KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before you weep for No. 7, we offer up this story:
It’s spring 2012, and Kristin Waller’s voicemail is piling up. Waller is an academic counselor and life skills coordinator with the Kansas State athletic department, which means one of her major tasks is scheduling Wildcat players with the various charities and civic groups that have requested an appearance on their behalf. She aims to please, but these are busy kids, after all, and there are only so many hours in the day.
In the spring of 2011, before his breakout junior season, Waller figures she received about 25 requests for Collin Klein, the Wildcats’ dual-threat quarterback. The next year, it was 50. At least.
At one point, she remembers sitting down with Klein in her office, going over the list, trying to figure out a way to squeeze in what they could.
“We try to help them say, ‘No,’ if at all possible, so it’s not coming from the kids, and each program kind of handles their own (calendars),” Waller recalled. “As staff, as counselors, (we’re) trying to help him balance between him doing what he wants to do in terms of giving back, and what he has (time for).”
And this is the part that always cracks Waller up, the reason Collin Klein manages to make her smile and drives her up a wall at the same time: He won’t say it. He won’t say, ‘No.’
“You know,” Klein tells her, “I want to do what I can. I want to be able to help, and do what I can, however I can, whatever it may be.'”
“Just a quality kid, a quality person,” Waller said. “Very admirable, I think, how he approaches day-to-day tasks, be it football, academics, life, and now marriage.”
Every year, the Heisman Trophy is presented to, as defined in the Heisman Trust Mission Statement, “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” In other words, it’s one of the most traditionally subjective honors in one of the most traditionally subjective sports in America.
The terms “outstanding,” “excellence” and “integrity,” are defined in black-and-white terms, absolutes, but they can also be interpreted through several shades of grey. Some years, the Heisman simply rewards the best player on the best team in the country; Some years, it honors a spectacular, record-setting season; Others, it’s presented as a lifetime achievement award, the crowning of a record-setting career.
Saturday night, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was a classic example of the first subset, while Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 winner, probably falls into that second group after rewriting the Southeastern Conference record book. Klein wound up third — and a distant third, too — in the voting, largely because he fell into neither of those first two camps.
His Wildcats were 11-1, deserved Big 12 champions, but somehow also got ambushed by a 4-5 team on the road. Klein’s numbers were stellar — 15 passing touchdowns, 22 rushing touchdowns, a campaign in which he accounted for roughly two-thirds of the Wildcats’ offensive yards — yet they paled in comparison to those strung up by Manziel, who set a new conference standard for total offense in a season (4,600) in the best football league in the land.
All the finalists were studs, but let’s face it — timing helped, too. Klein’s “Heisman moments” came in September at Oklahoma and in October at West Virginia. Manziel rolled up to Tuscaloosa in November and beat then-No. 1 Alabama at a time when the Crimson Tide had been atomizing everything in their path. The very next week, Klein graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, feted as the next chosen one. He then threw three picks at Baylor, K-State lost by 28, and the wheels were off the bandwagon for good.
More’s the pity. Since 2002, only four FBS players have rushed for 20 touchdowns and thrown for at least 15 more in a single season. Florida’s Tim Tebow Auburn’s Cam Newton, and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick were the first three; Klein is just the fourth. Since the Bowl Championship Series was formed, he was the only player from an automatic-qualifying conference to run for 10 or more touchdowns while throwing for at least 20 in multiple seasons. His 55 rushing scores are the most in K-State history. Still, even a three-touchdown performance in a regular-season finale against Texas on Dec. 1 wasn’t enough to sway the few undecided left.
“I’d say, ‘Watch the film on this game,'” fullback Braden Wilson said to prospective voters after the Wildcats’ BCS-clinching rout of the Longhorns. “We came in wanting to get him the Heisman, and I feel we might have.”
They didn’t. But so what?
Yes, it was Johnny Football’s night.
It was still Collin Klein’s year.
Before you weep for No 7, consider the journey. Here’s this gifted, bright, God-fearing, eclectic, home-schooled kid from Colorado, dropped into a college town where, for his first two years, he rarely partied, dated — or, heck, even played.
Non-football Saturdays were the worst. A nightmare.
While his friends went trolling for co-eds in Aggieville, Klein would go to a movie. Or rent one. Or head to the gym and play pick-up hoops. Or do more classwork. Or talk on the phone with his father, trying to make sense of it all.
“I can tell you right now, Collin probably talked (to me) three times a day his first year at school,” Klein’s dad, Doug, recounted. “And it was an especially hard time (from) Saturdays at 3 in the afternoon to Sunday about 5 (p.m.), when people started showing back up … and we’d talk at 9 or 10 at night, and then he’d turn the lights out. Saturdays, those were long days.”
And yet there they were Saturday in New York City, father and son, wearing matching ties and matching smiles.
“That’s a memory that you can remember for the rest of your life,” K-State wideout Tyler Lockett had allowed after the Big 12 crown was wrapped up. “You could tell people, ‘I was able to win the Heisman and I did it on this team, (where) nobody cared who got the credit — all we cared about was winning.'”
They won’t care about this one, either, once the sting finally wears off, and the focus returns to the Fiesta Bowl ahead. In the Big Apple, Collin Klein wound up No. 3, but in the Little Apple, No. 7 is No. 1. And he always will be.