No. 6 Big Sky’s 50 Greatest Moments: Dave Dickenson Wins Walter Payton Award & National Championship in 1999

By JON KASPER, Big Sky Conference

For 27 years The Sports Network has honored the top football player in the FCS with the Walter Payton Award.

No conference can claim as many winners as the Big Sky Conference. Since the award’s inception, six league quarterbacks and a running back have been considered the best of the best in the FCS (or Division I-AA for purists). It shouldn’t come as surprise since the Big Sky has long been known for innovative and pass-happy offenses.

During a stretch of eight seasons from 1989-1996, Big Sky players won the Payton five times, earning the conference the nickname “Payton Place.” The league’s success of producing Payton Award winners ranks sixth on the Big Sky’s list of “50 Greatest Men’s Moments.”

In 1995, Montana’s Dave Dickenson capped his record-setting collegiate career by guiding his team to a national championship and winning the Walter Payton Award in a landslide. Including his playoff games, Dickenson completed .691 percent of his passes for 5,676 yards with 51 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions.

Dave Dickenson ADickenson was presented with the bust in a rousing celebration at Montana’s Dahlberg Arena just days after winning the national championship. The party – to honor Dickenson and the rest of the 1995 team – included a call from President Bill Clinton. But for Dickenson, it was bittersweet as he was unable to meet Payton.

“Walter Payton was one of the guys I looked up to,” said Dickenson, who is the offensive coordinator for the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders. “Drew Pearson, Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett were three guys I held in really high regard. I really wanted to meet the guy. Part of me felt like because I was from small-town Montana I wasn’t able to meet him. I didn’t realize at the time he was so sick.

“It was one of those things that I got down for a bit, but I found out later he was so sick,” Dickenson added. “It was a lot easier to put into perspective. I received a letter from him, and the call from the President of the United States, I enjoyed that. I appreciated that Bill Clinton took the time. But I wish I could have met Walter Payton. I wish there was someway I could have flown to him. I regret that. To sit down with someone like that for 30 minutes would have been a great experience.”

“The Walter Payton Award is really embraced by the entire FCS community,”

said Craig Haley, executive director of FCS football for the Sports Network. “It brought attention to what was then the I-AA level when no one nationally was paying attention to it. It’s known as the Heisman of the FCS. Just saying those words tells you how prestigious it is.”
Mickey Charles the founder, president and CEO of The Sports Network came up with the idea to honor the top player from the I-AA level after years where no such honor existed at the level. The winner is selected by a nationwide panel of FCS media, sports information directors and other dignitaries. Voting is conducted at the end of the regular season.

Past and current NFL stars such as Steve McNair (1994), Brian Westbrook (2001) and Tony Romo (2002) have been bestowed with the Payton.

“It’s embraced so much,” Haley said. “Anyone who follows the FCS is aware of the Payton. It has gained in prominence throughout the years. The winner gets national publicity.”

Kenny Gamble, a running back from Colgate was the inaugural winner in 1988. Dave Meggett, a running back from Towson who had a successful NFL career, won the honor in 1989.

John Friesz, a senior quarterback from Idaho, was the first Big Sky player to win following his record-breaking 1989 campaign. Friesz threw for 4,041 yards and 31 touchdowns en route to leading his squad to the Big Sky championship.  Friesz was drafted in the sixth round of the 1990 draft by the San Diego Chargers. He threw for more than 8,600 yards and 45 touchdowns in his professional career, which ended in 2000.

Dave Dickenson3

Weber State’s Jamie Martin threw for 4,125 yards and 37 touchdowns as a junior to become the first underclassmen to win in 1991. He helped Weber State to an 8-4 record and the program’s second trip to the FCS playoffs.  Martin led the FCS in passing yards (375 yards per game) and total offense (394.3 ypg). The Wildcats averaged a then-record 578.5 yards of offense per game.
Martin went undrafted, but had a long career as a backup in the NFL, playing for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saint and San Francisco 49ers.

Idaho became the first school to produce two Walter Payton Award winners when left-hander Doug Nussmeier claimed the honor in 1993. Nussmeier, now the offensive coordinator at Michigan, threw for 2,960 yards and 33 touchdowns to lead his squad to the national semifinals. Nussmeier was tabbed in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints, and played for five seasons in the NFL and one in the CFL.

Northern Arizona’s Archie Amerson also hoped to meet Payton after winning the honor in 1996, becoming the only Big Sky running back to win. Amerson rushed for 2,079 yards and 25 touchdowns in 1996, helping NAU to a 9-3 mark and the program’s first trip to the playoffs. Amerson amassed 2,429 all-purpose yards, which was then an FCS record.

Payton called Amerson during a banquet held in his honor at Northern Arizona.

“He was my favorite running back,” Amerson said. “He was the reason I was a Bears fan. Walter Payton was the reason.”

Amerson was the last Big Sky player to win the honor for nine years, and also the last to win it while Payton was still alive. On Nov. 1, 1999, the former Chicago Bears great died after suffering from a rare autoimmune liver disease and bile duct cancer.It was also about this time that The Sports Network began honoring the Payton winner, along with the Buck Buchanan Award and Eddie Robinson Award winners with a ceremony. The banquet, which has been held in New York City, Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Frisco, Texas, is normally attended by either Payton’s widow or one of his children. The three Payton award finalists attend the banquet, along with the winners of the other awards.

Eastern Washington’s Erik Meyer was the first Sky player to experience winning the Payton at the banquet. In 2005, Meyer was a finalist along with New Hampshire quarterback Ricky Santos, and Brown running back Nick Hartigan.

“It wasn’t a big deal for me at first,” said Meyer, now the starting QB for the Spokane Shock in the Arena Football League. “It wasn’t until I got down to the ceremony in Tennessee and I finally realized what I’d been through, and what my team had been through. It hit me that it would be pretty cool not only for my family, but for the program and the university. An hour before the banquet, I was nervous and I wanted to win.”

Meyer edged Santos in the closest vote in the award’s history. Meyer earned 33 first-place votes and 333 total points, while Santos had 31 first-place votes and 328 points.

“I was waiting for them to say either, ‘the quarterback from Eastern Washington or New Hampshire,’ ” Meyer recalled. “When he said, ‘quarterback from the University of,’ I knew I won it. I was pretty pumped. I hugged my mom and dad. I can’t explain it really, the emotion, the hard work, the dedication. The whole five years at Eastern Washington came to a close at that moment. It was a good way to say goodbye to Eastern Washington and end my career.”

Meyer threw for 3,616 yards in the regular season, along with 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He finished the season with a passer rating of 169.3, breaking the previous single-season FCS record of 166.27 set by Dickenson in 1995.

Six years later another Eastern Washington quarterback brought back a Payton to Cheney. Bo Levi Mitchell, who in 2010 guided the Eagles’ to the national title in his home state of Texas, returned to Frisco for the banquet.

Mitchell was a landslide winner after throwing for a national-high 4,009 yards and 33 touchdown passes.

“At the end of the season, when all of the games were over, the coaches told me I was one of the three nominated and I’d be going to Frisco to watch the game, and possibly win,” said Mitchell, who is an emerging star in the CFL for the Calgary. “I didn’t have a clue I’d win. Mrs. Payton was announcing the winner. My dad was there, coach Baldwin was there, and everything happened at once. It was a huge day.”

Mitchell joined Dickenson as the only Payton winners from the Big Sky to also have won a national championship. Dickenson is now Mitchell’s mentor in Calgary.

Mitchell won’t likely be the last Big Sky winner of the Payton, and maybe not even the last EWU quarterback. Vernon Adams, who was a teammate of Mitchell’s in 2011, finished second in the Payton voting as a sophomore. He enters the 2014 season as the leading candidate.