Kyler Murray won the Heisman as a quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners but was already a first round draft pick by the Oakland A’s to play baseball. This week, he declared for the NFL draft to take his chances on what the NFL might say he’s worth.
Professional baseball has been losing out to the NFL for a decades now. Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs and probably the MVP of the league, was a baseball player until the NFL came calling. The Yankees still have Seattle’s quarterback Russell Wilson out during Spring Training in an attempt to woo him from the NFL. Going back farther, football legend John Elway had the opportunity to play in the Majors but deferred to football.
This year, some thought, the tide was turning with Kyler Murray. But then Murray won the Heisman Trophy, the most coveted award in college football.
Murray hasn’t made his choice yet. He seems to be keeping all his options open, also he also got paid a pretty good signing bonus by the A’s. But would any Heisman Trophy winner decline the chance to play in the NFL?
There have been 12 Heisman Trophy winners that did not play in the NFL. Some, like Jason White of Oklahoma who won the Heisman in 2003 wasn’t drafted by the NFL. He was given a free agent tryout by the Kansas City Chiefs but they chose not to sign him. He was never picked up by another NFL team.
Others struggled with injuries that prevented them from ever playing in the NFL like 2001’s Heisman winner Eric Crouch injured his leg while being transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver by the LA Rams.
In the early years of the Heisman Trophy, the NFL was not glamour enough for the best athletes or the winners played for one of the Academies, meaning they had years of service they owed to their country.
In 1993 Charlie Ward of Florida State won the Heisman Trophy, but he would choose basketball. He would play 11 years with the Knicks, Spurs and Rockets.
But the best story of Heisman winners to not play in the NFL goes to Pete Dawkins.
At age 11, Pete was in intense physical therapy on his way to conquering polio. In 1955 he graduated from Cranbook School in Bloomfield Michigan with high honors. He was recruited across the country, even being accepted to Yale before choosing West Point and the United States Military Academy. West Point has one of the richest histories in the United States. Many of world changers have walked their halls (Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton are just a few to name). Still, no cadets career may be as spectacular as Pete Dawkins.
When he graduated in 1959 he was serving as Brigadier Commander, president of his senior class, captain of the football team, and a “Star Man”, indicating he was in the top 5% academically of his graduating class. Pete Dawkins is still the only Academy Graduate to achieve all four of these honors.
Pete’s accomplishments at the Academy led to his earning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, eventually earning a Masters Degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford’s Brasenose College.
Returning to the United States Dawkins finished Infantry School and Ranger School before earning his first duty assignment in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. While serving in Vietnam, Dawkins held commands in both the 7th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne division. This is when he was put on the cover of “Life” Magazine, with a story about his experience fighting for his country. By the end of his service in Southeast Asia Pete was a Lieutenant Colonel and had already been awarded two Bronze Stars for valor. From 1971 to 1973 Colonel Dawkins commanded the 1st Battalion 23rd Infantry of the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea.
Following his service in Korea he went back to West Point as an instructor, also serving as a White House Fellow . While serving there he was picked to join a task force responsible for transitioning the United States Army into an all volunteer force. Promoted to Colonel he commanded the “Golden Brigade” of the 82nd Airborne. When he became Chief of Staff for the 101st Airborne he was promoted to Brigadier General, the rank he would retire at when he left the army in 1983.
Following his retirement General Dawkins became a partner for the Wall Street Firm Lehman Brothers, then Vice-Chairman of Bain and Company, before becoming Chairman and CEO of Primerica.
In 1988 the Republican Party in New Jersey selected General Dawkins to oppose Frank Lautenberg in the race for United States Senator. Dawkins would lose, 54% to 46%.
He also happened to be the Heisman Trophy winner as college football’s best player in 1958. Even more astonishing is his decision to end his athletic career and serve his country as a soldier in the United States Army. It’s not very often that being the best college football player is an after-thought in an individuals life. But Dawkins is no ordinary individual.
Pete Dawkins is a hero in and outside of the sporting world.
Below is a look at the other Heisman Trophy Winners to not play in the NFL:
Beginning with the first winner, Jay Berwanger, who despite being the #1 pick in the first NFL Draft in 1936, chose not to sign with George Halas’ Chicago Bears due to Halas falling $1500 short in his salary offer for the University of Chicago Graduate. Berwanger later admitted that he made a mistake to not accept the Bears offer.
The second winner, Larry Kelley of Yale, also never played a down in the NFL. It’s interesting to note that Kelley was the first winner of the “Heisman Trophy”, owning to the fact it wasn’t called the “Heisman Trophy” when Berwanger won it in 1936 (It was called the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy).
The third winner, another Yale graduate, never played in the NFL. Clint Frank went into the advertising business, eventually becoming owner and president of Price, Robinson, and Frank Advertising Agency. He did interrupt his business career to serve in the United States Army Air Corp during World War II, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel as an aid to Jimmy Doolittle. This means that it wasn’t until the 4th recipient, Davey O’Brien of TCU in 1938, that a Heisman Trophy winner played in the NFL.
1939 winner famously said in his Heisman acceptance speech, “I would like, if I may, to make a comment which I think is appropriate at this time. I thank God that I was born to the gridirons of the middle west and not to the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the football players of this country would rather fight for the Heisman Trophy than for the Croix de Guerre.” The irony of course is that Ensign Nile Kinnick would die when his Grumman F4F Wildcat would go down in the Pacific while he was serving on the USS Lexington during World War II. His impact was summed up by Iowa play by play announcer Tait Cummins, “Kinnick proved one thing, that college athletics could be beautiful. Everything that can be said that is good about college athletics he was. He didn’t represent it…he was it.”
1945 winner, Army’s Doc Blanchard, tried to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Army wouldn’t release him from his military commitment. Blanchard became a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force, eventually flying 114 missions during the Vietnam War before retiring as a Colonel in 1971.
1951 winner, Dick Kazmaier would be the next Heisman winner to askew a NFL career. A graduate of Princeton, he chose to attend Harvard Business School instead. Among his many accomplishments, before his death in 2013, were director of the Red Cross, a member of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations, and a three year enlistment in the United States Navy (1955-1957).
Two years after Pete Dawkins won the Heisman Trophy, Navy’s Joe Bellino earned the honor. Due to his 5-year commitment to the Navy he did not start professional football until 1966. He chose to play for the Boston Patriots of the AFL and would end his career before the merger of the NFL and AFL. So technically he never played in the NFL.
1961 recipient Ernie Davis’ failure to play in the NFL was another tragic circumstance. Drafted #1 out of Syracuse by the Washington Redskins, he refused to sign, due to the Redskins racial policies, and forced a trade to the Cleveland Browns. The Cleveland Fans could only fantasize about a backfield of Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. It was not to be…after signing a $80,000 contract he was diagnosed with leukemia and would pass away in 1963 without playing a down in the NFL.
It would be 32 years later before 1993 Heisman winner, Florida State’s Charlie Ward, would choose the NBA over the NFL, and go on to an 11 year basketball career as a guard for the New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets.
Next on the list was 2001 winner Eric Crouch out of Nebraska. A quarterback in college, he was drafted as a wide receiver by the Los Angeles Rams in the 2002 NFL draft. Crouch wanted to play quarterback, but the NFL didn’t see him as a quarterback. He injured his leg before playing a down, and his NFL career was over.
Oklahoma’s Jason White won the Heisman in 2003, but was not selected in the 2004 NFL draft. He was given a free agent tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs, who chose not to sign him. The Tennessee Titans would sign him as as an undrafted free agent in 2005 for two years, but he would never play in the NFL.
That makes 12 out of the of the 81 (15%) Heisman Trophy winners didn’t play in the NFL. Will Kyler Murray be the 13th? It’s not certain, Bo Jackson famously chose baseball over football after his Heisman win in 1985, but later played for the Oakland Raiders as a “hobby”. It’s been very rare for a Heisman Trophy winner the choose not to play football since Pete Dawkins decision in 1958, but not unheard of. Let’s see what Kyler Murray ultimately decides.