Every Iowa day from December to March cold, bleak, and gray. The term "day job" takes on a literate meaning; most people drive to work at dawn and leave well after dusk. A foot of snow covers the freshly-harvested fields by Christmas, and it stays there until mid-March. The daytime sky is perpetually overcast, threatening another blast of snow or ice or pure unadulterated cold. By January, everything is the same color of gray. If you stood in a treeless field, it's entirely possible you could mistake the distant ground for the sky. It's difficult to discern what is ahead. There is no horizon.
This is all to say that Shonn Greene won't be a Heisman finalist.
This time last year, we had no idea who would be playing halfback. Nate Guillory had just signed a letter of intent, and had some buzz as a poor man's Fred Russell. Jevon Pugh was leaving the team...only he wasn't...only, yeah, he was. The littany of four-star recruits hadn't panned out. Paki O'Meara started the spring game, for Christ's sake.*
Always in the background, lurking as an option, was Shonn Greene. The positives? We knew who he was, which was far more than we could say for any other potential halfback. Still, there were grade questions, and the infamous Albert Young "TV" quote. If hopeful skepticism is an acceptable, non-oxymoronic emotion, then you could have colored us hopefully skeptical.
You could hear the sigh of relief from the football offices when Greene hit campus. Suddenly, Ferentz's "we're totally fucked at halfback" hints at press conferences were replaced with "we're totally fucked at quarterback" hints. We were confident. We were a little giddy.
Turns out, we couldn't see the ground for the sky. We couldn't see what was ahead. There was no horizon.
* -- This is not meant as a slight to the PAKIBOMB, who was somewhere between capable and spectacular as a pass-blocker and special teams star this season. It's just, you know, Paki as a starting halfback? The locusts were mere moments away.
He blew through the initial series of cupcakes while getting his legs under him, then took out Iowa State by racking up 120 yards on 6 yards a carry on a miserable day and despite the complete lack of a passing game. The next week, he outplayed LaSean McCoy in a one-point loss at Pitt. It was the start of a trend; Iowa faced McCoy, Tyrell Sutton, Javon Ringer, P.J. Hill, Evan Royster, and Kory Sheets, and Greene outperformed them all. In fact, Greene out-rushed every opposing back he faced this season (the closest, strangely enough, was Maine's Jhamal Fluellen). It's not often raised by Greene supporters (and it's equally indicative of the success of Iowa's rush defense) but that fact says more about Greene's importance to Iowa's success in a run-first offense and stop-the-run-first defense than the 100-yard game streak.
He was brought to a halt only twice, and Iowa lost both games. Against Northwestern, Greene was the victim of what can only be described as a blatant helmet-to-helmet cheap shot from JNWU safety Brad Phillips (later described by Fitzgerald as a "big play") that knocked him out. Literally. Despite a concussion, he returned the next week and pounded Michigan State for 157, but came up short when MSU linebacker Brandon Lloyd guessed right on 4th and 1.
He ran for a mere 115 in a half-game of work against hapless Indiana. But it was the next week, facing Wisconsin, where Greene went from "great running back" to "force of nature," picking his way through holes and shrugging off arm tackles on his way to 217 yards rushing and four touchdowns, including a 34-yard touchdown run where he ran through four would-be tacklers and a 52-yard sprint through the middle of the demoralized Badger defense. He scored the tying touchdown against Illinois, only to watch the bend-but-don't-break defense bend just a little too much. The next week, he went public.
As you all know, Penn State entered the November 8 game at Kinnick undefeated, two weeks removed from holding Beanie Wells to 55 yards on 22 carries in a 13-6 win at Ohio State. In nine games, only one running back had recorded 100 yards on the Nittany Lions. We were told Iowa hadn't seen a defense like this. We were told this was where the Shonn Greene Experience would come to an end. It took all of two bruising runs for Penn State to realize "We stopped Beanie Wells" equaled "We ain't seen shit." By the end of the night, Iowa had defeated the undefeated, recording arguably the most important win of the Ferentz era. Greene's line: 28 carries, 117 yards, 2 touchdowns. Cue Heisman talk.
If Greene's performance against Penn State was remarkable for its sheer success, his 211-yard demolition of Purdue was remarkable for its sheer brutality. Greene treated Frank Duong like his little brother, spinning through the senior safety on his first touchdown, then flattening him for the second. The next week, Greene broke the Iowa single-season rushing record and finished an eleventh 100-yard game in a cathartic beatdown of Minnesota.
Iowa's had great seasons by great backs before. Dennis Mosley ran for 1,267 yards in Hayden Fry's first season. Ronnie Harmon posted 1,166 en route to the Rose Bowl in 1985 (we won't discuss what Ronnie did at that Rose Bowl). Sedrick Shaw sandwiched a school record 1,477 yards in 1995 between 1000+ yard campaigns in 1994 and 1996. Tavian Banks - himself a one-year starter - bested Shaw's record in 1997, rushing for 1,691 yards. Banks begat Ladell Betts, who begat Fred Russell, who begat Al Young, 1000 yard rushers all.
Tavian Banks was a combination of size, speed, and remarkable vision never before seen in black and gold. Betts was hard-nosed, and racked up yards through what appeared to be pure force of will (his 1,090 yards for the 2000 Hawkeyes is beyond impressive, in retrospect). Russell was a fucking blast to watch, skipping around behind a mammoth offensive line, blasting through a hole, making that high-kick stutter step, then changing direction on a dime. Al was...well, Al was Al. They were all great backs.
None of them can hold Shonn Greene's jock.
Not one played for a team with a first-year starting quarterback who spent the offseason as an injured backup. Just one (Betts) played for a team with such a tepid passing game and young supporting cast (and Betts' team went 3-9). Not one shouldered the load as much as Greene. And not a single one of them put up the numbers Greene did, and in the way Greene did it.
Ask an Iowa fan in his mid-30's about Nick Bell and you will get some combination of grunts, growls, and orgasmic groans. It's not necessarily that Bell was that good a halfback; in two years as a starter, Bell rushed for 1,612 yards and 16 touchdowns. It isn't Bell's numbers that make grown men go all Cro-Magnon, it is the way he did it. Bell was a massive halfback - 6'2", 255 pounds - and had a pretty good idea of how to use it. He ran directly at defenders, and ran through a good number of them. His style reminded you of the kind of football your grandpa would like, the grandpa who ran a farm and drank beer at the VFW every night and was known throughout his hometown as a sonuvabitch. It was so straightforward. It was so tough. It was so...Midwestern. It's not just Nick Bell, either; ask the typical season ticket holder who their favorite non-Iowa halfback is, and I guarantee 75% grudgingly name the oversized, bruising Big Ten halfback du jour.
This year, Greene is that back. He doesn't just run the ball; he runs like he'll never have another carry. He doesn't avoid contact; he lowers his shoulder, speeds up, and tries to turn would-be tacklers into fertilizer. He doesn't remind you of a runaway beer truck; he reminds you of a semi hauling a monster truck unleashed from the bowels of hell. He doesn't bounce around after the play; he slowly rises to his feet, usually rubbing his knee or lower back like your sonuvabitch grandpa getting out of bed, adjusts his pads, and returns to the huddle to find his next target. He runs the ball like a sonuvabitch. Believe me, for an Iowa back, there's no higher accolade.
The irony, of course, was that Bell was from the most-un-Midwestern Las Vegas. Harmon and Shaw, also known to run over a defender or two, were from New Jersey and Texas, respectively. Greene, too, is that prototypical Midwestern back not actually from the Midwest. It's as if these poor giant halfbacks stuck in places where their talents are so misunderstood come to Iowa City (or Madison, I guess) where they can be truly appreciated. Don't worry about being from Jersey, Shonn. Your secret is safe with us.
Greene is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's best running back, and he's probably the prohibitive favorite to win. He won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football, given to the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player. He's a first-team All-American, and a near-unanimous first-team All-Conference selection. He could well be the most-credentialed Iowa player since Chuck Long; not even Brad Banks was a first-team All-America selection.
But Greene won't win the Heisman. Maybe it's the correct choice. Maybe four losses is a disqualifier unless they come with an absurd, MSM-driven cult of personality.
It's amazing Danielson could talk so clearly with Tebow's balls in his mouth.
Maybe Colt McCoy or Sam Bradford is the most valuable player in college football for racking up ridiculous numbers against teams defenseless against their powers (or simply defenseless). Maybe the Heisman is inherently the province of quarterbacks, and it takes a truly superhuman effort to break the signalcallers' stranglehold on the trophy. Maybe Greene didn't deserve the Heisman. But if you ask anyone who played against him, who was left grasping for his jersey or flattened into the turf, I guarantee they'd say otherwise.
Heisman or not, Greene is almost certainly gone at the end of the year. There are no senior running backs projected as first-round NFL selections, Greene is 23 years old, and - while there's no questioning his classroom commitment since his return - all evidence to date indicates Shonn isn't exactly enamored with school. Iowa fans have been working through the stages of grief in anticipation of that announcement. Most seem to have reached acceptance with one game still left to play.
There is a myopic tinge to their acceptance though; many of the Iowa fans I talk to are resigned to Greene's departure but quick to point out how effective Jewel Hampton has been this season. Yes, like much of this season, Hampton has been a pleasant surprise. And yes, winter will eventually break, next fall will eventually come, and Iowa will eventually find a new halfback, whether it is Hampton or Brinson or Wegher or even Paki. But make no mistake about it: You just witnessed the greatest season by an Iowa running back since Nile Kinnick (and, let's be fair, it might have been even better than Kinnick's 1939 Heisman-winning campaign). We can't simply adopt that oft-recited Ferentz mantra, call "Next Man In," and replace Shonn Greene. We can't expect a sophomore understudy with a year of fill-in experience - or a freshman with no experience at all - to even approach the numbers of his predecessor. We can't expect anyone, not even the most heralded in-state running back since Tavian Banks, to replicate the Greatest Season in the History of Iowa Halfbacks.
You're mistaking the sky for the ground. We don't know what's ahead. There is no horizon.