I couldn't care less who wins the Heisman. Oh, I really do like sports, but what interests me more is the process by which the meaning of words and expressions can change over short periods of time, and especially the contribution of the popular media to the destruction of meaning altogether. So when I hear an advertisement on ESPN that promises the Heisman winner will "transcend greatness and become a legend," my ears prick up. Say, what? "Transcend greatness"? Actually, I was going to say that when I hear this kind of shit it feels like someone just poured boiling lead into my ears, but that would be hyperbole, wouldn't it? Anyway, there is nothing new about sports hype. Remember how many coaching "geniuses" we had not so long ago?
As an admittedly mere mortal, my main question is, do athletes really become "legends" before they make their mark in the pros? Pop quiz: How many college "legends" didn't last even 5 years in the NFL? Can't remember them all? Let's put it another way. Think of NFL greats you really would confer "legend" status on. How many of these guys won the Heisman before they were drafted? After asking a few questions like those myself, I found some of them echoed, and answered, in "Heisman Is No Key to NFL Glory: Why do so few winners make it in the pros?" by Allen Barra, Opinion Journal, December 6, 2007. Here's a couple more from Barra's article: Who was the last Heisman-winning QB to win a Super Bowl ring? (Hint: It's been a while.) What percentage of Heisman winners have gone on to MVP status in the NFL in the last 50 years?
Okay, it's fair to say there are a lot of reasons a truly remarkable athlete might not have a legendary career, as Barra points out in his article--injuries, being stuck on mediocre teams, even while putting up phenomenal numbers--so there's no reason to expect one can reliably use the little statue as a predictor of a truly memorable future. But that's not my point. Or maybe it is exactly my point, which is, what does "legend" actually mean, anyway, when it's applied so early in life and, when all is said and done, in such a small arena? Alexander the Great was a legend in his own time, but then he conquered most of the world known to the Greeks of the period, and even he didn't get started in earnest until he was 20. Moreover, is "greatness" now such a deflated concept that it must be transcended in order to satisfy the media's imperative to anoint? So what will we be hearing next year, then? Transcend legend and become... what?... God?