December 9, 1935: First Awarding of the Heisman Trophy

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A Brief History

On December 9, 1935, the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City (now known simply as The Downtown Club) made their choice for the most outstanding college football player, naming Jay Berwanger, halfback for the University of Chicago as the winner of the Downtown Athletic Club Award, the prize later renamed The Heisman Trophy.

Digging Deeper

Probably the most prestigious award in college football, the Heisman got its name from the Athletic Director of the DAC who died in 1936 and the award was renamed to honor him. Unlike most of the players so honored, Berwanger never played pro football even though he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Berwanger at University of Chicago in early 1930s

Certainly not the only college football award given each year, the Heisman as stated previously honors the “most outstanding” player” as does the Associated Press (AP) Player of the Year Award. Other awards such as the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award give their honor to the “best player” of the year and the Archie Griffin Award honors the “most valuable player” in college football. Griffin achieved a high level of fame by being the first and only player to win 2 Heisman Trophies, for running the football for The Ohio State University in 1974 and 1975. Other college football awards honor linemen and defensive players that seem to be largely ignored in Heisman Trophy voting in favor of flashy offensive players.

Another notable (infamous) Heisman Trophy recipient is Reggie Bush, running back from USC who won the Trophy for the 2005 season, but later was stripped of his award due to a scandal involving his accepting improper gifts while he played college football. OJ Simpson was a fantastic college running back who went on to a fantastic career in the NFL, turning his celebrity into a successful movie and commercial ad career. Too bad he ended up killing his ex-wife and her friend and going to jail for kidnapping and armed robbery!

Simpson’s mugshot, 17 June 1994

Many Heisman recipients have gone on to productive NFL careers, although some believe there is a certain curse involved in getting this honor. Ernie Davis, star running back for Syracuse (Jim Brown’s successor there) was the first ever African American Heisman Trophy winner in 1961 and he ended up never playing a game for the Cleveland Browns that drafted him. Davis died of Leukemia in 1963, ending any chance of Jim Brown and Ernie Davis sharing a backfield as the greatest running back twosome in history, which they would have been. (No discussion, no doubt!) This Heisman Curse allegedly makes the team the winner plays for lose their upcoming Bowl game, and some of the miserable failures as professional football players are pointed out as “proof” of the curse. Since many Heisman Trophy winners go on to great pro careers and have a great life, we have to play down this curse as “not true.” (Still, those that believe the curse can point to one name, Johnny Manziel, and smugly leave it at that.)

Small colleges and West Coast schools often moan about a bias favoring big schools and those East of the Mississippi, due to the increased publicity those schools may experience for their players. Notre Dame and The Ohio State University share top billing with 7 Heisman Trophy winners each, while USC, a West Coast team, is next with 6 winners. Oklahoma rounds out the only other school boasting at least 5 winners.

2015 winner Derrick Henry (No. 2) at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in 2013

The 2016 Heisman Trophy will be awarded on December 10, 2016, also known as tomorrow. Question for students: Who will be the happy winner this year? Please give us your prediction.

Headline: December 5, 2016: 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam (Colorado) was found dead in a Colorado park of unknown reasons.  No obvious signs of trauma existed, but the 42 year old left some sort of note that police have not released yet, causing them to believe the death may have been suicide.  Salaam played only 5 years in the NFL, a career cut short by injuries.  His last game was with the Cleveland Browns in 1999, but his best year was 1995 when he became the youngest player to ever rush for over 1000 yards and won the Rookie of the Year Award.  Friends and family universally describe him as a nice person, although he was so wracked by financial problems recently that he had to sell his Heisman Trophy ring.

Salaam holding the Heisman trophy, 1994

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

McCartney, Cory.  The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.  Sports Publishing, 2016.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.