Tuesday, December. 4, 2007 | Archie Amerson tucked the Walter Payton Award under his arm like a football and stood on the sidelines, waiting for the University of San Diego players to pose for their year-end team photo.

In 1996, the Morse High alumnus won the award named for the Hall-of-Famer by running for 2,079 yards and 25 touchdowns at Northern Arizona University. But on this day he was invited to campus to meet USD quarterback Josh Johnson, a 2007 finalist for the Payton Award.

“Look at those guys joking around,” Amerson said with a wide grin. “This is a flashback for me. It seems like yesterday, but it was 11 years ago. I can remember doing the same silly stuff — busting jokes and acting goofy. And then it’s gone — so fast.”

It was all in front of Amerson then — like it is for Johnson now.

The Payton Award, if you don’t know, is the Heisman Trophy equivalent for the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Div. I-AA).

Johnson is an NFL prospect that threw for 43 touchdowns with just one interception for the 9-2 Toreros. That’s a staggering statistic — one that should be enough to win the award n especially if you know the one interception was a pass that bounced off his receiver’s chest.

When Johnson finally broke away from joking with his teammates, he approached Amerson with a quiet reverence.

“It’s an honor to see the Payton Award and touch it, even if I don’t win it,” Johnson said. “Walter Payton was the greatest running back.”

In my mind, the Payton Award earns Amerson — who went on to play nine years in the Canadian Football League and win a Grey Cup title in 1999 — a special place alongside San Diego’s four Heisman winners: Marcus Allen (Lincoln and USC), 1981; Rashaan Salaam (La Jolla Country Day and Colorado), 1994; Ricky Williams (Patrick Henry and Texas), 1998; and Reggie Bush (Helix and USC), 2005.

Payton died three years later, which makes the award that much more special to Amerson and any recipient after him. In some ways, the Payton Award carries more respect. After all, the Heisman Trophy is named for a Georgia Tech coach that once ran up the score on Cumberland, 222-0.

“I respected Walter Payton so much, when he called me to congratulate me, I didn’t know what to say,” Amerson said. “It was a feeling I can’t explain.”

Johnson now has the luxury of thinking about the award and hoping he wins, something he wouldn’t allow himself to do during the season. He has been invited with the other two finalists to attend the dinner and award ceremony on Dec. 13 in Chattanooga, Tenn, the night before the FCS championship game.

“If I can have that trophy, it would be great,” Johnson said. “But just to be a finalist is good enough for me. It means people noticed me and my team.”

But it wasn’t just the fans who noticed Johnson. NFL scouts did, too. One told me after seeing him play this year: “The kid is for real.”

Johnson has arm strength, quarterback intelligence and poise to find receivers under pressure and footspeed to run. The only thing he doesn’t have is the pedigree of a big-time football program.

“That doesn’t matter,” Amerson told him. “You can adjust.”

Johnson has been invited to play with the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 18 in Houston when he will be matched against the best draft eligible players in the nation.

“As long as you have the ability and work hard, you can do great things,” Johnson said. “That’s the mindset I’m bringing to this process. I’m not worrying about the next person. I’m working on myself. If I work hard and do everything I’m supposed to do, everything should take care of itself.”

Northern Iowa quarterback Eric Sanders is considered the favorite since his team was ranked No. 1 in the nation among FCS schools before losing in the playoffs. Johnson would be the first player to win from a non-scholarship school to win the Payton, which makes him an underdog.

But does Sanders have a Heisman Trophy vote? Johnson does. The last two years, The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Nick Canepa gave Johnson his third-place vote on his Heisman ballot.

“That’s crazy I actually got a vote,” Johnson said with a laugh. “But it’s a blessing to think somebody voted for me. I want to thank him. That means he saw something in me that other people didn’t.”

If you didn’t see Johnson play, don’t scoff.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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