As a 12-year-old running back celebrating St. Christina's grade-school football team championship, Jordan Lynch stood next to Johnny Lattner and placed his right hand on the Heisman Trophy the former Notre Dame star won in 1953.
Never did anybody at the banquet imagine that one day the little boy with the big heart from Mount Greenwood on the Southwest Side would get the chance to strike his own pose with the famous bronze statue — except perhaps Lynch himself.
"It always has been a dream,'' Lynch said Wednesday. "In the back of my mind, I knew if I ever got a chance to play quarterback in college, I could make a run at this.''
Lynch ran and threw his way from obscurity to New York City, where he will be Saturday night as one of six Heisman Trophy finalists. Odds favor Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, but Lynch simply being invited to the ceremony qualifies as a coup for the Northern Illinois program and every overachieving Mid-American Conference player he represents.
Football recruits in the MAC don't start their careers thinking they will end amid Heisman suspense. They go to earn a free education and prove people wrong, not necessarily in that order. They end up in the MAC because the programs that produce Heisman winners didn't want them. So whatever place Lynch finishes – he was seventh last year – he will consider it a victory for every MAC member fighting like NIU did for national respect, from the Ball States and Kent States to all the directional Michigans.
"This gives a lot of people hope,'' said Lynch, who graduated with a degree in kinesiology. "No matter where you go, you can be up for the Heisman. You can play in a BCS bowl. That's what kids should look at when they see me.''
Coming out of Mount Carmel, almost no Division I recruiters saw Lynch as a quarterback. Directing legendary coach Frank Lenti's triple-option, Lynch projected as a running back or safety. That consensus created an edge that sharpened Lynch into one of the most prolific college football players ever in the state of Illinois.
"Jordan plays with a chip on his shoulder because everybody always has told him he's not big enough, strong enough or fast enough,'' said Jim Lynch, Jordan's father.
Jerry Kill was different. The only college coach to offer Lynch a scholarship to play quarterback, the former NIU coach who left for Minnesota in 2010 always envisioned Lynch's effort and ability combining for greatness. So it was no surprise when Jim Lynch's cellphone rang around 11:15 p.m. Monday during his shift as a snow-plow driver for the city and Kill was on the other end.
"Jerry said he was out recruiting and just found out but wanted to say how proud he was and Jordan deserved this recognition his senior year,'' Jim said.
Plotting Lynch's Heisman campaign in March, NIU officials agreed. They considered everything from billboards in ESPN's home of Bristol, Conn., to "sporks" sent to Heisman voters to promote the quarterback's dual purposes. Finally, NIU settled on shipping lunch boxes to reflect Lynch's workmanlike style and saturating social media to increase his exposure. According to sports information director Donna Turner, NIU spent $9,400 promoting Lynch, which makes Saturday's appearance in America's largest market a cheap commercial for the university.
Putting the truth in his school's advertising, Lynch backed up the bold promise for a 12-win team that came within one loss of its second straight BCS bowl. Lynch passed for 2,676 yards and rushed for 1,881 more — accounting for 45 touchdowns and twice setting the single-game quarterback rushing record. When Lynch was asked if he remembered a defender ever delivering a square hit, one of the country's toughest players to tackle paused.
"I don't think anybody really cleaned up on me, but the Iowa linebacker (James Morris) did a good job of wrapping me up,'' said Lynch, who remarkably stayed injury-free. "It's because of the way I train all summer. I train like a running back because I get treated like a running back.''
Will NFL executives treat Lynch like a running back or quarterback? Two NFL scouts believe teams that still use the read-option could draft Lynch late while others might consider him a future H-back or receiver. On Lynch's first day at NIU, he posted a list of goals on his dorm-room wall, and playing quarterback in the NFL ranked at the top. It still does.
"I'm a quarterback first and that's how I'm going into it,'' Lynch said. "I've been proving people wrong my whole life. I can do that again. But to win an NFL roster spot, I will be willing to do whatever it takes.''
Without that attitude, Lynch would be at home this weekend instead on college football's grandest stage — right where he belongs.