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Football's John Heisman


John Heisman

John Heisman

(courtesy of the Smithsonian -- www.si.edu/copyright)
John Heisman, born in Cleveland's Ohio City in 1869, was an early player, coach, and advocate of the game that became America's passion. Today, he is best known as the man whose name adorns college football's most prestigious award, but John Heisman gave much more to the game than just a statuette.

Early Years:

John Heisman was born in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood. A plaque now stands in front of his former home on Bridge Street. He grew up, however, in Titusville, in the oil country of northeastern PA.

Playing College Football:

Heisman attended Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania and played an early version of club football that was part rugby and part football. He played a number of positions, including guard, tackle, center, and sometimes end.

Heisman's playing career ended abruptly near graduation when a lightening bolt struck very near to him, damaging his eyesight.

A Winning Coach:

John Heisman began his coaching career shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His first coaching job was at Northeast Ohio's Oberlin College, where he led his team to an undefeated season in just the second year of the school's football program.
Heisman's more than 30-year coaching career included stints at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Akron, Clemson, Auburn, Rice University, and Washington and Jefferson. He is best known for his record at Georgia Tech (1904-1919) where his team won 33 straight games. It was also at Georgia Tech where his team defeated Cumberland University by a score of 222-0, the most one-sided football game ever played.

Contribution to Football:

Among Heisman's many innovations in the developing game of football are the shift, having the center "snap" the ball backwards instead of rotating with it, and the legalization of the forward pass.

Later Years:

After "retiring" from football, Heisman wrote extensively about the game. He also became the first athletic director of Manhattan's Downtown Athletic Club (DAC). In his capacity at the club, he organized the National Football Coaches Association.

The Heisman Trophy:

Late in his life, Heisman became interested in rewarding the year's best college football player. He set in motion the voting procedures and traditions of the DAC to choose an annual recipient. Heisman lived to only see one trophy awarded (in 1935). The next year, the trustees of the DAC unanimously voted to name the award after John Heisman. After the DAC closed in 2002, the award has been presented by the city's Yale Club.

Another Cleveland Connection:

The 2011 Heisman Trophy winner was Robert Griffin III from Baylor U. Previous winners have included a number of Ohio State players, including Ohio State quarterback (and Clevelander), Troy Smith (2006), Les Horvath ('44), Vic Janowicz ('50), Howard "Hop-a-long" Cassady ('55), Archie Griffin ('74 and '75), and Eddie George ('95). Griffin is the only player to win the trophy twice.


  • Heisman Trophy official website (www.heismantrophy.com)
  • Creating the Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football by Wiley Lee Umphlett; Greenwood Press; 1992
  • Principles of Football by John W. Heisman; 1922/2000; Hill Street Press

(Last updated 12-6-12)

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