The 2005 Heisman Trophy battle was essentially a three-way race between Texas quarterback Vince Young and USC’s Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. In the end, Bush won the Heisman, Young finished second in the balloting, and Leinart came in a relatively distant third. Fittingly, the trio met on the field in the 2006 Rose Bowl to conclude the season and crown a national champion, a game that the Trojans led 38–33 until the final seconds of the game. (Let’s go ahead and watch what happened on fourth and 5 one more time, in case you’ve forgotten how it ended.)
Bush earned the Heisman, Young earned the National Championship, and both players went on to enjoy NFL careers that were alternatingly spectacular and disappointing. By the end of the 2010 season, Young had lost his job with the Tennessee Titans and began several years as a backup journeyman quarterback. Bush, in 2010, lost something else: the Heisman, which he was forced to vacate upon allegations that he had received gifts from a sports agent during his college career, which the NCAA forbids.
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That’s all ancient history at this point, but a new wrinkle unfolded on Wednesday when Bush made an appearance on ESPN’s Pat McAfee Show and shared a previously untold story about the chaotic period during which his award was vacated:
— Vince Young (@VinceYoung10) June 24, 2020
After the trophy was vacated, Bush explained, the Heisman Trophy Trust (which presents the award) offered it to Young as the runner-up in 2005. Young refused, however. The story, Bush said, was on his mind because he’d just done an interview with former Longhorns coach Mack Brown for his Fox Sports show. “Mack Brown said that Vince came to him and told him that they had basically offered him the Heisman Trophy, and he was going to turn it down,” Bush recalled. “Vince—Texas—they just beat us in the National Championship, so he had every right to be like, ‘Why not, I just beat them? This is my time to take what’s rightfully mine.’ But that’s why I appreciate Vince—because even in that moment, he wasn’t a sucker.”
The push to force Bush to surrender the trophy was controversial. Players on the mid-aughts USC football team may have received cash and gifts that fall outside of NCAA rules. A league investigation led to serious sanctions against the program for rules violations. But the enforcement of those rules is built around forcing players to submit to an exploitative system. Whatever money Bush or the Trojans may have received from agents didn’t grant him extra rushing yards, or make his team look less impressive. (Vince Young, on fourth and 5 in the 2006 Rose Bowl, did that himself. Here, let’s watch it again!)
Young was asked about the Heisman in 2010, after Bush’s trophy was vacated—affirming that the story Bush heard from Mack Brown was, in fact, true: “Why would I want it?” Young asked, posting on Twitter at the time that “Reg will continue to be the 2005 Award recipient and I will continue to be honored to have been in the 2005 Heisman campaign with such a talented athlete.” Even so, college sports pundits declared that the award actually belonged to Young.
Young recognized that that wasn’t the case, and handled the situation with class and integrity. In 2010, in the midst of a career that saw him ostracized from the league in ways familiar to anyone who’d followed the NFL’s approach to black quarterbacks, being awarded a belated Heisman would probably have been meaningful to Young. But what happened on the field in 2005 happened, regardless of NCAA rules that look increasingly antiquated and exploitative.
Bush won the 2005 Heisman. Vince Young had enough respect for his competitor, himself, and the game that he didn’t let the NCAA put him in the middle of an ugly public relations battle. His career might have turned out to be a messy one, but he can look back on that decision with pride.