What Is the Heisman Trophy? Who Was Heisman?

What Is the Heisman Trophy? Who Was Heisman?
Even the most casual football fan is familiar with the Heisman Trophy. The famous honor, the traditional ceremony, even the iconic trophy itself, are all well-known in American football lore. Far fewer people, however, actually know where it all started, or even the specifics of how the winners are chosen. What is the Heisman Trophy exactly, and who was Heisman?

What Is the Heisman Trophy?

Officially called the Heisman Memorial Trophy, this is considered the highest honor that can be awarded to a college football player and is given annually to the country’s most outstanding player. Supposedly, it also takes into account diligence, perseverance, hard work, and integrity. However, in considering past winners, such as Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel, voting would appear to be heavily based on performance as opposed to character.

Who Was Heisman?

One of the greatest innovators American football has ever known, John W. Heisman was born in Cleveland in 1869 and spent most of his childhood growing up in tiny Titusville, Pennsylvania. Despite reportedly being just 5’8” and weighing less than 160 pounds, he spent four years playing college football as a lineman for Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. This covered the period from 1887 to 1891 when, as legend has it, he was struck by lightning and nearly lost his eyesight. Despite this close call, he managed to graduate with a law degree, gave up playing and took a job coaching at Oberlin College outside of Cleveland. He led the team to an unbeaten 7-0 record in just their second year having a football program.

Heisman went on to be one of the most successful college coaches of all-time, enjoying stints at Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Buchtel (now University of Akron), Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and Georgia Tech, which was his most impressive spell. He spent 16 years there coaching football, baseball and basketball, and at one point led the Golden Tornadoes football team to 33 consecutive victories.

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What Else Did John Heisman Do?

Heisman is largely credited with shaping the game into something very similar to the sport we are most familiar with today. His rule changes, strategic adaptations, and conceptual advancements were legendary at the time and are still widely respected today.

The Snap

Before Heisman came up with the idea of snapping the ball back to his quarterback in the air, centers simply rolled the ball back along the ground. As the story goes, his quarterback at Buchtel was particularly tall and had a hard time going down to get it, leading to the idea of getting it airborne instead.

The Forward Pass

It took 3 years of pressing, but eventually, Heisman was able to convince the football rules committee to allow the forward pass starting in 1906, mainly as a way to make the game safer after reports showed that in 1905 18 players died and 159 were seriously injured. Allowing the forward pass opened the game up and reduced dangerous group attacks such as the flying wedge.

Four Quarters

In 1910, games went from 2 halves to 4 quarters, mostly at Heisman’s urging. This was also considered a safety improvement, giving players more rest and the opportunity to regroup.

Questionable Tactics?

Not all of Heisman’s ideas were particularly sportsmanlike. Legend has it that in 1902, as coach of Clemson, he directed the junior varsity team to impersonate the senior team and get visibly drunk and obnoxious in Atlanta the night before a game against Georgia Tech. The opposition, relaxed and overconfident thinking they had an easy game ahead of them, were quickly ambushed by a well-prepared and well-rested Clemson team that ended up defeating them 44-5.

Later, as coach of Georgia Tech, Heisman led his squad against a terribly overmatched Cumberland team that had already been disbanded but were contractually obligated to play against this national powerhouse. For whatever reason—some say retribution for a baseball defeat, others say he was protesting the total point national championship system in place at the time—he showed no mercy. Final score: Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0.

Heisman Trophy History

Heisman retired from coaching in 1927 and moved on to become the athletic director at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York. In 1935, Heisman initiated the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, which was awarded to the top college player in America. However, he died of pneumonia the following year and the name of the trophy was then changed to the Heisman Memorial Trophy.

Interestingly, the famous stiff-arm pose is not based on Heisman himself, who was mainly a lineman, but was actually based on Ed Smith, an NYU running back who simply volunteered to model for his sculptor friend. Apparently, Smith didn’t even know what he had modeled for and it was only after he was contacted by a documentary filmmaker in 1982 that he learned he had been the inspiration for the most famous pose in football.  

Can you name all the Heisman winners who went on to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame? Or, test your trivia skills in the quiz below!


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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 161 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.