McSorley, Barkley Generate Heisman Hype Like Nothing Penn State’s Seen Before
At this point, it’s common knowledge among Penn State fans that their team’s star quarterback and running back are both serious Heisman Trophy contenders.
The sheer amount of excitement surrounding Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley raises the obvious question, “Has any Penn State duo ever generated this much Heisman hype?”
John Cappelletti – 1973
It’s only natural to start to answer a question like this with the only Penn State player to ever win the Heisman, and the only one to have his number (22) retired. Though Cappelletti was a running back by trade, he played his first varsity season as a defensive back, mostly because then-seniors Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell already dominated the workload on offense.
Cappelletti enjoyed a breakout junior year, though, rushing for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions to a 10-2 record. As a senior, the Philadelphia native led Penn State to a perfect 12-0 season and a 16-9 Orange Bowl victory over LSU.
Cappelletti’s younger brother, Joey, was diagnosed with childhood leukemia at the age of 3, tragically passing away in 1976 at 14. A TV movie based on their story was released the following year. During his Heisman acceptance speech, Cappelletti was brought to tears as he credited Joey — one of the first cancer patients to undergo chemotherapy — for inspiring him with his constant bravery in the face of such a terrible disease.
As for the trophy itself, Cappelletti’s large margin of victory was surprising to many, including the New York Times. “No player seemed to stand so much above the others as did…past Heisman Trophy winners,” it printed. Joe Paterno, however, once described him as the best player he had ever coached. Cappelletti spent nine years in the NFL with the Rams and Chargers.
Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter – 1994
Kerry Collins’ journeyman pro tenure is best known for his Super Bowl appearance with the New York Giants in 2000, a 23-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. As a college quarterback, Collins proved to be one of the nation’s top Heisman contenders as a senior, piloting the 1994 Nittany Lion offense to an emphatic 38-20 Rose Bowl win over Oregon.
In the buildup to that historic campaign, Collins was hardly considered a favorite for the most storied individual prize in college football. He would finish fourth in the final Heisman vote, instead capturing the prestigious Maxwell and Davey O’Brien Awards.
Somehow, he wasn’t even seen as the best “Collins” in college football heading into the season, with Michigan’s Todd Collins (no relation) touted as the more polished signal caller of the two. Kerry threw for over 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior in 1993, while Todd racked up 2,509 yards and 17 touchdowns for the Wolverines. The following year, Kerry gained bragging rights over Todd, edging him out in passing yards (2,679 to 2,518), touchdowns (21 to 13), and the final Heisman tally. Todd didn’t even make the top 10.
Collins may not have been the best player on Penn State that season, though. Running back Ki-Jana Carter finished in second place for the Heisman behind Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam. Of the top six vote-getters, which included eventual NFL stars Steve McNair and Warren Sapp, only Carter was projected to be a Heisman candidate during the preseason. He ran for 1,026 yards and seven touchdowns the year prior, building up his Heisman resume early.
Carter’s hand injury against Temple as a senior almost derailed his Heisman hopes, but he recovered in time to have an incredible season, rushing for over 1,500 yards and scoring 23 total touchdowns. Before now, no Penn State star has generated as much Heisman buzz as Carter during the summer.
Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley – 2017
A Google search of “Trace McSorley” or “Saquon Barkley Heisman” will instantly bring up thousands of takes on why either player could win the award. Sports Illustrated’s recent feature on Barkley and Fox Sports’ five reasons why McSorley will win the Heisman are just two examples.
The expectations surrounding both will reach astronomical proportions by the time Sept. 2 against Akron rolls around. Who knows? A few years down the road, we may very well refer to McSorley and Barkley’s Penn State legacy as the stuff of legends. An unforgettable 2016 was the beginning of a special ride. We’ll see where it leads next this fall.