An opponent once said playing defense against Ron Dayne was “like trying to tackle a Coke machine.” Or maybe like trying to interrupt a landslide. At 5-foot-10 and 260 pounds, Dayne left a trail of bodies in his wake whenever he carried the football for the Wisconsin Badgers, which was often: a Big Ten-record 1,220 times in four seasons. Combining body-builder bulk with sprinter’s speed, he was the most prolific rusher in NCAA history, piling up 6,397 yards. The total grows to 7,125 yards if bowl games are included, and they ought to be — Dayne ran for 246 yards and scored four touchdowns against UCLA and accumulated 200 yards against Stanford in Wisconsin’s back-to-back Rose Bowl victories in 1999-2000. He was voted MVP of both games, the only two-time Rose Bowl MVP in Big Ten history.
Dayne capped his record-shattering career by winning the 1999 Heisman Trophy and a host of other individual awards, including the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as Big Ten MVP and the Jesse Owens Award as Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year. The Badgers were 21-3 and won two conference titles over his final two seasons. He was the fourth player in NCAA history to gain 1,000 yards or more in all four varsity seasons, surpassing 2,000 yards twice.
“I don’t know anyone who has exemplified a program like Ron has,” said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who was the Badgers’ football coach during Dayne’s career. “Everything Wisconsin football is, Ron is. This school will be appreciating him for decades.”
Dayne was born in Blacksburg, Va., and moved to Berlin Township, N.J., after his parents split up. His mother had trouble adjusting, but Dayne’s life took a decided turn for the better when Rob and Debbie Reid took him into their home and became his guardians. A soft-spoken, reluctant public speaker, Dayne delivered an emotional tribute to Reid and his family at the Heisman presentation.
“I’d like to thank the real Heisman winner, for me, Uncle Rob, who is always there for me,” he said.
Dayne excelled in track as well as football at Overbrook Regional High School, winning state titles in the shot put and the discus. Some college coaches looked at his physique and saw a fullback or maybe a guard, but Alvarez noticed those quick feet and won the recruiting battle by assuring Dayne he’d get a chance to play tailback. He was the starter by the fifth game of his freshman season and was clearly bound for stardom by the time it ended, rushing for 2,109 yards on 325 carries (a 6.5 average) and scoring 21 touchdowns.
“He plays like a 180-pound tailback, but he does it at 260 pounds,” Badgers assistant coach Bernie Wyatt said. “He can knock you down or make you miss.”
Dayne continued knocking ‘em down and making ‘em miss over the next three seasons, setting a slew of school, conference and national records. He ran for 1,457 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a sophomore and 1,525 yards with 15 touchdowns as a junior, carrying the Badgers to an 11-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA.
Dayne had a lot of mileage on him by the time his senior year rolled around, but it turned out to be his best and busiest season. Mired at 2-2 after losses to Cincinnati and Michigan, the Badgers closed the regular season with seven straight wins to earn a return trip to Pasadena, where they beat Stanford.
Dayne had 161 yards on 32 carries and scored four touchdowns in a victory over Ohio State, then surpassed 200 yards in five of the final six games. He broke Ricky Williams’ NCAA career rushing record during a 216-yard performance against Iowa in the home finale; after the game, his No. 33 jersey was retired and put on display at Camp Randall Stadium.
His final tally: 1,220 carries, 7,125 yards and 71 touchdowns, all Big Ten records. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry and 151.6 yards per game. Great Dayne, indeed.
The New York Giants selected Daye with the 11th pick of the fist round in the NFL draft, and he would play eight seasons with the Giants, the Denver Broncos and the Houston Texans. If he didn’t come close to matching his college feats, it’s because nobody could have.
“Ron Dayne was a once-in-a-lifetime player,” Alvarez said.