The ball was never supposed to come to him. It was the first play of Lamar Jackson’s college football career, a trick formation that ended in a broken play and had Jackson scurrying away from trouble.
The Louisville quarterback heaved up a prayer. All he got back was condemnation.
“Throwing an interception, that was on my mind the whole time,” he said. “I still think about that sometimes. My first pass was an interception, and now I’m here.”
“Here” is the history books. Jackson, a 19-year-old sophomore, became the youngest winner of the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night at the Times Square Marriott Marquis.
A favorite since the beginning, he earned 2,144 points, besting his only real competition — Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (1,524) — by a large margin. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was third, Sooners wide receiver Dede Westbrook was fourth and Michigan utilityman Jabrill Peppers was fifth.
Jackson is the first Cardinal to win the honor.
“I almost cried,” he said about hearing his name called. “I never get emotional, but to have my name called and sitting next to great players . . . I’m happy right now. I’m not even going to lie. I don’t even know what to say.”
Jackson, who won the Maxwell Award — given to the best college football player in the nation — earlier in the week, was responsible for 51 touchdowns, an ACC record. He also edged Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston as the young est recipient. Winston also was 19 when he won the Heisman in 2013, but Jackson was born Jan. 7 and Winston was born Jan. 6.
Jackson passed for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns and added 1,538 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground.
Jackson is the first Division I football player to have at least 1,500 rushing yards and 3,300 passing yards in a single season.
In his speech, he thanked Jesus, his coaches and his mother. Though he had comments prepared, he said his words “started coming from the heart.” A number of times, he seemed to snap himself back to reality, stopping his short speech to repeat, “It’s crazy.”
And though he insisted before the ceremony that he wasn’t nervous, it turns out that the moments before the announcement were a different story. “For some reason, my chest started pumping very hard,” he said. “My heart started racing.”
Any doubt was unfounded. Jackson was the overwhelming favorite in Week 1, but his cachet dropped slightly as the season continued. The major knock against Jackson was his performance in the final two games of the season as Louisville played itself right out of a College Football Playoff berth. He had three interceptions in a 36-10 loss to Houston and got upset by Kentucky, 41-38.
Watson led Clemson to three straight victories and beat Louisville earlier in the season, 42-36. For his efforts, the Tigers head to the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State on New Year’s Eve. It will be Clemson’s second straight playoff appearance.
Watson, a junior, finished third for the Heisman last year. He passed for 3,914 yards and 34 touchdowns and added six rushing touchdowns and 529 yards. This was his last chance; he’s graduating this semester.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino had no doubt that the right player had won.
“I was very nervous,” he said. “I want you to know how proud I am of Lamar . . . He did a tremendous job of being a leader for our football team and I feel like he definitely deserves it.”
After processing the victory for a few moments, Jackson was reminded of that Auburn game — the first of his career. His mother spoke to him after that. Felicia Jones was pivotal in her son’s introduction to football, staged tackling drills in their backyard and raised him alone after his father died.
“She mentioned the interception” after that game, he said. “I said, ‘What about the good things I did?’ [She said] ‘You did all right.’ It motivated me to come back even harder.”
The Heisman will find its permanent place in her home, Jackson said — a perpetual testament that this mother knew best.