Football Wins the Award for Most Awards – Wall Street Journal

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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning on the red carpet at the Maxwell Football Awards in 2014.

On the eve of Friday night’s annual Maxwell Football Club awards gala, suspense was mounting over whether the event’s most-celebrated winner would show up. About 1,200 guests had paid $300 each for a seat at the black-tie event in Atlantic City, N.J. “Twenty-four hours out, it’s a bit of a problem that I don’t know if Cam Newton is coming,” said Mark Wolpert, executive director of the Maxwell club.

Not that Wolpert is unsympathetic to the demands on Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback. A trip to Atlantic City may not be appealing to an athlete whose travel-heavy season ended only a month ago in a loss at the Super Bowl. And Newton isn’t exactly suffering a dearth of honors. He already was named the league’s most valuable player this past season. Invited to Kansas City last weekend to accept a so-called 101 Award for best NFC Offensive Player of the Year, Newton declined to attend.

The Maxwell club, however, isn’t much accustomed to being snubbed. Of the 56 previous winners of the Maxwell club’s Bert Bell Trophy for best professional player, only seven have failed to show up. Peyton Manning has made four appearances at the gala, three for the Bell trophy and one for the 79-year-old Maxwell Award, honoring the best collegiate player. “Peyton Manning respects the game,” says Wolpert. Newton couldn’t be reached for comment.

Cam Newton at the College Football Awards in 2010.

Persuading NFL players to come and accept an award isn’t as easy as it used to be. Players work longer seasons and earn a lot more—possibly reducing their interest in a free meal—than when the Bell and 101 Awards were launched in 1959 and 1969, respectively. Of the seven professional no-shows at the Maxwell gala, five took place since 2000, said Wolpert.

For community football clubs, it’s hard to compete with the league’s five-year-old NFL Honors show, an awards-rich television special held the night before the Super Bowl. Timing isn’t so much the issue—other awards banquets tend to take place now, in the weeks following the Super Bowl—as prestige. Even NFL fans who can recite each season’s MVP often never have heard of the Bell trophy or 101 Award.

In college football, awards have proliferated. In fact, there’s now a governing body to grant an official blessing of sorts to college-football awards that it deems worthy. Of the 21 awards recognized by the National College Football Awards Association, some confer grand honors such as best all-around player (Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award) and best defensive player (Bronco Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award). Others narrowly focus on best punter (Ray Guy Award), best interior lineman (Outland Trophy), best center (Rimington Trophy) top placekicker (Lou Groza award), best tight end (John Mackey Award) and best assistant coach (Broyles Award). Then there are character awards such a the Wuerffel Trophy, which honors community service along with athletic and academic achievement.

One goal of the NCFAA is to limit the growth of college-football awards. “There has to be an end to it at some point,” says the Maxwell Club’s Wolpert, who doubles as president of the NCFAA. “It’s like giving trophies to every kid who plays little league.”

The Burlsworth Trophy

But since the NCFAA’s creation in 1997, plenty of other college-football awards have sprung up, including the Paul Hornung Award (most versatile player), Ted Hendricks Award (best defensive end) and the Burlsworth Trophy, honoring the best player who started his college career as a walk-on.

Sports journalists—who typically are solicited as voters—say some awards seem designed to bring more attention to the givers than to the receivers. Some awards, for instance, are named after the person awarding them. And at least one award, a now-defunct honor for the best Division III player, was given only to players who promised to make their way to a small town to receive it.

“At this stage, everybody and their uncle can put together an award. It doesn’t take a lot of money,” says Pat Coleman, executive editor of “The groups that do it are trying to draw attention to themselves.”

The appeal of college players is that they’ll go far and wide to collect awards. Of the 79 winners of the Maxwell Award, the only no-show has been Charlie Ward, the future NBA star, and that was because he had a basketball game that night, says Wolpert. Sean Bedford, winner of the inaugural Burlsworth Trophy in 2010, continues attending the annual dinner honoring the year’s best walk-on, even though it requires a trip to rural Arkansas, partly out of respect for the award’s namesake, the walk-on standout Brandon Burlsworth, who died in a car wreck shortly after being drafted by the NFL in 1999. Even though most people don’t know what it is, he says, “The Burlsworth Trophy is near and dear to my heart.”

Professionals aren’t entirely disinterested in obscure awards. Over the years, a parade of NFL luminaries have flown to Kansas City at the end of the season for a banquet that Patriots coach Bill Belichick once said sets “standard for class and hospitality.”

But last Saturday, only one of the four players winning national awards showed up, an all-time low for the 101 Awards. And this event, like the Maxwell club gala, is likely to miss the recently-retired Peyton Manning. Upon winning his fifth 101 award in 2008, for AFC offensive player of the year, Manning showed up, as he did the four previous times. In what was music to the ears of Kansas City fans—whose hearts he’d broken innumerable times as a quarterback opposing the Chiefs—Manning called 101 “the premier football banquet in the country.”

Write to Kevin Helliker at