Ron Dayne was an absolute legend in college football. In the late 1990s, he was the absolute best running back in the NCAA, and opposing coaches had no answers for him.
He made his name not just by amassing huge career numbers, but also by coming up big in some of the biggest games of his career.
Danye’s National Football League career wasn’t as decorated as his college tenure, but he still had his moments.
From Virginia To Jersey
Dayne was born on March 14, 1978 in Lynchburg, Va. Early in his childhood, he faced a big case of adversity that would help shape him and possibly set the scene for his future success.
His parents got divorced, which meant that he would have to go on to live with his relatives. His relationship with his parents, which already wasn’t the greatest, would further deteriorate.
After their divorce, Dayne’s father would barely spend time with him while his mother start abusing drugs for an extended period of time.
Even worse, Dayne would have to take on something of a parental role himself – when he hadn’t even started his teen years yet.
“It made me grow up,” Dayne says. “I had to raise my sister. I had to be like a parent at 10 or 11.”
As a child, he loved playing football, but he was pudgy and had trouble keeping the weight off, which prevented him from playing organized ball. But once he reached Overbrook High School in Pine Hill, N.J., he would make it onto its football team and shine bright.
He became a standout running back in South Jersey, but football wasn’t the only sport he excelled at. he also ran track and field, and in 1995 he competed in the New Jersey Meet of Champions, winning the competition and setting a record in the discus throw event.
The following year, he not only won two state championships in the shot put and discus events at the Meet of Champions, but he also broke his own record in the discus by throwing for 216 feet, 11 inches. It was the fifth-longest distance any high school athlete in the nation had ever thrown a discus.
But of course, nothing compared to what he could do on the gridiron. As a junior at Overbrook High, he ran for 1,566 yards and 27 touchdowns, and he continued to pour it on as a senior with 1,785 yards and 24 touchdowns.
But there was a problem as far as his college prospects. He weighed 270 pounds, which made college scouts feel like he couldn’t be a running back in the college game and that he’d be better off as a fullback whose primary responsibility was to block for teammates.
In fact, the University of Notre Dame even thought he would make a solid defensive tackle.
But one school promised to play him at halfback and to put the ball in his hands. That school was the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it enticed him to play for them.
“[Coach Barry Alvarez] knew something. He felt something,” Dayne says. “He came to my house and gave me a big hug when he walked in the door. He’s like, ‘Ronnie!’ I was like, ‘Okay!’ ” It was the start of a four-year streak that revived Wisconsin football and established the beefy, run-first brand it maintains to this day.”
A Badger On The Loose
Right away, Dayne became the starting running back for the Wisconsin Badgers. Many future NFL players are broken in slowly during their college careers, but Dayne was the exception.
He made his debut in Wisconsin’s 1996 season opener versus Eastern Michigan. With the Badgers comfortably ahead in the fourth quarter, Alvarez inserted Dayne into the contest, and he gained 42 yards on five consecutive carries, including his first touchdown.
In the team’s fourth game, Dayne played in the first quarter for the first time, rolling up 129 yards, which was the first time he went over the 100-yard mark. The following week, he started for the first time and ran for 65 yards against Ohio State University.
Then against Northwestern on Oct. 19, Dayne had his first college blooper. He gained 139 yards on the day, but he fumbled a handoff in crunch time, allowing Northwestern to score what turned out to be the winning touchdown with 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Four times that season, Dayne gained over 200 yards, including a 339-yard performance on Nov. 30 versus the University of Hawaii. He then had 246 yards and three touchdowns as the Badgers defeated the Utah Utes 38-10 in the Copper Bowl, earning him game MVP honors.
On the year, Dayne finished with 2,109 yards, 21 touchdowns and 6.5 yards per carry, mammoth numbers for anyone, but especially a freshman. Those numbers earned him All-America honors that season.
When he started his sophomore season, there was already talk that he was a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, and he wasn’t the usual candidate.
Unlike many gridiron stars, Dayne was soft-spoken and even reserved, which may be a residual effect of the childhood adversity he dealt with regarding his parents. He let his game do the talking, and he was willing to do as much heavy lifting as his team needed him to do in order to win ballgames.
The 1997 season saw him get banged up, as he sustained a pinched nerve in his right shoulder, a groin injury and a sprained ankle. But he missed just two contests and still managed to put up 1,457 yards and 15 touchdowns that year.
Although his numbers were not quite as gaudy as they were in 1996, and although he didn’t win the Heisman, he had put the entire college football landscape on notice. He became one of a handful of running backs to accumulate at least 1,000 yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
On Sept. 19, 1998, in just the third game of his junior season, Dayne broke the Wisconsin record for career rushing yards, which had been held for 23 years by Billy Marek.
In Wisconsin’s final contest of the regular season, which came against Penn State, Dayne sustained an injury where a muscle was torn away from his collarbone. But he returned to the game and gained 95 yards on the day to give his team a 24-3 win and a spot in the Rose Bowl.
The Badgers’ opponent there would be the sixth-ranked University of California, Los Angeles. Before a crowd of over 93,000 in Pasadena, Calif., Dayne showed a national audience that he was the real deal, running for 246 yards and four touchdowns to lift Wisconsin to a 38-31 victory.
January 1, 1999 – On this date 20 years ago, Ron Dayne and the mammoth @BadgerFootball offensive line bludgeoned a helpless UCLA defense on their way to a 38-31 #RoseBowl victory. Dayne rushed for 246 yards. Here are all four of his TDs. pic.twitter.com/gu382l8IJA
— Funhouse (@BackAftaThis) January 1, 2019
Those four touchdowns tied a Rose Bowl record, while his 246 yards were just one yard shy of another record. His dominant performance led to him being named Rose Bowl MVP.
As a senior, Dayne put up monster numbers once again, collecting 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns in 12 games and posting three games with over 200 yards.
Then came his big day on Nov. 13 against Iowa. That was the day when Dayne became the all-time leading rusher in NCAA history, surpassing the career mark that Ricky Williams had set just a year ago.
Ron Dayne’s run to become the NCAA’s All-Time Leading Rusher was a prime example of the caliber back he was
Juking defenders out their shoes😯 pic.twitter.com/2P93PfqTXI
— IKE Badgers Podcast (@IKE_Badgers) August 9, 2020
On that same day, Wisconsin clinched another Rose Bowl berth. There, it defeated Stanford University thanks to Dayne’s 200 yards, which earned him game MVP honors again.
The honors kept pouring in for Dayne. He was named as an All-American for the second straight year and third time overall, and he also won the Big Ten Player of the Year award.
But the pièce de résistance for Dayne was the Heisman Trophy, which he was awarded that season. He would later get named to the College Football Hall of Fame and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.
It all made him a can’t-miss prospect for NFL scouts.
Headed To The Big Apple
Heading into the 2000 NFL Draft, Dayne was high on many people’s draft lists, but there were concerns about his eight. Plenty of observers wondered if it would be a hindrance in the pros and whether it wouldn’t prevent him from being quick enough to evade defenders on a regular basis.
Dayne looked to rectify this problem by losing about 20 pounds, but it didn’t make him faster or quicker.
“You could feel the difference when you’re getting hit, and I was still the same speed,” he said.
The New York Giants took him with the 11th pick in the draft. They were coming off a 7-9 season in 1999 and needed plenty of help offensively, and head coach Jim Fassel was rumored to be on the hot seat.
Dayne wasn’t quite the force he was at Wisconsin, partly because Fassel didn’t feature him a ton, but he was still a significant contributor with 770 yards and five touchdowns on the season. The Giants used a one-two punch at running back that featured him and another promising young player in Tiki Barber.
Barber had 1,006 yards and eight touchdowns himself, and the duo became known as “Thunder and Lightning.” Where Dayne was brute force and strength, Barber was finesse and speed.
📽️ "Thunder & Lightning" ⛈️⚡️
In 2000, Tiki Barber (1,006 rush yds, 719 rec yds) and Heisman Trophy winning rookie Ron Dayne (770 rush yds) combined to form a revamped #NYG ground game that helped lead the Giants to the Super Bowl.#NYGiantsFilms #GiantsPride #TBT pic.twitter.com/KnzUg3hDdb
— NY Giants Films (@NYGiantsFilms) May 7, 2020
After the Giants lost at East Rutherford, N.J. to the Detroit Lions to drop their record to 7-4, Fassel guaranteed that they would reach the playoffs. The team made good on the promise by winning five in a row to end the season with a 12-4 record, which gave them the NFC East title.
Dayne ran for 53 yards in New York’s divisional round playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The team then pulverized the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship Game to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade.
Their opponent there would be the Baltimore Ravens, a team that had one of the most impenetrable defenses pro football had ever seen. They had allowed only 970 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in the regular season, both of which were league-bests.
Baltimore was favored by only three, but the Giants never had a chance, falling behind 17-0 and losing 34-7. Danye did not even play in the contest.
Danye had a solid second season in the NFL, gaining 690 yards and scoring seven touchdowns while starting seven of 16 contests. However, New York finished just 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
But after the 2001 campaign, Dayne was used less and less. He had trouble losing weight, and it frustrated coach Fassel, who perhaps felt that Dayne simply lacked the commitment and work ethic to become the best player he could be.
The former Badger carried the ball 125 times in 2002, compared to 180 carries in 2001, and saw his production fall to 428 yards and three touchdowns. The Giants won 10 games, but they put forth an epic collapse in the wild card playoff round by blowing a 24-point third-quarter lead and losing 39-38 to the San Francisco 49ers.
Dayne got three carries in that contest, but he was only able to gain a grand total of four yards.
Fassel tried making Dayne into a goal-line back, but it didn’t quite work. Frustrated by his lack of touches, Dayne asked to be traded by the spring of 2003 and refused to participate in the Giant’s offseason workouts, and he even wouldn’t return Fassel’s calls for a while.
Eventually, the two patched things up just enough for Dayne to remain on the team, but he didn’t get any snaps during the 2003 season. He remained frustrated, but the Giants refused to release him, as they wanted him in case Barber or Dorsey Levens, their main tailbacks, got hurt.
Dayne could’ve publicly complained and forced New York’s hand, much the way Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson did, but it simply wasn’t in Dayne’s nature.
”I could be in the paper every week, saying something bad about somebody, about Coach Fassel or the running backs coach,” Dayne said. ”What’s that going to do for me? That’s not going to help me. Maybe it might get them even madder if I did something like Keyshawn. But I don’t want to be known like that.”
It was a painful season for the Giants, who won just four games and ended the schedule with an eight-game losing streak. As a result, Fassel, who had grown very unpopular with fans, was fired and replaced by Tom Coughlin.
Dayne had managed to lose 40 pounds before the 2004 season, but things wouldn’t improve much for him. He got just 52 carries that year and ran for just 179 yards and one touchdown.
Trying To Salvage Things
The Giants elected not to re-sign Dayne after the 2004 campaign, and he instead joined the Denver Broncos, a team that was coming off a 10-6 finish and playoff appearance.
The Broncos improved to 13-3 in 2005, and there simply wasn’t much room for Dayne to play a pivotal role. On 53 carries he had just 270 yards and one touchdown that season.
Dayne did not appear in the playoffs, which saw the Broncos defeat the New England Patriots in the divisional round before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
Things looked promising for Dayne as the 2006 season neared. Head coach Mike Shanahan named him the starter at the beginning of training camp, but he suffered a turf-tow injury, which buried him deep on the team’s depth chart.
One day after the Broncos released Dayne, he signed with the Houston Texans, a team that was coached by Gary Kubiak, who had been Denver’s offensive coordinator the year before.
Dayne saw a boost in his production and usage in ’06. He carried the ball 151 times for 612 yards and five touchdowns while starting in six of the 11 games he played in.
The following season, Dayne got 194 carries and contributed 773 yards and six touchdowns, as starting running back Ahman Green suffered an injury, clearing space for Dayne to get on the field more often. The Texans missed the playoffs both seasons.
Dayne retired from the NFL following the 2007 campaign.
Life After Football
Some had to wonder if Dayne was afflicted by the so-called “Heisman curse.” It is a supposed malady that usually affects quarterbacks and not so much running backs, but many men who had won the Heisman were underwhelming in the NFL.
Whatever the reason that Dayne was unable to replicate his college success in the pros, he had found a different type of success after he hung up his cleats.
He entered a relationship while in college with Alia Lester, and although the two later broke up, he then married his wife, Courtney, in 2016.
Dayne has raised four kids: Jada, Zion, Javian and JayAllen. Zion has become a standout football player in his own right at Yale University, playing defensive end.
Jada, meanwhile, went on to play collegiate soccer at the University of Michigan.
The elder Dayne eventually returned to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, to complete his degree in African-American studies.
He has also dabbled in business by establishing partnerships with companies such as Goldstein & Associates, Wisconsin Athletics, Oak Park Place, Tailgate Clothing and Kollegetown Sports.
In addition, Dayne has participated in charity events in order to help the less fortunate. One initiative he partook in was “Bacon For Santa,” which donated one pound of protein to a local Wisconsin food bank.
All participants needed to do to help out was to post on their social media account their pledge to leave Santa Claus a pound of bacon, instead of the traditional milk and cookies.
Dayne may have grown up with absentee parents, but these days he has done a lot to help improve the health and welfare of children, both his own and many he will never meet.