickly. The President of the Heisman Trust, read some kind words off the Tele-Prompter and then paused as he opened the envelope. As he read Leinart's name, the Trojan bowed his head as if they say a private prayer, and then immediately jumped off and shared hugs with not only his fellow candidates, but all the former winners now standing behind him. He came into the audience and hugged his brother and parents, and then composed himself enough to give a one-minute speech, where the cool customer showed some emotion.
And then it was all over. Leinart was rushed to a radio interview with Sirius, the non-winners faced the press in a media room, and the guests poured into a post-reception down the hall. Garrett and other USC people received congratulations while Leinart's world began to change.
As for me, I left at 9:45 pm, exhausted from the night. I predicted the USC quarterback would win, but then again, many of us did. It was surprising to me that his teammate, Reggie Bush, finished in 5th place, but he'll be back in New York next year, as will Peterson and perhaps Leinart. And hopefully I'll be back next year too, for another night at the Hilton.
Brian Curtis serves as an analyst and insider in all of CSTV's football programming and is CSTV's Senior Editor. To ask Brian a question or comment on his column, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Brian's latest insiders' book, Every Week A Season, on sale now at all major bookstores and online.
Matt Leinart with the Heisman Trophy