The Heisman Memorial Trophy is one of college footballs most prestigious awards and easily its most recognizable. Awarded annually to college football’s most outstanding player, there have seventy-seven winners since the trophy’s creation in 1935. A number of NFL greats have been up for the award at one point in their collegiate careers and a select few have won it and managed to have similar success in the pros. Guys like Barry Sanders, Charles Woodson, Earl Campbell and Tim Brown all managed to find great success in the NFL after winning the Heisman.
But there are a number of Heisman winners who’ve failed to find any sort of success in the NFL. These are players who fell victim to the so called “Heisman Curse”. The Heisman might be college football’s biggest honour but it in no way guarantees success at the next level. In fact, the number of Heisman winners who’ve had successful pro careers as compared to those who haven’t is staggeringly disproportionate, leaning heavily in favour of the latter.
While there have been plenty of Heisman busts, theses 15 stand out as the worst of the worst, players who made an impact at the collegiate level but failed to make a dent in the NFL and were grossly outplayed and outmatched by the surrounding talent.
These are the 15 worst Heisman winners to ever play in the NFL.
15. Ron Dayne – RB – University of Wisconsin-Madison
Ron Dayne’s senior season at Wisconsin solidified his outstanding college career, which he finished with over 7,000 yards rushing and 70 touchdowns. Aside from winning the Heisman, Dayne won AP Player of the Year, the Maxwell Award and the Jim Brown Award. His success in college got him selected eleventh overall by the New York Giants, where he was teamed up with Tiki Barber. With his bruising style of play and Barber’s elite speed, the duo became known as “Thunder and Lightning”. However, Dayne gradually lost carries in New York and went on to spend the next three seasons as a back-up in Denver and Houston. The former top 15 pick was out of the NFL after the 2007 season and finished his career with a little less than 4,000 yards in 96 career games.
14. Matt Leinart – QB – University of Southern California
Coming out of college Matt Leinart was thought to be the ideal NFL quarterback. His size, weight and college success all pointed to him having a successful career in the pros, the one blemish on him was his subpar throwing arm. After winning the Heisman in his junior year, and finishing third in the voting his senior season, Leinart was considered to be one of the top QB prospects entering the 2006 NFL Draft. The Cardinals took him in the first round; however he failed to see much playing time behind former NFL MVP Kurt Warner. Both injuries and lack of production would eventually shake the franchises faith in the former first round pick. During the entirety of his career as a Cardinal Leinart failed to take the starting job away from Warner and by the time Warner had retired, the team was ready to move on. Leinart spent the next few years of his career as a backup on the Texans’ and Raiders’ depth charts before falling out of the league completely.
13. Rashaan Salaam – University of Colorado Boulder
Choosing to forgo his senior year fresh after winning the Heisman, Rashaan Salaam headed straight for the NFL and into the arms of the Chicago Bears. In all honesty his career started off with some promise. During the 1995 season Salaam rushed for over 1,000 yards, adding in ten rushing touchdowns, becoming the youngest player in NFL history to do so. However the rest of his professional career was plagued by injuries, fumbles and problems with pot use. He spent the 1999 season as a member of the Packers and Browns and didn’t reappear in the NFL till the 2003 season as a member of the 49ers. The majority of his career statistics came with that one great rookie year in Chicago and he finished his career having appeared in just 33 games, a little more than two full seasons’ worth.
12. Chris Weinke – Florida State University
Despite becoming a freshman at Florida State at 25, Chris Weinke led a successful college career. He led the Seminoles to the school’s first ever undefeated season as a junior and as a senior was first in the nation in passing with over four thousand yards. Despite his collegiate accolades, Weinke’s age made him a risky prospect for NFL teams. The Panthers would go on to select him in the fourth round of the 2001 NFL Draft. He started his rookie year, winning his first career start but losing the other fifteen games. By the time Jake Delhomme joined the team in 2003, Weinke had solidified his role as the team’s backup.
11. Troy Smith – Ohio State
An electrifying player in college, Troy Smith won the Heisman after his 2006 senior campaign. Though his draft stock should’ve been on the rise after winning the prestigious award, his size coupled with a terrible performance at the 2007 BCS National Championship caused him to fall to the fourth round of the 2007 Draft. His rookie season showed some promise but Smith proved early on that he was too inconsistent with his protection of the football. After being released by the Ravens in 2009 Smith signed with the 49ers and played in place of the injured Alex Smith, earning himself an offensive player of the week award in the process. Smith never played a game in the NFL after leaving San Francisco and spent some time in the UFL before briefly occupying the starting QB role for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.
10. Charles White – USC
The two-time Rose Bowl MVP struggled for most of his NFL career and like many Heisman winners on this list, never succeeded in duplicating his collegiate success once in the pros. The Browns took white with the 27th overall pick in the 1980 draft but his time spent in Cleveland was disappointing to say the least. In four seasons with the Browns he totaled 942 yards rushing with a 3.4 yards per carry average. Once he was let go by Cleveland White reunited with his college coach John Robinson as a member of the LA Rams. White’s third year in Los Angeles was his best by far. Getting the most carries he’d gotten in the entirety of his professional career, White lead the NFL in rushing, putting up 11 touchdowns, and was selected to his only Pro Bowl while winning the NFL Comeback Player of the year award. He was out of the league a year later after seeing a significant decrease in carries.
9. Danny Wuerffel – University of Florida
After having an immensely successful career at the University of Florida, Danny Wuerffel burned out of the NFL quicker than anyone could’ve imagined he would. At Florida, Wuerffel finished his career with over 10,000 yards passing and the best career passer rating in college history at the time. He was drafted by the Saints in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL Draft, but only started six games during his tenure. He started four more games as a Redskin in 2002 but failed to earn a new contract from the team and was effectively out of the league following his release.
8. Archie Griffin – Ohio State
What’s most impressive about Archie Griffin’s career at Ohio State isn’t his 6.0 yards per carry average or his NCAA record 31 consecutive 100-yard rushing games; it’s his two Heisman wins. He is the only NCAA football player to have won the award twice. Despite this, his NFL career was nothing special. He was drafted by the Bengals in 1976 and appeared in Super Bowl XVI but never recorded a 700-yard season. He spent his entire seven-year NFL career in Cincinnati but found the end zone only seven times and rushed for under 3,000 yards.
7. Tim Tebow – University of Florida
Tim Tebow’s a nice guy, really. It’s been well document throughout his stint in the NFL just what a good guy he is. But regrettably that doesn’t make him a good NFL player, in fact Tim Tebow was a far cry from good, he was a bust. At Florida Tebow established himself as one of college football’s most explosive players early on in his career, winning the Heisman as a sophomore. Though there was much excitement following him around as he prepared for the NFL Draft, some experts were on the fence when it came to his intangibles and throwing motion. Tebow was considered a raw talent coming out of college, with his unique build he was encouraged to change positions by several teams during the draft process but chose to remain a QB. Some experts believed that he could succeed at his original position if he improved on his throwing mechanics. The Broncos took a chance on Tebow, trading back into the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. While he was definitely exciting to watch, Tebow was incredibly inconsistent with his accuracy and sometimes seemed to lack the touch needed to play quarterback in the NFL. After a short stint in Denver Tebow went over to the Jets and was hands down the most talked about backup QB in the league. The failed experiment in New York ended with only eight passing attempts. His seemingly last shot in the NFL came with the Patriots but he was cut by the team in late August and now serves as a college football analyst for ESPN.
6. Mike Rozier – Nebraska
After a successful career in college Mike Rozier didn’t head for the NFL straight away, instead he made a detour to the newly formed USFL. He was selected second overall by the Oilers in the 1984 Supplemental Draft and had two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in 1987 and 1988, rushing for over 1,000 yards in ‘88. His career would then go on a steady decline. He finished up his last two seasons in Houston with less than 350 yards rushing and was traded away to the Falcons where he spent the rest of his career as a change-of-pace back and retired with just over 4,000 yards rushing in his career.
5. Eric Crouch – Nebraska
While he did win the Heisman as a quarterback, Eric Crouch played a multitude of positions during his career including receiver and safety. His mobility in college made him a threat with both his arms and legs, but NFL scouts saw his size as a liability and insisted he switch over to a position that would better suit his skill set. However, none of that mattered as it was clear that Crouch wasn’t tough enough to handle the game at the professional level. An injury sustained during a practice with the St.Louis Rams caused him to leave the team, and the Rams to lose their third round pick. After spending time with the Packers and Chiefs, he was out of the league before he could play a regular season game.
4. Ty Detmer – Brigham Young
By the time he’d graduated from BYU, Ty Detmer had put up over 15,000 passing yards, 121 passing touchdowns and a career passer rating of 162.7 – all were NCAA records at the time. So why, despite an impressive collegiate career was Detmer selected in the 9th round of the ’92 Draft? Most scouts thought he was too small. Standing at six feet, Detmer was shorter than the average NFL QB and this affected his draft stock significantly. He would spend his fourteen-year career as a backup flashing some of the playmaking ability he showed at BYU, but never made the jump to a full time starter.
3. Johnny Rodgers – Nebraska
Johnny Rodgers was a fan favourite who exploded onto the scene and won several awards – as a member of the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. Despite being a first round pick of the San Diego Chargers, Rodgers opted to sign a lucrative contract offered by the Alouettes instead. He was a stud while playing in Montreal but couldn’t repeat that success in the NFL. By the time he’d made his way to San Diego he’d spent the first four years of his career with Montreal. He was plagued by hamstring injuries his first year and had his career cut short by a freak injury in his second.
2. Gino Torretta – University of Miami
Though he only started two seasons at Miami, Gino Torretta won several awards during his senior season. Although he had a good deal of success in college Torretta wasn’t a very sought after prospect when he entered the NFL Draft. In fact he was selected by the Vikings late in the seventh round. The majority of his career was spent as a backup on several teams. By the time he retired he’d scraped together forty passing yards a touchdown and a passer rating of 35.4.
1. Andre Ware – Houston
Andre Ware’s junior season at Houston was phenomenal. He passed for over 4,000 yards with 44 touchdowns and set 26 different NCAA records. So it isn’t too hard to understand why he’d forgo his senior season and declare himself eligible for the upcoming NFL Draft. He was selected seventh overall by the Detroit Lions but never earned the trust of head coach Wayne Fontes. Ware sat behind the often injured Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer on Detroit’s depth chart. In his four year career with the Lions, Ware started just six games and threw more interceptions than he did touchdowns. He spent the 1994 and ’95 seasons on the Raiders and Jaguars rosters but failed to make final cuts for both teams.