It's hard to imagine there ever having been an awards selection show before quite like the one held in Saint Arnold's beer hall Wednesday night.
Certainly, not in the often staid, strict, traditional world of college football honors.
But there was the Lombardi Award trophy sitting on the long bar for anyone to come up and examine, free pizza and beer being served to the guests who found their way in on a rainy evening, new Lombardi Award T-shirts and hats being sold and sports radio station 1560 The Game broadcasting live from the corner. And the Houstonians who showed (and asked) got to hear the four finalists for the 41st Lombardi Award — named after legendary coach Vince Lombardi and given to the best college lineman in the country every year since 1970 — before even the players themselves.
Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn and TCU center Jake Kirkpatrick are the four final, paired down from the 12 semifinalists announced earlier. All four of the finalists will come to Houston for the Lombardi Award's college-football-award unique two days of activities and events, Dec. 7 and 8, and one will join a list of winners that includes a long list of NFL impact players — Warren Sapp (1994), Orlando Pace (1995) and Ndamukong Suh, last year's winner, among them.
Of course, some of the folks who made it to Saint Arnold were just hoping that this beer hall reveal will become a Lombardi Award tradition as well.
"We just heard about it and thought it'd be something cool to do," said Mike Adams who went with his buddy Justin Beard. "We had no idea that there'd be free beer. I think a lot more people will come next year if they do it again."
The Lombardi Award is trying a number of new things this year to increase the visibility of Houston's longtime college football award in the city it's always called home. Besides the finalists reveal at Saint Arnold (a first), the award itself will be handed out at a theater setting in the George R. Brown Convention for the first time as well. In the first 40 years of its existence, the Lombardi Award was presented at a dinner. This year, $25 student tickets are also being offered. (A regular ticket runs $100 with all-event ticket packages set at $2,500 for multiple guests).
Vicki Brentin, the chair of the Rotary Lombardi Award, stood back, taking in the scene at Saint Arnold, pleased that the finalists selection event brought out a crowd that included members of the Rotary Club of Houston (a club whose own history dates back to 1912) and regular college football fans. Guys in suits mingled with people in T-shirts.
Brentin couldn't wait to call Fairley's position coach at Auburn, Tracy Rocker. Rocker knows a thing or two about the Lombardi Award, having won it in 1988 and Brentin got his cellphone number as soon as she heard that a Tiger had made the final four.
With Auburn and TCU players among the Lombardi Award finalists, the second and third-ranked teams in the country are represented. The inclusion of TCU's Jake Kirkpatrick could draw some Horned Frogs fans to Houston for the December event. This is the second straight year — and the second time ever — that a TCU player made the Lombardi Award final four, another sign of the program's increased acceptance as a major player among college football's BCS big boys.
This isn't the Heisman Trophy. But, in way, that's part of the point. From the beginning, the Lombardi Award has been set up so all net proceeds go to the American Cancer Society and the four finalists visit kids at local hospitals every year.
"There's only one award that brings in the players for two full days of events," said Debbie Elias of Elias Events, which aims to bring more of a wow factor to the award presentation itself — including plans for a 20-foot tall replica of the trophy that was carved out of pink granite.