The Heisman Trophy, won last night by Troy Smith, the Ohio State quarterback, is an award most are familiar with, but few know who inspired it. Mike Garrett, the 1965 winner, when presented with the trophy said it best: “The award is wonderful, but who’s Heisman?”
John William Heisman (1869-1936), an Ivy League-educated lawyer, coached football for numerous colleges in the early days of the game. He achieved his greatest fame for spearheading the rule change that allowed the forward pass, probably the single change in the game that has given it its enduring popularity. Prior to Heisman’s efforts, football was a pretty dull, low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that caused its fair share of serious injury and even death to the players. Compare the razzle dazzle fast moving game of today with the 2 or 3 yard gains of run after run after run of the early days of football. It’s no wonder that baseball was the great American game then.
But Heisman’s innovations didn’t stop with the forward pass.
Aside from leading the fight for the legalization of the pass in the early 1900s, Heisman pushed to divide the game into quarters and created the center snap. The ball had previously been rolled on the ground. Heisman introduced the “hike” vocal signal and the first audible at the line. He invented the hidden ball trick and what would now be called the fumblerooski. Because he wanted fans to understand play-calling, he made it easier for them to follow the downs and yardage needed by erecting something else new at games: a scoreboard.
The game as we know it today was pretty much styled by Heisman’s efforts. He was, like Knute Rockne, a locker room orator given to exhorting his teams with the pithy phrase.
One of my few (very few) vices is that I love to bet NFL football. The entire NFL football season is, for me, a frenzy of line sheets, injury and weather reports, calls to bookies and nail biting as the games play out. (As an aside, I’ve done well today so far: I won on Jacksonville, Miami, and the New York Giants. I lost on Detroit. Right now I’m winning with Arizona (+3.5 vs. Seattle) and am getting hammered on Denver (+7.5) against San Diego) One of the dreaded events that can change a game in a heart beat is when one team fumbles. I remember it forever when I’m winning a game in the final minutes or when my team is getting ready to score to cover my spread and someone coughs up the ball. All my players are compensated extremely well, and in my world, there is no room for fumbles. Consequently, I loved Heisman’s locker room speech to his players on the subject. In fact, I’m going to memorize the last line so that I can shout it at the TV screen when one of my highly paid employees flubs it.
Heisman, standing before his players when he first met them, would hold aloft a football and ask, “What is this?”
Answering his own question, Heisman said: “It is a prolate spheroid in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing.”
Heisman would pause and add: “Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.”
In case you’re feeling sorry for my bride, whom you figure is a football widow: Don’t. She is a much bigger fan than I. In fact, I rely on her for statistics, injury reports, etc. because she keeps up with all that closely. And, she never misses a game. In fact, she’s bummed right now because she is off singing Handel’s Messiah with the Choral Society instead of sitting glued to the tube watching the Broncos (her favorite team) get pounded.