History of the Heisman Trophy

History of the Heisman TrophyPrestige. Competitiveness. Athleticism. These words come to mind when one thinks of the most esteemed award in American collegiate athletics, the Heisman Memorial Trophy. A common goal of every college football player is to enter the fraternity of players who have hoisted this momentous award.


The award made its debut in 1935 inside Manhattan’s Downtown Athletic Club (DAC), which was located near what was the future site of the World Trade Center. University of Chicago running back Jay Berwanger was the first recipient of the simply named DAC Trophy, and was selected with the first overall pick in the 1936 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. However, he declined to sign with the team and never played professional football. Legendary football innovator John Heisman became the athletics director for DAC, but unfortunately passed away on October 3, 1936 at the age of 66. To immortalize his legacy, the DAC decided to change the name of their trophy to the Heisman Memorial Trophy. And now to answer the obvious question some may be pondering…

Who was John Heisman?

The former center and tackle for Brown University (1887-1889) and the University of Pennsylvania (1890-1891) used his ingenuity and familiarity with offensive line play to forever change the basic fundamentals of football as a coach. He originally came up with the idea to have both the left and right guards on the offensive line pull out of their position and lead the running back on outside runs. In the very early days of football, centers used to kick or roll the ball to the quarterback at the beginning of a play, but Heisman invented an easier method of getting the ball to the quarterback, known as the snap. The snap is the action of the center placing the ball directly into the quarterback’s hands or tossing it backwards to him off the ground (known as a long snap) at the start of each play.  Heisman also coined the “hike”, the word yelled by the quarterback to start a play and trigger the snap, and he backed the legalization of the forward pass in 1906. Originally football was played over two halves, but Heisman was the first to pitch the idea that football should be played over four quarters instead.

John Heisman was not just an innovator, though. His 16 year tenure as the head coach of Georgia Tech (1904-1919) resulted in victories in 77 percent of their matchups and a 1917 national championship. Under Heisman’s leadership, Georgia Tech never lost more than half of their games in any season, and the team together an incredible 32-game winning streak. The most one-sided game in college football history is credited to Heisman’s 1916 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets after their 222-0 manhandling of the Cumberland College Bulldogs. Allegedly, Heisman’s desire to run up the score was in revenge for Cumberland’s 22-0 beatdown of Georgia Tech’s baseball team in 1915, which he also coached. By all standards, John Heisman was a winner on the gridiron and exemplified the competitiveness the Heisman Memorial Trophy symbolizes.

Notable previous Heisman winners

  • 1936 – Yale product Larry Kelley was the first player to win the award after it was called the Heisman Memorial Trophy.
  • 1961 – Syracuse running back, fullback and linebacker Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman, but he never played in the NFL due to being diagnosed with leukemia in 1962 and passing away in 1963.
  • 1963 – Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys and Navy quarterback Roger Staubach was the last player from a military school to win the Heisman.
  • 1966 – Florida Gators quarterback Steve Spurrier gave his award to university president Dr. J. Wayne Reitz so the students and faculty could share the award. The school then raised money to get a replacement for Spurrier, prompting the DAC to create two trophies, one for the winner and a replica for the school.
  • 1968 – NFL Hall of Famer and University of Southern California running back O.J. Simpson sold his Heisman trophy for $230,000 in February 1999 as part of the civil lawsuit settlement in the O.J. Simpson murder case.
  • 1974-75 – Ohio State running back Archie Griffin is the only player to win the award twice.
  • 1997 – Current Oakland Raiders free safety, former Michigan cornerback and likely future NFL Hall of Famer Charles Woodson was the only player who primarily played defense to win the Heisman.
  • 2007 – Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was the first sophomore to win the award.
  • 2009 – Alabama running back Mark Ingram, Jr. is the only Alabama player to win the Heisman.
  • 2012 – Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was the first freshman to win the award.

Heisman Trophy Candidate Rankings

All stats and opinions are as of November 12, 2013

Just to set the record straight, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron’s relatively low stats (2,041 passing yards, 19 passing TDs) will prevent him from winning the Heisman, and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota’s poor performance against Stanford killed his candidacy. The next three players have the best chance to take home the trophy.

Bryce Petty, Quarterback, Baylor

Why he might win: Dominated Oklahoma (204 passing yards, 3 TDs), leads best offense in college football, averages a NCAA-leading 13.1 yards per pass, will gain national attention as Baylor plays the meat of their schedule (Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Texas Christian, Texas).

Why he probably will not: Petty has not faced tough competition and at least one of the four teams is likely to make him struggle.

Johnny Manziel, Quarterback, Texas A&M

Why he might win: Through the roof passing yards (3,299) and passing TDs (31) and may eclipse his 47 total touchdowns from last year.

Why he probably will not: Has 11 interceptions already, still has to face tough defenses in LSU and Missouri, Heisman voters avoid voting for previous Heisman winners and off-the-field issues give him a bad reputation.

Jameis Winston, Quarterback, Florida State

Why he will probably win: Second highest efficiency rating in NCAA (following Bryce Petty), has high passing yardage (2,666) and passing TDs (26) and should finish strong against Syracuse, Idaho, Florida and in the ACC Championship and faced tougher competition than Petty.

Why he might not win, but still probably will: Did not play too well against a weak Wake Forest squad (17 for 28 for 159 passing yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), but then again FSU’s 59-3 beatdown on Wake Forest suggests Winston was not even needed. Heisman voters will likely disregard the game.

Be sure to tune in on Saturday, December 14 to see who this year’s winner will be. Interested readers can also follow @heismantrophy on Twitter to stay in the know on all things Heisman.

Jonathan Ebanks is an avid sports fan who doubles as a freelance writer/editor and as a financial analyst for the Law Offices of Krupnick Campbell Malone. Email Jonathan at [email protected].





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