Once Heisman foes, Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson go into Pro Football Hall of Fame together
CANTON, Ohio — Peyton Manning, donning a black suit and gold tie, reached over to shake Charles Woodson’s hand.
To that point, they had shared the spotlight. But in a flash it became Woodson’s moment.
So Manning, the Tennessee Vols quarterback, graciously moved to the background — smiling politely but sorely disappointed.
It was Dec. 17, 1997, when Woodson, the Michigan cornerback, beat out Manning for the Heisman Trophy. Or, it was what former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer called the night the “Heisman Trophy’s validity was destroyed.”
It’s still a sore subject with the Vols. So why bring it up almost 24 years later? A similar scene at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Friday night was reason enough.
Manning replaced that gold tie for a gold jacket, presented by father Archie. He applauded Woodson, just as he did in 1997. And Woodson did the same for Manning.
Manning and Woodson are members of the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction class, connected by that controversial Heisman moment and still linked after their NFL careers.
They took part in the gold jacket ceremony Friday and will be enshrined together on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NFL Network). Unlike that first ceremony, this one features a happy ending for both players.
'Great player, great player'
Amid a scrum of reporters and autograph-seekers Friday, someone shouted a question to Manning about Woodson.
“Great player, great player,” Manning responded and then walked away.
Well, what else could he say? And he’s right.
Woodson retired in 2015 with an NFL-record-tying 13 defensive touchdowns, 65 interceptions (fifth most in history), nine Pro Bowl selections and a Super Bowl ring in 18 seasons. He’s one of the greatest cornerbacks of all time.
Similarly, Manning is among the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He also played 18 seasons with 14 Pro Bowl selections, five NFL MVP awards and two Super Bowl rings. He retired as the NFL’s all-time passer, later surpassed by Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Their excellence as NFL players brought a new level of appreciation to that Heisman debate because they’re both great — and even more than previously thought.
Heisman class meets again in Canton
Woodson is the 10th Heisman Trophy to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He joins Doak Walker (SMU, 1948 Heisman winner), Paul Hornung (Notre Dame, 1956), Roger Staubach (Navy, 1963), O.J. Simpson (USC, 1968), Tony Dorsett (Pitt, 1976), Earl Campbell (Texas, 1977), Marcus Allen (USC, 1981), Tim Brown (Notre Dame, 1987) and Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State, 1988).
Manning finished second in that 1997 Heisman voting, garnering 1,543 points to Woodson’s 1,815. Randy Moss, a 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, placed fourth behind Ryan Leaf.
Ricky Williams, who tied Curtis Enis for fifth in Heisman voting, rushed for more than 10,000 yards in the NFL. Multiple suspensions for violation of the NFL drug policy shortened his career and kept him from a chance at Hall of Fame induction.
Nevertheless, he added to an already historically talented 1997 Heisman class.
At least Manning lost Heisman to an all-time great
Manning could take solace that he lost the Heisman Trophy to one of the best players in history rather than a one-hit wonder who flopped in the NFL.
Perhaps, he does see it that way. But old wounds among Vols don’t heal easily, even if they’ve tried to move on.
Fulmer and Trey Teague, Manning’s college roommate, plan to attend the enshrinement ceremony. Their opinion about that Heisman race hasn't changed since 1997.
“It’s in the past, so it’s pointless to hold on to any animosity about it now,” said Teague, a former Tennessee and NFL offensive lineman. “I still don’t know all the reasons they did that. I just know they didn’t choose the guy they typically would choose for the Heisman Trophy.”
Fulmer added: “You can’t necessarily take anything away from Woodson. He was a great player and had a great career. But I think it was dead wrong.”
Reach Adam Sparks at email@example.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.