'I can’t watch the Heisman Trophy ceremony anymore': 1984 loss still haunts Keith Byars
Ask Keith Byars if the 1984 Heisman Trophy should have been decided on a desperation heave, and the former Ohio State tailback does not mince words.
Hail Mary? Hail no.
“I should have won,” Byars said this week, still annoyed that he finished second in voting to Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, whose famous 63-yard Hail Mary pass to wide receiver Gerard Phelan on the final play gave the Eagles a shocking 47-45 win against Miami on Nov. 23, 1984, eight days before Flutie was named the Heisman winner.
Whether Byars should have been the sixth Ohio State player to win the Heisman — instead he joined Bob Ferguson (1961) and John Hicks (1973) as the only Buckeyes to finish runner-up, pending C.J. Stroud 's slotting Saturday night — is worthy of debate. Byars was a first-team All-American after leading the nation in scoring (144 points), rushing (1,764) and all-purpose yards (2,441), the latter statistic a school record. He was named Big Ten MVP and helped the Buckeyes win the conference to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.
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But the Heisman eluded the 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior, instead going to the 5-9 Flutie, who as a senior became the first quarterback in college history to throw for 10,000 yards in a career. The next season, Byars again missed out on college football’s most prestigious individual award when he broke a foot during preseason practice.
“I can’t watch the Heisman Trophy ceremony anymore,” said the Dayton native, who 37 years later remains disappointed at not having heard his name called at the New York Downtown Athletic Club. “I can’t watch it because I know whose name they’re not going to call.”
Byars still ribs former Miami defensive back Darrell Fullington about allowing Phelan to get behind him on the "Hail Flutie" and for failing to knock the pass to the ground.
“And I used to tease (Miami defensive lineman) Jerome Brown, God rest his soul, ‘All the sacks you had that season? Why did you take that play off?,’ ” Byars said. “I’m not taking anything away from Doug Flutie. He had a great season, but I thought I was going to win.”
It still chafes. Byars set a goal his freshman season at Ohio State of matching Archie Griffin by winning two Heismans.
“I was on the right track with the season I had in 1984,” he said, his voice trailing off, then picking up. “I was happy when Troy Smith won and Eddie George won, but we should have had more.”
Allow me to offer factual talcum powder to ease some of the pain: Flutie’s pass did not influence Heisman voters. It couldn’t have. Voting was completed before Boston College played Miami.
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Byars is not alone when confusing Heisman history. Count me among the majority certain that Flutie’s Miracle in Miami won him the Heisman, probably because of reports like this:
From Sports Illustrated: “That pass certified Flutie’s stardom (and) clinched the Heisman Trophy …”
From ESPN: “Doug Flutie … will clinch the Heisman Trophy with one magnificent Hail Mary throw.”
There are other errant embellishments of one play earning Flutie the award, but you get the picture. Heroes are made, not born. That’s not to suggest Flutie, who received 2,240 votes, was unworthy of the bronze statuette; only that Byars and his 1,251 votes also deserved to win it. He just didn’t.
There is no shame in finishing second, but there are historical consequences. Winning the Heisman immediately puts a player in exclusive company, and often elevates them beyond comparison, as if doing so would be blasphemy.
No way Byars was as good as 1995 Heisman winner Eddie George, right? Uh, not so fast. Byars, who Tuesday was honored during the National Football Foundation awards banquet in Las Vegas for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, was a beast and one of OSU’s all-time best.
To better appreciate Byars' abilities, watch video of him against Illinois in 1984, when he rushed for 274 yards and five touchdowns and rallied the Buckeyes from a 24-0 deficit to a 45-38 win. His own Heisman hype moment arrived in the second half when his left shoe came loose and without breaking stride he kicked it off and ran the last 41 yards of a 67-yard touchdown with a blown tire, his low knee lift and leg churn turning him into a scarlet and gray Fred Flintstone. And those mountainous shoulder pads that turned him into a first-grader’s crayon drawing of a geometrically square football player.
“Why were your pads so big?” I asked.
“Because I used them,” he said without missing a beat, a clear shot at what he thinks of finesse football.
Ah, but Byars the brute also had butter hands. He led the Buckeyes with 42 catches in 1984 and went on to become a multi-dimensional player in the NFL, where for 13 seasons he played fullback, slot receiver and tight end for four different teams before retiring. He lives in Dayton, where he hosts his own radio show on WING-AM.
“Keith Byars was amazing, a true student of the game,” texted Jim Tressel, who served as OSU running backs coach under Earle Bruce in 1984. “He was a humble and selfless teammate, and the best running back in America.”
Not to mention the best college player overall. Unofficially, of course.