The latest injustice came Wednesday when the best defensive player in America was left off the finalist list for the Nagurski Award -- which recognizes the best defensive player in America. Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan is getting used to it. He didn't make it as a Lombardi Award (best lineman in the country) finalist either.
There are as many slights ahead as possible honors. It's not because the Boilermakers senior isn't good enough. Lord knows, that's not the case. There's a formula to these things. It helps to play for a winning team. It helps a lot to play for a winning team. Only one of the seven schools represented by the combined Lombardi-Nagurski finalists has a losing record. Four of them are on ranked teams. Twenty-three of the 25 players on last year's Football Writers Association of America All-America team were on winning teams. Purdue isn't one this year.
|Ryan Kerrigan is clearly the best defensive player in the Big Ten, but will he win? (AP)|
There have been a lot of injustices for Purdue this season. Coach Danny Hope is down to essentially his fifth-string quarterback. His best tailback, Ralph Bolden, blew his knee out in the spring. His best receiver, Keith Smith, went down after 18 catches two games. Smith, who led the Big Ten with 91 catches in 2009, is applying for a sixth year of eligibility.
Purdue's season was shot basically before it started. That makes it more than easy to ignore a star on a losing team. And that's lazy.
"There are a lot of great players over the last 30 years, a lot of All-American players," Hope said. "I think he's playing his position at a higher level than any player I've been around."
So what happened to the best defensive player in America? Nothing on the field. The 6-foot-4, 263-pounder does it all off the edge -- bull rush, speed rush, collapsing offensive lines. He came back for his junior season following a middling draft evaluation (third or fourth round). He figured he could do better. He figured Purdue could do better. Like any senior, he wanted to go to a bowl. Purdue hasn't been to one since 2007.
In heat of August, he led teammates with his famous motor that does not stop.
"We're out there at camp, it's 100-something degrees, guys are wearing down and losing weight, they're tired," Hope said. "You look over at Ryan and he looks like he got bigger and stronger from the day before."
Quarterback Robert Marve said Kerrigan, "almost ruined fall camp for our entire offense," because he was so relentless.
The preparation carried over to the regular season. During a 27-16 loss to Michigan last week, Kerrigan had 10 tackles, including five for loss and a school-record tying four sacks in addition to forcing two fumbles and recovering one. For that Kerrigan was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. He leads the country in tackles for loss (23½) and is second in sacks (11½). He has at least one sack in eight of Purdue's 10 games. That should at least have made him a Nagurski/Lombardi finalist.
"He realizes there's only a few chances left," Hope said. "He is laying it on the line."
And still there is genuine concern he won't be named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Why? He does have competition in Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, but it might have something to do with that awards culture mentioned above. Five years ago, the nation's best pass-catching tight end wasn't considered a "true" tight end by the folks who give out the award for the best tight end. Go figure.
Sometimes voters just don't know. They forget. Sometimes it's easy to dismiss Purdue. The injury thing is so chronic that it seems like a curse. The Boilers' best basketball player, Robbie Hummel, has blown out his ACL twice in eight months. Sure, injuries happen to everyone. All of them have happened to Purdue.
Kerrigan isn't sexy -- in a football sense. Maybe the most daring thing he's done is pull an all-nighter with friends on a Fort Lauderdale beach during spring break.
"We wanted to see the sun come up," he said.
He's definitely not Cam Newton. There are no BCS implications. There is no baggage, which tends to keep one out of the headlines these days. Kerrigan doesn't play for a great defense -- Purdue is 57th in total D -- he just plays great. And it's not like he can pile up stats against mediocre teams. Purdue is that mediocre team.
"He helped keep our team alive in games," Hope said.
They talk about Kerrigan's motor, his drive and his acceleration, but there were dozens of schools that wouldn't send a car for him. In fact, only Ball State, Indiana, Cincinnati and Northern Illinois recruited the Muncie, Ind., native. He ended up as a lasting gift from now-retired Joe Tiller.
"I guess he thought I worked hard on film," Kerrigan said, "played my hardest on every play."
Muncie is a basketball town, and Muncie Central is a basketball high school. Hoosiers was loosely based on tiny Milan High School beating power Muncie Central in 1954. Kerrigan even played a couple of years.
"I blocked shots and dunked. That's about all I could do." His claim to fame was checking into a game at the same time Greg Oden was checking out.
Now they call him Superman for his ability to make big plays -- if not win games by himself.
"I do have one [Superman] T-shirt I was given the other day," Kerrigan said. "I'll probably wear it a little bit."
Just not in public. Kerrigan understands he's not the only one. Dwight Howard, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Tebow also share the nickname.
He knows them. Do they know him?