Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy triumph a story over 20 years in the making

Speaking of Lamars, upon Lamar Jackson’s new Heisman Trophy, those of us afflicted with the inability to stop watching college football know well the name “Lamar Thomas” and what the name means. It means what names sometimes mean in the cold-blooded magnifying glass of sports. It means one play, and the human memory bank cannot help resurrecting the one play.

It means that stirring night in New Orleans on the first day of 1993, when Alabama defensive ends Eric Curry and John Copeland roughhoused Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta, when No. 2 Alabama blasted No. 1 Miami (Fla.) 34-13 for the national title and when, most of all, Thomas took a Torretta deep ball and streamed almost all the way down the left sideline toward an 89-yard touchdown but then got caught, stripped and outright looted by Alabama safety George Teague, the ball never hitting turf.

The play everyone remembers didn’t count. Alabama was offside, which Miami would have declined if Teague hadn’t caught Thomas. Thomas caught 144 college passes and 106 more for Tampa Bay and Miami of the NFL, but his name often conjures one play that didn’t count except that it did.

Look now. Yet again in college football, lore just beget lore.

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Yet again, a former player went into coaching. From 2008-10, Thomas assisted his high school coach, Rick Swain, by then at Boynton Beach (Florida) High. From there, Thomas went to coach receivers at Hampton University, then Western Kentucky, then Louisville (2014-15). He became the early bridge between Louisville and a quarterback, Jackson, whose daily moves wreaked disbelief from a four-decade high school coaching veteran, Swain.

Holding to his relationship with Thomas when other suitors arrived and drooled, Jackson went all the way up to the University of Louisville to mingle with Coach Bobby Petrino’s rarefied offensive mind, until the whole thing exploded into statistical wonder and Jackson, not yet even 20, won the 82nd Heisman on Saturday night – with a funny little twist about Thomas. It capped a steep climb for the Louisville sophomore quarterback, and it ratified what Swain said, and all learned: “Lamar has that uncanny ability of sticking his foot in the ground and not losing any momentum.”

In winning above runner-up Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, third-place Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, fourth-place Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook and fifth-place Michigan multi-position marvel Jabrill Peppers, Jackson became only the fifth of the 17 winners this century whose team is not headed to either a title game or a playoff. He became the first winner since Robert Griffin III in 2011 to play for a team that lost thrice. He became Louisville’s first winner and turned the university of that old banged-up, two-way college player, John Unitas, into the 39th school with at least one Heisman.

Jackson also came from Heisman hinterland.

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When Heisman forecasts began in preseason, eight months after they began five seconds after the previous Heisman ceremony, the lists teemed with so many powerhouse contenders that the year seemed unfair. The sport still had the players who finished Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 in the 2015 balloting. It had two returning Heisman finalists, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, whose 3,864 all-purpose yards last year would have won most years, and Clemson quarterback Watson, who turned to mush Alabama’s great defense in the national-title game. It had LSU running back Leonard Fournette, considered among the most capable football players some trained eyes have witnessed. It had Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, fully healed, and Florida State running back Dalvin Cook and Oklahoma quarterback Mayfield, fully excellent.

None quite soared in that inexplicable, illogical way Heisman winners do.

Meanwhile, a quarterback who had rushed for 226 yards in the 2015 Music City Bowl against Texas A&M, a game watched only by partisan fans and those who could not extricate themselves from couches, threw for six touchdowns and rushed for two in the opener against Charlotte. He rushed for one and threw for four in the second game, against Syracuse. He, Jackson, prepped to play No. 2 Florida State on Sept. 17, which would tell something, perhaps even comeuppance.

It did not tell comeuppance. It told a staggering 63-20 win with Jackson all over 100-yard creation, rushing for four touchdowns, throwing for another.

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The national tenor changed from there, and rose again on a madcap night at Clemson when Jackson led Louisville on five straight scoring drives after halftime to turn a 28-10 deficit to a 36-34 lead, until Clemson rallied to win 42-36 and Louisville wound up bummed out on downs, three yards from mirth. By the time Jackson got to 3,390 passing yards as the nation’s 19th-rated passer, and 1,538 rushing yards as its ninth-rated rusher – a blaring combination – plus the 30 touchdown passes (to nine interceptions) and 21 rushing touchdowns for a stunning 51, all those numbers deluged much. They deluged even Mayfield’s NCAA-record-bound 197.75 passer rating, as well as McCaffrey’s No. 1-ranked 2,327 all-purpose yards, or Cook’s 1,620 rushing yards, or Watson’s lovable leadership and 37 touchdown passes (albeit with 15 interceptions.)

They deluged even the inconvenient fact that Louisville lost its last two games, to Houston and Kentucky, and that in that last one, with the score tied 38-38 and the clock ticking past two minutes, Jackson fumbled at the Kentucky 10-yard line. Oddness of oddnesses, the ensuing 41-38 Kentucky win dredged some happy tears from another Lamar, Thomas.

Kentucky hired him away last February.

It’s yet another story even in a lukewarm Heisman year, one that concludes by remembering how Teague caught Thomas, and how two decades later Thomas caught Jackson, and how gutsy Heisman forecasters caught nothing but air, similar to what so many caught all late summer and autumn when pursuing Jackson.