Anthony Thompson, the greatest football Hoosier.
This is the second of two posts sponsored by EA Sports. Last week, I speculated about Michigan Heisman winner (and Indiana native) Tom Harmon, and how he might have changed the course of IU's football history had he joined Bo McMillin's squad in the late 1930s. This week, the charge is to argue for the most deserving player who didn't win the award. There are any number of non-IU players for whom the case could be made. I thought that Reggie Bush over Vince Young was an egregious error back when it happened, long before the scandal that resulted in Bush's award being vacated. Before I knew he would be Indiana's greatest professional athlete of all time, I hated that Peyton Manning lost to Charles Woodson. Still, even if I'm not sure that he fits the bill entirely, I'm going to use this post to make the case for Anthony Thompson, perhaps IU's greatest football player of all time and the Hoosier who came the closest to taking home the award.
Bill Mallory landed Thompson before Mal had ever taken IU to a bowl game, and Thompson's career coincided with the ascent of IU football. In 1986, IU qualified for its first bowl game in eight years, and Thompson had a fine freshman season, finishing with 679 yards and five touchdown. In 1987, the Hoosiers beat Ohio State and Michigan in the same season for the first time in school history, and Thompson played a huge role, running for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns. In his junior year, however, Thompson exploded. In 1988, Thompson ran for 1546 yards and scored 24 touchdowns. He was the Big Ten player of the year, a consensus first team all-American, and finished ninth in Heisman trophy voting. The team was playing well, too, finishing 8-3-1 with a win over South Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.
As amazing as his individual numbers were in 1988, he managed to surpass them as a senior, running for 1793 yards and 24 more touchdowns. On November 11, 1989, the Hoosiers were a disappointing 4-4 when they played Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. Thompson ran for 377 yards against Wisconsin, which then was an NCAA single game record, and which remains the fifth-best single game rushing performance of all time. The Hoosiers were over .500 and Thompson was in the thick of the Heisman race. The next week, IU lost 41-28 to a very good Illinois team, but the Hoosiers' bowl aspirations and Thompson's Heisman aspirations appeared to be in good shape. IU faced 2-8/1-6 Purdue, in the midst of its fourth consecutive losing season, at home in the finale, but the Boilermakers rose to the occasion. The Hoosiers blew a 14-3 lead and missed a 26-yard field goal that would have won the game and missed out on a bowl game for the first time in four years. Thompson ran for 97 yards, but only 36 in the second half.
In the history of the Heisman Trophy, only Notre Dame's Paul Hornung has ever won the award for a team with a losing record. It's a testament to Anthony Thompson's greatness that he came within 70 points of being the second. Thompson finished second to Andre Ware of Houston, earing 1003 points to Ware's 1073. Ware had a tremendous season (even if he did run up his stats by leading Houston to 95 points against SMU in its first post-death penalty season), so I'm not sure I can say that Thompson deserved it more than Ware, but he certainly deserved it, and probably would have won it if the Hoosiers had managed just one more win.
Thompson finished his career as the NCAA's all-time touchdown leader, won the Walter Camp award, won the Big Ten MVP award twice, and was a two-time first team All American. The Heisman remains the one that got away.
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