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USC Sports

Column: Carson Palmer was hesitant about the thought of winning the Heisman Trophy

USC quarterback Carson Palmer poses with the Heisman Trophy after winning the award in 2002.
USC quarterback Carson Palmer poses with the Heisman Trophy after winning the award in 2002.
(Associated Press)

The NFL is celebrating its 100th season, and there are many behind-the-scenes stories still to be told. Over the course of this season, Times NFL writer Sam Farmer will pull back the curtain and tell some of those, through the eyes of the players and coaches who lived them.

Carson Palmer has 15 seasons of memories stockpiled from his days as quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders, and Arizona Cardinals.

But some of the most vivid recollections of the former No. 1 overall pick came from his time at USC and the run-up to winning the Heisman Trophy in 2002, an award he wasn’t even sure he wanted at first.

That’s right, it’s almost as if he wanted to give that illustrious honor the stiff-arm when the buzz was he’d win it.

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In his words:

I never watched a Heisman ceremony when I was a kid. I didn’t even know it was held at the Downtown Athletic Club when I was a candidate. I thought it was at Radio City Music Hall or something.

When I was a kid, I just wanted to be outside. I didn’t grow up watching football. Didn’t ever watch a college game. I watched “Monday Night Football” because my dad liked it, but we didn’t sit around on Sundays. I was outside, playing, training, whatever. I wasn’t a fan like I am now.

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My senior season at SC, the game that put me over the top was Notre Dame. Big game. Normally, Pete Carroll would give the speech to the team the night before the game, but this time Kennedy Pola got up to speak. He was the running backs coach and he was hugely respected.

Kennedy gets up and says, “We’ve got a chance to do something really special tomorrow. We’ve got a chance to watch a guy, and be on the field with a guy, who will win the Heisman Trophy.” He points right at me. I was sitting in the front row of the meeting room. “We have a chance to watch this guy win the Heisman Trophy. It’s on all of us.”

Normally, I’d hate that. I don’t like being singled out. But this time was different. It gives me chills just thinking about it now.

Man, it motivated the heck out of me. He just put all this pressure on me in front of my buddies, my roommates. That just motivated me. I went to bed that night and thought, “Man, I’d better not disappoint.”

That was one of the few games the whole country got to see us play, and we went out and played a great game. [Palmer threw for four touchdowns and 425 yards in a 44-13 victory, at the time the most passing yards against Notre Dame.]

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I remember after that, when it was announced I was going to the Heisman ceremony, I didn’t think I was going to win it because everybody was saying there was a bias against West Coast teams. I really hadn’t paid attention to it. Winning the Heisman wasn’t really a goal when I was younger. My goal was to go to USC and win a national championship.

Everybody was saying it was going to be an East Coast guy who’d win it, probably Larry Johnson from Penn State. Willis McGahee and Ken Dorsey from Miami were finalists too.

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So when it was announced I’d be going, I was sitting in the office of Norm Chow, our offensive coordinator. I was getting ready to fly to Louisville for another award, and then I’d go on to New York. Norm had been at BYU when Ty Detmer won the Heisman, so he knew how it worked.

I’ll never forget, Norm was like, “Get ready. Your life’s about to change.” It was the first time somebody said to me, “No, you’re going to win it. It’s done.”

I was thinking, “Man, I’ve got it pretty good right now.”

I never wanted to be a celebrity, so that freaked me out. He was hyping me up and saying all these nice things, but I was thinking, “Oh, man. I just want to play football. My life’s going to change?” I kind of took it as a negative.

I go to Louisville for another awards ceremony, and I’m not even excited about going to New York anymore. I had never been there and thought I was going to get a chance to see the town. I got the schedule for New York and it was like, 7 a.m., get fitted for a tux, 8 a.m. be here, 9 a.m. be there. I was thinking, “I’m not even going to see the city.”

We get to New York and got to go to the stock exchange and ring the bell, all these cool things. And then I’m in a room with all the other finalists, and there’s a Heisman in there with us with no name on it. It’s the trophy one of us is going to win. I’m looking at this thing and it hits me: I want to win this so bad.

My whole perspective flipped.


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