The two steps backward, to inside Michigan’s 8-yard line, were the tell: Desmond Howard was going to return it. Once he caught Ohio State’s punt and headed upfield, he was committed.
“If I get tackled anywhere from the 20-yard line in,” Howard would recall years later, “Coach Moeller is going to be hotter than fish grease.”
It’s Nov. 23, 1991, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, 30 years ago, and Michigan leads Ohio State, 17-3, in the second quarter in Ann Arbor. Howard is about to put the capstone on a Heisman Trophy-winning season with what is arguably the most memorable touchdown celebration in college football history.
As he sprinted down the left side, in front of the Ohio State bench, Howard cleared the last Buckeye, punter Tim Williams, and ABC’s Keith Jackson punctuated the moment on TV: “Hello, Heisman!”
“Everything just happened like a script from a movie,” Howard recalls now to The Sporting News’ Bill Bender. “You couldn’t have scripted it better, especially with Keith Jackson being the voice narrating the actual play. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
How far away do you suppose the 106,156 that late fall day at Michigan Stadium could be heard? How many more than 106,156 might’ve by today claimed they were there?
Howard, ball in his left hand, his right arm stretched upward, right index finger signaling No. 1, crossed the goal line, decelerating, angling across the end zone and then …
So relatively quick were the Heisman poses — yes, poses, once after crossing the goal line and again just before teammates swarmed him under — that Michigan coach Gary Moeller missed it from his sideline, College Football Insider Ivan Maisel wrote in the Dec. 2, 1991, issue of The Sporting News:
When asked about it in the joyous atmosphere of (a 31-7) victory, Moeller dismissed it.
“One of my players wouldn’t do something like that,” he said.
“Howard said he had promised his parents he would do something special if he scored a touchdown,” Maisel continued. “As if the punt return, a Michigan record accomplished largely without help from his teammates, wasn’t special enough.”
Five pages later, The Sporting News’ Heisman Watch assessed his chances: “Howard … has the points and the pose down. Now all he needs is the presentation.”
Hold that thought because a Heisman-winning season isn’t built on one play, one pose or two, even if Maisel, a voter, admitted he might’ve been ready to pick Howard by mid-September (more on that from Maisel in moment).
A Heisman is won step by step, electrifying afternoon by electrifying afternoon, starting with Michigan’s opener against Boston College on Sept. 7, after which The Sporting News, in the Sept. 16 issue, not only named Howard its Offensive Player of the Week but also teed up a season-long storyline in the first six words:
Desmond Howard entered the Heisman battle with four TDs, including a 93-yard kickoff return, in his team’s 35-13 victory over Boston College. He had seven catches for 86 yards and became the third Michigan player to catch three TD passes in a game, joining Ron Kramer (1955) and Greg McMurtry (1989). Still, it will be difficult for anyone to catch David Klingler in the Heisman race. “I can’t touch him,” Howard said. “He may throw another nine TDs next time he plays.”
A week later, however, Klingler — the QB who had been on The Sporting News’ 1991 college football preview issue under the headline, “LONE STAR: Houston’s trigger man David Klingler takes aim at the Heisman” — had dropped from No. 1 in TSN’s Heisman Watch to No. 5, his hopes sacked: “The Houston quarterback had no time to blink, much less find his receivers (in a 40-10 loss) against Miami. His bid for the Heisman will be hurt, if not totally devastated.”
That same Heisman Watch, in the Sept. 23 issue, had Howard at No. 2, behind Miami WR Kevin Williams, but dubbed Howard “the odds-on favorite for the Heisman, if only because Miami has several Desmond Howards, which makes it hard to choose.”
Howard had stamped himself a legit trophy contender in Week 2 with two more TDs against visiting Notre Dame, the more notable one on a diving catch in back of the end zone on fourth-and-1 for a 25-yard touchdown against the No. 7 Fighting Irish to clinch a 24-14 victory.
On the 25th anniversary of “The Catch,” TSN’s Bender wrote in 2016:
“Timing is everything.”
That’s the phrase Desmond Howard almost always uses when he describes “The Catch,” the play that launched his Heisman Trophy campaign at Michigan on Sept. 14, 1991.
That echoed Maisel’s assessment, while explaining his Heisman vote in the Dec. 16 issue of The Sporting News:
Des-mania began sweeping the nation September 14, when Michigan split end Desmond Howard’s beautiful diving catch of Elvis Grbac’s fourth-down, 25-yard touchdown pass sealed the Wolverines’ 24-14 victory over Notre Dame.
But no way should any voter make up his mind before the season ends. Right?
So (now) I’m voting for Desmond Howard. Forget the wondrous stats. When he finished the 93-yard punt return for a touchdown against Ohio State by striking a Heisman pose, Howard displayed a sense of humor as sharp as the moves he makes. Howard winked at the nation. We should wink back.
Days later, on Dec. 17, a pertinent slice of the nation did just that; Heisman voters winked back at Howard, the 1991 trophy was his.
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