Heisman party crasher knows the odds, has beaten them before

It was still almost two weeks before Heisman Trophy ballots were due, and though his family certainly knew of the possibilities and the discussion that Jordan Lynch would end up a Heisman finalist, there was no clearing of a calendar or planning of attire.

Jim Lynch didn’t really think much about the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City until he saw Jordan tossing the football  around for a bunch of kidsd in Mt. Greenwood, Illinois. On the day before Thanksgiving, the night after Northern Illinois completed an unbeaten regular season, the school’s record-breaking quarterback rested for all of about 20 minutes upon returning home before he went outside to play football with his younger brother.  

Jim, Jordan’s father, had no idea how any of the 929 Heisman voters might eventually vote; besides the former winners, he wasn’t even sure who any of those voters were. But he looked out the window towards his driveway and saw something that made him realize that, yes, there was a chance that all of this might really be happening.

He saw kids from the neighborhood  — friends of his youngest son, Justin — smiling widely.  He saw two of them share a  high-five, one proudly telling the other he’d just caught a pass from a guy who was going to be up for the Heisman.

“The little guys are always around, and they’ve always kind of looked up to Jordan,” Jim Lynch said. “I think this last time there were more of them. I heard them whispering ‘Heisman’. They were nervous at the front door, and their eyes were wide open when he came out.”

The Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award, will be awarded this Saturday night. There are six finalists.

Jordan Lynch is one of them, becoming the first Mid-American Conference Player to receive a finalist invitation since 1999. Though Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is considered the strong favorite to win the Heisman, Lynch could produce the best finish ever by a MAC player, topping the fourth-place finish by Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss in 1997.

“I’m going there to win,” Lynch said on Tuesday.  

For a MAC player to be invited to the Heisman ceremony in a year with a clear favorite at a flagship program in Winston, last year’s winner in Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and name-brand quarterbacks at Alabama, Oregon Clemson, Ohio State and other big-name programs that had great years, that player has to be darn near impossible to ignore.

That’s Lynch. Northern Illinois lost in the MAC Championship Game last Friday, marking just his third loss in two years as a starter. He needs 119 rushing yards to become the first player in NCAA-FBS history to run and throw for 2,000 yards in the same season. He produced 46 total touchdowns and over 300 yards of offense in 11 of 13 games, averaging 351, and the only times he didn’t crack 300, he spent the fourth quarter on the sideline due to a lopsided score.

First-year Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said all season that if Lynch wasn’t a legitimate Heisman candidate, he didn’t know who was. On Monday afternoon, Carey got to call Lynch, ask if he had any plans for the weekend and tell him he was free to spread the word that he’d be going to New York.

“I think it’s something you go ahead and relish because we have a really good thing here at NIU,” Carey said. “I think all this gets (us) on a stage where sometimes we’re not (and) now we have been fortunate in the last year to be on. It gets us on that stage and can get our name out there and I think that’s a good thing for our university, our students, our community, and obviously in this case Jordan.

“He’s a heck of a player and he deserves to be out there. We’re certainly proud of him for that, and for our team.”

Back in 2009, Scout.com listed Lynch as a two-star prospect, the 137th best quarterback prospect nationally and the second-best quarterback committed to Northern Illinois. He was listed very generously then at 6’2, 205, but it wasn’t just his size that had college coaches hesistant to offer him. He was an option quarterback in high school, a runner first and a runner second.

He’d insisted that he would be a quarterback, and he says now that even the head coach who signed him at NIU, Jerry Kill, almost moved him to safety during his first fall camp because there were so many quarterbacks on the roster. But Lynch stayed at quarterback, learned and worked as he waited his turn behind Chandler Harnish, and he followed an incredible 2012 season with a better one in 2013.

The 137th-ranked quarterback in the class of 2009 is a Heisman finalist. Really.

“To be mentioned for the Heisman Trophy, that’s a dream come true for anybody,” Sheila Lynch, Jordan’s mother, said. “I know he’s thrilled about it, too, but he’ll never show it. Anytime I bring up any honor or any award, he just says he’s excited about the next game.”

Sheila Lynch remembers the long drives and long summer days on the camp circuit. They’d driven from Iowa City to Athens, Ohio and made dozens of stops in between while Jordan tried to prove he was not just a football player but a quarterback. A few schools called back, and Purdue showed a lot of interest, but Northern Illinois was the only to offer him the chance to play quarterback.

Lynch was a running back until he enrolled at Mt. Carmel High School in Chicago, and only a few weeks into practice his freshman year he was moved to quarterback.

“He came home from practice and told me he was going to be a quarterback,” Jim Lynch said. “I thought he was kidding, but he worked at it. He said, ‘Dad, this option thing can work. In this offense, the quarterback is the running back.'”

Said Jordan last month: “If you really think about it, this is my fourth year playing quarterback. I played quarterback in high school but we ran the triple option. We only threw it four times a game.”

Jim Lynch laughs, insisting his son earned the trust of Mt. Carmel coaching legend Frank Lenti and by the time he was a senior, earned the right to throw it more than four times a game.

“But definitely not more than eight,” he said.

Lenti told recruiters that Lynch was the toughest player he’d ever coached. That didn’t change a bunch of opinions — many Big Ten and MAC programs saw him as a safety or wanted him as a walk-on quarterback —  but it resonated at Northern Illinois. P.J. Fleck, who just finished his first season as head coach at Western Michigan and was Northern Illinois recruiting coordinator then.

“If Frank Lenti tells someone that you have to take him, then you take him,” Fleck said. “And that’s what Jerry Kill did. We all kind of looked at the tape and said, ‘He’s an awesome football player.’ But, at the time, Jordan wasn’t the most polished passer.”

The week before Mt. Carmel won its 12th state title last month, Lynch spoke to Mt. Carmel quarterback Marko Boricich on the phone to offer encouragement. The idea was Lynch’s; he got Boricich’s number by calling Lenti and asking for it.

He prioritizes being a big brother to Justin and on a different level to the young players across the Northern Illinois depth chart this season. They’re better because of the way he pushed them in the summer, when the coaching staff isn’t allowed to be around, and because they’re always trying to match his level of intensity and preparation.

“I don’t want it to sound like bragging, but to see Jordan deal with everything, handle himself the way he does and stay so steady, I guess we raised him right,” Sheila Lynch said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s respectful. Now, he’s a character. And I know he can still act like a little kid at times, but he’s a very nice young man and we’re very proud of him. We’d be very proud even if it wasn’t for all this attention football has brought him.”

Said Harnish, who’s now with the Indianapolis Colts: “For as good a player as Jordan is, he’s a better person. I couldn’t be prouder to know him or of what he’s done for Northern Illinois.”

This season, Lynch is the nation’s second-leading rusher with 1,881 yards, behind only fellow Heisman finalist Andre Williams of Boston College and 260 yards ahead of another Heisman finalist, Auburn’s Tre Mason. A two-time MAC MVP, Lynch is also a finalist for the Manning Quarterback Award, the Senior CLASS Award and the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.  

He’s the fifth player ever to run for 20 touchdowns and throw 20 touchdown passes in a season. Over the last two seasons, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 48 to 13. He’s learned to throw it a little bit and he’s won a lot.

Northern Illinois lost Lynch’s first college start in last year’s opener to Iowa, but the Huskies won the next 12 and a second-straight MAC title. They became the first MAC team to qualify for a BCS bowl, advancing to the Orange Bowl against Florida State.

Watching him warm up for the Orange Bowl and soaking in the atmosphere, Jim Lynch said, “was the best time of our life. There’s a pretty high standard to even get a shot as a Div. I quarterback, and even when it looked like he might not get that chance, Jordan never wavered. He’s tackled every challenge with amazing drive and work ethic.”

This weekend, the family is getting back on a plane for a football-related trip. More memories await.  

“It’s overwhelming, it’s surreal, it’s a million (things) tough to explain,” Jim Lynch said. “Our son having a shot at the Heisman Trophy? I don’t know what else to say.”