Ron Dayne turned family troubles into family triumph with a record-setting season at Wisconsin, and then secured his place in college football history Saturday night by winning the Heisman Trophy.
Dayne, who moved in with relatives when he was 15 after divorce and drugs ravaged his family, finished off a sensational college career by leading the Badgers to the Big Ten Conference title and a second straight Rose Bowl.
The 5-foot-10, 254-pound tailback ran for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns and broke '98 Heisman winner Ricky Williams' Division I-A career rushing mark in his final regular-season game. Dayne enters the record books with 6,397 yards, 118 more than Williams.
Dayne was a landslide winner over Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton, with Virginia Tech freshman Michael Vick third, Purdue quarterback Drew Brees fourth and Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington fifth.
Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick, the early Heisman favorite before he ran into legal problems and was suspended for two games, finished sixth in the balloting by the 922 Heisman voters.
Winning the Heisman, college football's most glamourous individual award, capped a whirlwind two weeks for the usually media-shy Dayne. He won nearly every other prize he was nominated for AP College Player of the Year and the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Doak Walker awards and hopes to go out in style against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Wearing a blue pinstriped suit, Dayne was styling at the Downtown Athletic Club, home of the Heisman. When his name was called, he broke into a smile, hugged his coach, Barry Alvarez, and shook hands with the other finalists.
Most of his family was at the ceremony, including his girlfriend, Alia Lester, and their 2-year-old daughter, Jada. Also in the crowd were Dayne's legal guardians, uncle Rob Reid and Reid's wife, Debbie, along with Dayne's birth mother, Brenda Dayne.
Dayne collected 586 first-place votes and 2,042 points from the Heisman voters, while Hamilton had 96 first-place votes and 994 points. Hamilton threw for 3,060 yards and 29 touchdowns in leading the Yellow Jackets to an 8-3 season.
Vick, the Hokies redshirt freshman star who led his team to a perfect season and shot at the national title in the Sugar Bowl, had 25 first-place votes and 319 points. Brees had three first-place votes and 38 points. Pennington had 21 first-place votes 247 points.
The largest Heisman victory was in 1968, when Southern California's O.J. Simpson beat Purdue's Leroy Keyes by 1,750 points. Dayne's margin of victory was 1,048 points.
Dayne's road to the Heisman was rocky. He was born in Blacksburg, Va., and after his parents divorced, his mother succumbed to depression and drugs. He and younger sister Onya went to live with separate relatives. Ron Dayne moved to South Jersey and lived with the Reids in Berlin, N.J.
"Just to see him achieve it has been like a family reward," Reid, whom Dayne still regards as a father, said recently. "It's a dream come true for him, and for it to happen to this kid has been tremendous."
After Dayne ran for 161 yards and four TDs in a win over Ohio State on Oct. 2, Dayne sent a letter to Reid titled "The Heisman."
It ended: "Uncle Rob, for never making me feel like a nephew, but always making me feel like a SON, for that Uncle Rob, you win the Heisman. Love, Ron Dayne Jr. 33."
Dayne's run to the Heisman had its own unusual twists.
Entering the season needing 1,717 yards to break Williams' record, Dayne already knew Alvarez wasn't about to keep him in one-sided games. So he ended up sitting out the second halves of routs against Murray State, Ball State and Indiana. And, he was held to zero yards in the second half of a loss to Michigan.
His Heisman stock plummeted, after the Michigan loss, while Warrick's soared.
The Seminole Receiver was scoring touchdowns on highlight-film type runs and receptions and appeared a cinch to win the trophy. But his chances ended after his arrest at midseason on charges of felony grand theft for his part in a shopping mall scam. He was suspended for two games while his legal problems were being resolved, resigned to the fact his Heisman bid was finished.
Meanwhile, Dayne was bulldozing his way toward the record, gaining 214 yards against Michigan State's top-ranked rushing defense and finishing three of his last four games with 200-yard plus performances.
Fittingly, he set the record at home in his last game at Camp Randall Stadium, a 41-3 rout of Iowa. His girlfriend, sister and daughter, along with the Reids were there to celebrate.
Dayne broke the record on a 31-yard run and finished the day with 216 yards. After the game, there was a surprise waiting.
As the 79,000 fans held up souvenir towels with Dayne's No. 33 inscribed on them, turning the stadium into a red and white crater, Dayne was asked to look to the upper deck at the west side of Camp Randall. When he did, a gray cover was pulled away to reveal DAYNE 33 etched into the facade.
"When I saw it I was so shocked," Dayne said. "I didn't know whether to cry or laugh."
Dayne, the fourth player to run for 1,000 or more yards in each of his four seasons, briefly considered leaving school early for he NFL. But he decided to stay to spend another year with his daughter.
"My daughter is the most important thing in my life," Dayne said. "She gave me a new perspective on life. There's nothing I wouldn't do to protect her."
Bernie Wyatt, the Wisconsin assistant who recruited Dayne, calls the tailback "a rare kind of athlete."
"He plays like a 180-pound tailback and does it at 260 pounds. He can either knock you over or make you miss. Jimmy Brown could do that, too," Wyatt said.
Dayne is Wisconsin's second Heisman winner. Alan Ameche won in 1954.
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