Legacy. Tradition. A who’s who of American sport. As the Gatorade Player of the Year program enters its fourth decade of honoring the nation’s best high school athletes, fans can count many a household name on the roster of former award-winners. Over the past three decades, prep sports’ most esteemed honor boasts Super Bowl, World Series, NBA, WNBA, MLS Cup, NCAA and Olympic champions among more than 14,000 State Players of the Year and 280 National POYs across 12 sports. Let’s not forget the scores of program alumni who have gone on to capture league-MVP, All-Star and All-American recognition.
This month, Gatorade will announce this year’s National Football Player of the Year. To get fans in the mood, we’re catching up with some of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy.
The front row at the Best Buy Theater in New York is likely to be crowded with former Gatorade Players of the Year winners the night of Dec. 12. That’s the night of the Heisman Trophy presentation, and at least three former POYs are angling for invitations to the biggest honor in college football.
With their performances over the weekend, Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson all likely wrapped up tickets to New York where they will try to become the third POY in a row (and eighth overall) to win the Heisman, following Jameis Winston in 2013 and Marcus Mariota in 2014.
Henry, a junior running back for the Crimson Tide, is the Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for 271 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 46 carries in a 29-13 Iron Bowl win over Auburn. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry leads the country with 1,797 rushing yards and 22 rushing TDs, both already school records, and is widely considered the Heisman front-runner for the No. 2 Tide.
Those numbers should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who faced Henry when he suited up for Yulee (Fla.) High. The 2012-13 Gatorade Florida Football Player of the Year, Henry rushed for a national-record 12,124 yards in his career, including 4,261 (along with 55 touchdowns) as a senior.
McCaffrey had 228 all-purpose yards in the Cardinal’s last-second, 38-36 win over Notre Dame, breaking the Pac-12 record of 2,890 yards set by Reggie Bush in 2005, when Bush won the Heisman Trophy (later vacated) for Southern Cal.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound McCaffrey enters the Pac-12 championship game against that same Southern Cal team leading the nation with 3,035 all-purpose yards, including 1,640 rushing yards, 435 receiving yards and 922 yards on kickoff returns. The sophomore is well within reach of Barry Sanders’ national all-purpose record of 3,250 yards in 1988, the year Sanders won his Heisman Trophy.
McCaffrey (the 2012-13 and 13-14 POY in Colorado) was explosive at Valor Christian (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) as a four-time state champion and the state-record holder for touchdowns (141) and all-purpose yards (8,845).
Like McCaffrey, Watson (2013-14, Georgia POY) holds a couple of impressive state records. As a senior at Gainesville (Ga.), the 6-foot-2, 205-pound quarterback passed for 57 touchdowns and ran for 17 more. He finished his high school career with 17,134 total yards from scrimmage and 218 total touchdowns.
And Watson hasn’t slowed down for No. 1 Clemson. He capped off the Tigers’ perfect 12-0 regular season with three rushing TDs and a passing score in a 37-32 win over rival South Carolina. Watson has completed 70.4 percent of his passes (261-of-371) for 3,223 yards and 27 touchdowns. He’s also rushed for 756 yards and nine scores.
One player who was front and center for the Heisman less than a month ago now probably won’t even make it to New York. That would be LSU sophomore tailback Leonard Fournette (2012-13 and 13-14 Louisiana POY). Heading into the Tigers’ game against Alabama on Nov. 7, Fournette was the runaway favorite to land the Heisman. But then the Tide bottled up Fournette—still second in the country with 1,741 rushing yards and leading the nation at a 158.3 yards per game—holding the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder to 31 yards (and a score) on 19 carries. Henry, meanwhile, went off for 210 yards and three TDs in Alabama’s 30-16 win.
And just like that, a new Heisman favorite was born.
FORMER GATORADE POY HEISMAN WINNERS
1997 Charles Woodson
2000 Chris Weinke
2001 Eric Crouch
2004 Matt Leinart
2011 Robert Griffin III
2013 Jameis Winston
2014 Marcus Mariota