'I didn't want to give it up'

Updated: December 15, 2003, 9:36 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The knee wouldn't bend any farther. The pain told Jason White his leg had endured enough. But the doctors kept pushing, the rehab assistants kept bending. They broke through scar tissue, they pressed through blood.

"It felt like it was going to blow up," White said. "Enough was enough."

Jason White
Some wondered if Jason White deserved the Heisman after OU's stumble down the stretch.

But he never spoke up. He thought about throwing in the towel, he thought about benching the stupid dream of returning to the football field after not one, but two torn ACLs. But he never did.

And Saturday night, in front of some of the greatest college football players ever, his perseverance was rewarded, as White became the 69th winner of the Heisman Memorial Trophy.

"Hell yeah, it makes it worth it," the Oklahoma quarterback said of all the pain-filled days he endured. "I never thought I'd get a Heisman out of it. Heck, if I knew this was part of the deal, I'd do it again."

Some 1,500 miles away, sitting on his couch in his Norman, Okla., home, Jim Hillis couldn't help but let out a wall-rattling holler when White's name was called. Hillis, OU's rehabilitation coordinator, was the one who bent the knee, the one who pushed White to his physical limits in hopes of regaining all flexibility.

"I am thrilled. I am absolutely beside myself," an out-of-breath Hillis said via phone minutes after Saturday night's announcement. "Nobody could be more deserving."

For a reward considered by many the most recognizable in all of sports, White's story may be its best. A year ago, barely able to walk, he sat on his living room couch and watched USC quarterback Carson Palmer win the honor. He wondered what it'd be like to be in New York for such a ceremony, but immediately dismissed the idea of ever reaching such heights.

His goals entering this season? Just make it through an entire year. Healthy.

"And if I did my job, didn't make any mistakes and helped the team win, that'd be a bonus," he said.

Even his coach, Bob Stoops, was unsure of what to expect. At Big 12 Media Day in July, it was Stoops who commented, "You don't need the best quarterback in the country to win a national championship."

No? How about the best football player?

"When you come from nowhere to be the leading candidate for this award," Stoops said, "And then you add his entire story to the mix -- I don't care where you're from or who you cheer for -- it doesn't get much better than that."

White, who grew up in tiny Tuttle, Okla. (population 4,300), told his Mom as a toddler that someday they were going to paint his name on the village water tower. At 16, he insisted, "If somebody else doesn't put it up there, I will."

That may not be necessary. If anybody's worthy of having his or her name on the water tower, it's got to be the local Heisman Trophy winner.

On Saturday, it wasn't hard to spot the small-town boy in the big-city lights. As White sat on the stage during the ceremony, waiting for Downtown Athletic Club President Jim Corcoran to read his name, he barely moved. He looked straight ahead, staring at a television camera in the back of the room and as Corcoran said, "The winner is ..." White held his breath. And swallowed. The next thing he heard was, "Jason White."

"When I heard my name, it was a rush unlike I've ever felt before," White said. "I thought Larry (Fitzgerald) was going to win."

White beat Fitzgerald, the Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald by 128 points. Fitzgerald appeared to be hurt by a late-season lost to Miami, which cost the Panthers a share of the Big East title. Representatives from the Downtown Athletic Club as well as the accounting firm Deloitte and Touche said that almost 40 percent of the ballots came in the week after the loss, and the majority of the votes went to White.

That meant the majority of votes were tabulated before Oklahoma's 35-7 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game Dec. 6.

The nation's top-rated passer, White led the third-ranked Sooners to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game. Only the loss to the Wildcats squashed talk about the 2003 Sooners being one of the greatest college teams ever.

He completed 265 of 414 passes for 3,744 yards and a staggering 5:1 touchdown to interception ratio. And yet when the season started, White was the team's No. 1 question mark. He name wasn't found on anyone's Heisman list. Not even his own.

"I wouldn't have put myself anywhere," he said. "Not even in the top 100."

Not one day was the comeback easy. Torn ACL No. 2 was more painful, more trying than the first. Though he had been through the process before, he questioned why he was going through it again. What if it just wasn't meant to be?

All along the way, Hillis kept him positive.

"Everybody goes through it," Hillis said. "You have your good days and your bad. But we took the mentality that we were going to fight this battle every single day. I'd encourage him to keep fighting the battle, keep fighting the battle. And he responded. He never gave up."

Much like the addiction that plagues young golfers after they solidly crush the white ball down a fairway for the first time, White was pushed by getting back on the field.

"I wanted that feeling again," he said. "I didn't want to give it up."

His story is similar to that of fellow Sooner Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims. Sims missed much of his freshman and sophomore years due to injury, only to come back as a junior in 1978 and win the award.

Sims, sitting in the front row Saturday, yelled out "Boomer," to which White replied, "Sooner" as soon as the senior stepped to the podium.

After the ceremony, Sims grabbed White in a side room and said, "I've got something for you."

It was a football autographed by each of the 12 Heisman winners in attendance Saturday night. "You get to add your name to this now," Sims said.

"Not a problem," White said. "I'd be glad too."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com