Rarely, if ever, will you find a hot take on the political sphere within the digitized pages of the East Village Times. It is an area of conversation better left for the talking heads on CNN, not the subjective scribbles of San Diego sportswriters. That being said, there is little doubt that 2016’s presidential race has deteriorated into something bordering on the comically cringeworthy.
Luckily for the hometown faithful in America’s Finest City, there is a different kind of campaign developing. Amid buzzworthy phrases like “Make America Great Again” and “Trumped-up trickle-down economics,” one senior candidate has launched his own assault on institutional norms while cementing his legacy on Montezuma Mesa.
His name? Donnel Laray Pumphrey, of the Running Back Party.
His goal? Garner enough of the 928 electoral votes to warrant not only center-stage recognition in a major East Coast city, but also the receipt of a bronze statue with a bold stride and a brutal stiff-arm – the Heisman Trophy.
He’s certainly run a strong campaign so far. Through six games in 2016, Pumphrey leads the nation in rushing with 1,111 yards and ranks second in rushing touchdowns with 11, all while chipping in contributions through the air with 18 catches for 131 yards. He’s run for 220 yards twice, in wins over Fresno State and Northern Illinois, and he piled up a jaw-dropping 281 yards in one of the school’s biggest games in history, a victory over Pac-12 opponent Cal. He’s on pace to approach Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing yardage record, and was just named a mid-season All-American.
Those gaudy 2016 numbers have served as the culmination of a career that deserves to go down among the greatest in college football history. Halfway through his senior season, he already holds the Aztecs’ career rushing mark, pulling ahead of Marshall Faulk in that aforementioned win over Cal. Last Friday, Pumphrey passed three more gridiron greats – LaDainian Tomlinson and Heisman Trophy winners Archie Griffin and Herschel Walker – to vault to eighth on the NCAA’s all-time rushing list. Currently he’s sitting at 5,383 career yards on the ground, a little more than a thousand behind career leader Ron Dayne. If he maintains his current pace of 185 yards per game, Pumphrey should have no problem passing Dayne, as long as the Aztecs play in both a conference championship and a bowl game.
The Las Vegas native has managed to do almost all of this without the fanfare usually graced upon unparalleled brilliance. Part of this has to do with his stature. At 5’9” and just 180 pounds, Pumphrey is not a running back in the mold of between-the-tackles bruisers Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry. What he lacks in size, however, he makes up for with straight-line speed and silky-smooth shiftiness – the souped-up sports car of the SDSU backfield. Rarely will you see Pumphrey need to break more than a tackle or two on one of his highlight-reel runs; defenders are too busy running past him to get more than a couple of fingers on him.
This ability to avoid direct hits has allowed him to carry the workload of a far more physical runner without succumbing to the injuries and exhaustion that typically befall a backfield that funnels thirty-plus carries a game through one slim-bodied speedster. He has yet to miss a game in red and black, and his per-carry average on the ground increases by almost 50% between the first and second halves of a game. In spite of all of this, the feeling remains that Pumphrey is forever one misstep and big hit away from watching the rest of his season from the sidelines.
The larger logic behind Pumphrey’s lack of recognition, however, stems from the lack of exposure the Aztecs as a whole get on the national stage. Under head coach Rocky Long, San Diego State has steadily climbed to the edges of the national conscience, winning a conference championship in 2015 and rising into the top twenty in the AP poll earlier this season. However, expectations of a potentially-perfect campaign were undone by a disappointing debacle at South Alabama in early October that has once again relegated the Aztecs to the relative obscurity of mid-major success. Even though another Mountain West crown may be on the way, the program’s one-week slip-up will likely keep them out of the January bowl conversation and the coast-to-coast buzz that surrounds it.
It is this missing media attention that may ultimately prevent Pumphrey from taking home Heisman hardware in December. Much like political third partiers Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and others, the running back’s position as an outsider looking in will probably prove fatal to his campaign chances once the votes have been counted. ESPN’s Experts Poll currently ranks Pumphrey sixth among contenders. Ahead of him sit a handful of just-as-worthy candidates from Power Five schools, one of whom will likely keep the prestigious award from making its way to America’s Finest City.
There’s do-everything defender Jabrill Peppers of Michigan, whose exploits as a linebacker and punt returner could make him the first defensive player to win the award since Charles Woodson in 1997. There’s a trio of quarterbacks: Jake Browning of suddenly-dominant Washington, dual threat JT Barrett of Ohio State, and Deshaun Watson, a Clemson Tiger and 2015 Heisman finalist. Then there’s a player who appears to be in a class of his own so far in Louisville signal-caller Lamar Jackson, who just put up 332 yards of total offense in his worst performance of the season thus far. What’s more, those rankings leave out at least a handful of other contenders who could regain some of their former luster with strong performances down the stretch. Might the names Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook ring a bell?
Ultimately, for Pumphrey to even warrant consideration as a frontrunner, Lamar Jackson will need to take a significant step back during conference play and other candidates must stumble on the big stage, all while the Aztecs’ leading man maintains or exceeds his prior performance. With that in mind, an invitation to the December ceremony as a finalist may be the height of Pumphrey’s Heisman hype.
That should take nothing away from the running back’s legacy. In a city whose favorite #19 will forever be Mr. Padre himself, Tony Gwynn, Pumphrey appears to have confidently locked himself into the second-place slot. He deserves to go down as one of college football’s all-time greats, and he likely will when all is said and done.
If nothing else, though, this year has demonstrated the underlying issues of some of America’s most formidable institutions, and the NCAA certainly fits that description. Watch Pumphrey rip off a Sportscenter-worthy sprint here, gallop past a legend or two there, and who knows? You may find him catching a flight to the Big Apple in December to legitimize his legend just that much further.
If nothing else, his campaign will certainly bear monitoring all the way up until election day.