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The Man Behind the Heisman Trophy: John W. Heisman

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The Coveted Heisman Trophy

The Coveted Heisman Trophy

Early Life

John W. Heisman was born Johann Wilhelm Heisman on October 10, 1869, in Cleveland, Ohio, to German immigrants Michael and Sarah Heisman. Muchael had fallen in love with Sarah, and although he was the son of a baron, he relinquished his title and inheritance for love.

In 1887, John was a student at Brown University, but he transferred to the University of Penn intending to get his law degree. However, while playing a game at Madison Square Gardens, a chandelier broke from the roof, spraying John with a chemical. The team doctor informed him that he had to rest his eyes for two years. With the help of fellow teammates and students reading the law studies, John could take his LLB exam orally. On June 6, 1892, he was granted his law degree.

Realizing he would be limited to reading, which law required a lot of, he then accepted to take the position of a football coach at Oberlin College.

John Heisman, Oberlin College 2nd row, 1st from left

John Heisman, Oberlin College 2nd row, 1st from left


It must be remembered that football was a dangerous game in the 1900s. Headgear was almost non-existant, and helmets weren't required until 1939. In 1905, 18 players died, and 150 were injured. President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid college football fan, and he called for a summit at the White House to discuss how to make the game safer.

For three years, Heisman had lobbied Walter Camp, the "Father of Football," to allow the forward pass that would help make the game safer. The rules committee finally allowed the forward pass.

An interesting trick play introduced by Heisman while coaching at Agriculture and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn) was unique. He had his quarterback Reynolds Tichenor conceal the ball under his shirt while in a huddle. The play began when Tichenor pretended to tie his shoe, got up, and scored a touchdown completely untouched. This play would be later be called illegal.

From 1901-1904, Heisman coached Clemson with a record of 19-3-2. Georgia Tech offered Heisman a coaching job at a salary of $2260 annually with 30% of the receipts. He and his wife moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he remained for 17 seasons.

In 1916, one of the most lopsided games in college football occurred when Georgia Tech defeated Cumberland with a score of 222-0! Heisman justified his team scoring because he believed that Cumberland cheated in their baseball games by using professional players.

In a game in 1923, Heisman stood tall for his principals. He refused a request by the coach of Washington and Lee that Heisman remove a black player from the game. Heisman refused and Washington and Lee refused to play.

Scoreboard 122-0 1916

Scoreboard 122-0 1916


John Heisman would be responsible for some of the most significant changes in football today as we know it. Some of these include:

  • The Center Snap
  • The Hand Off
  • Breaking the game into two halves, later into four quarters
  • Adding a scoreboard
  • The Forward Pass ruled legal in 1906
  • Invented the Onside Kick
  • First for a quarterback to use the word hike

The Heisman Trophy

The highly coveted Heisman Trophy was first called the DAC Trophy. Heisman was the first director of the Downtown Athletic Club. The trophy was to be awarded to "the most valuable college football player."

The trophy was designed by sculptor Frank Eliscu. It was modeled after Ed Smith, a leading player at New York University. The award is cast in bronze, 13.5" tall, 14" long, 16" wide, and weighs 45 pounds. Ed Smith never realized until 1982 that the sculpture was modeled after him. So in 1985, the club presented Smith with a Heisman Trophy of his own.

After John Heisman died suddenly in October 1936, it was renamed the Heisman Trophy.

Voting for the winner of the Heisman Trophy is done by sports journalists, who are believed to be informed, competent, and impartial. Ballots are sent out to 870 sports journalists and 56 living Heisman winners. They each list first place, second place, and third place. First place gets three points, second place gets two points, and third place gets one point.

John Heisman Retires

Heisman retired in 1927 at the age of 62. He is buried in Forest Hope Cemetery, Rhinelander, Wisconsin, alongside his wife, Edith.

In 1954, Heisman was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Heisman had a few quotes he lived by, and he expected his players to do the same.

He wrote a book in 1923, Principals of Coaching. The book was reprinted in 2009 and is full of the history and changes of football. In his book, Heisman said a coach should be "a little short of a czar." He also said a coach should always admit mistakes and never use profanity.

Heisman was a remarkable man, and we owe him for his insight into the game of football.

John Heisman Quote

John Heisman Quote

Sources Used

Sources used for this article include: