Lockbaum remembers Heisman run

WORCESTER, Mass. -- He begins with a question.

"You know I didn't win it, right?"

No, Gordie Lockbaum didn't win the Heisman Trophy. Didn't win it in 1986 (when he finished fifth). Didn't win it in 1987 (when he finished third).

But his is still a story worth telling.

Lockbaum is more than 20 years removed from his playing days, from attending Heisman presentation ceremonies, from his repeated failures to stick with multiple NFL teams beyond preseason or after free-agent workouts. He was drafted in the ninth round in 1987 by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but couldn't make the roster.

He's a principal at a private insurance company in this, the second-largest city in New England. His office is on the 10th floor, the penthouse, and one wall is decorated with a mix of sports memorabilia and children's artwork. He coaches wrestling -- his first love -- at a local prep school. He has worked as a color analyst on the radio broadcasts at his alma mater, the College of the Holy Cross.

He watches his son, also Gordie, play football at Amherst College.

So, no, Gordie Lockbaum didn't win the Heisman Trophy, but he came closer than practically any small-school player since. How does the brush with fame, with the Heisman and with the NFL, sit with the man when he's out putting in face time with clients?

Let's just say it goes both ways.

Mark Duffner wants to make it very clear: It was never the plan.

Now in his sixth season as linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Duffner was a freshly minted head coach in 1986. He'd gotten the job in the worst possible way, after previous coach Rick Carter committed suicide.

Duffner wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel; he was just trying to keep the car on the road.

Holy Cross was short on personnel, so the coaches decided to give Lockbaum -- an accomplished running back in high school in Glassboro, N.J. -- a few reps during a spring practice. So Lockbaum went from the defensive backfield to the offensive backfield, just for the day.

"We'll let Gordie do a few running plays," Duffner said, describing the thought process. "He has a spectacular practice at running back. Now we have the offensive coaches saying, 'We can't survive without a guy like this in our offense.'"

Problem was, the defensive coaches were saying the same thing. Rather than rob Peter to pay Paul, Duffner & Co. hatched a plan: Lockbaum would play both.

"The question came to me, 'Can you get yourself in good enough shape to do that?' And I felt I could," Lockbaum said.

Lockbaum trained with his sister, Ruth, a collegiate track star at Villanova, to get ready for the grind. In two-a-day practices, he'd be on defense in the morning and on offense in the afternoon. In games, he'd spend half his time carrying the ball and the other half trying to catch the guy carrying the ball.

And the Crusaders won.

Then Holy Cross played Army, Lockbaum played 143 of 171 snaps and the Crusaders won again. A reporter from The New York Times noticed, and the story he wrote -- about Lockbaum being the first true two-way player in nearly two decades -- set off a maelstrom.

Or, as Duffner put it, "It kind of caught fire and became something that was well-known."

The interview requests came in droves. From newspapers, magazines, TV shows.

Rick Reilly came to Worcester to write about Gordie for Sports Illustrated.

The hype machine wasn't then what it is now, but it was enough.

"I think at some point you see an article and you're sitting there doing an interview with Frank Deford or Jim Lampley and some of these guys, or you're on 'The Today Show,'" Lockbaum said, "I mean of course you say 'Wow, this is pretty incredible.'"

If it hadn't been for the equally tireless efforts of the Holy Cross sports information department, the seemingly indefatigable DB/RB might've found himself in over his head. Not that he let it all go to his head.

"How he handled that exposure was outstanding," Duffner said. "He was very humble, and any recognition that he got, he properly deflected attention to his teammates. "

Lockbaum says he just tried to enjoy the experience. You can still hear the awe in his voice when he talks about the trips he made, with his parents and Duffner in tow, to the Downtown Athletic Club for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

"That's probably the biggest feeling of 'Wow, you made it somewhere,'" he said. "To be sitting there while they're getting ready to announce it, and you see the trophy and you're in that room with all the portraits …"

He's not bitter about not winning a Heisman, just as he's not bitter about not making it in the NFL.

There's disappointment, sure.

It would've been nice to win the most prestigious award in college football, but the guys who won (Vinny Testaverde in '86, Tim Brown in '87) were pretty good, too. It would've been nice to make it in the NFL. He had wanted to play in the league since he was a little boy, and that's a goal he never was able to realize.

"Oddly enough, though, I don't harp on it or have any regrets because I know I played my best and I know I had adequate opportunity, and it just didn't work out," Lockbaum said

No, he didn't win the Heisman or play a regular-season NFL game, but things have worked out pretty well for Gordie Lockbaum. Good job. Family. Experiences to last a lifetime.

He's friendly with Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore and still goes to games when he can.

So, do the players know who he is?

"No. They have no clue," he said with a laugh. "The kids in college now, they weren't even alive when I was in college. Occasionally there will be somebody who says, 'My dad used to watch you.'

"But more so it's local people that say to their kids or their wives, 'Hey, this is Gordie!' and they sit there blank-faced. I feel embarrassed for them more than me because they're trying to be 'Oh, yeah.' And it's like, 'You don't know who I am.'"

And that's a shame because his story is definitely one worth knowing.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.