Famous Sports Awards: The Heisman Trophy

The Heisman Memorial Trophy is recognized as one of the most prestigious awards in college football. With a rich history that dates back to the 1930s, the Heisman is awarded to one college football player each year for demonstrating outstanding athletic aptitude with exemplary dedication, honesty, and hard work. Another Heisman is also presented to the winner’s affiliate college. Previous recipients of the Heisman include some of the National Football League’s (NFL) most prominent players such as Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III, to name a few.

Weighing in at 45 pounds and measuring over a foot long, the Heisman Trophy is cast in bronze through an ancient process known as “lost wax.” The trophy is reminiscent of a great past-time (notice the cool leather helmet!) and features the same iconic pose as the first award presented in 1935—a muscular football player side-stepping an imaginary opponent with an outstretched stiff-arm.

Early History: The DAC Trophy

In 1935, members of the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC), an organization committed to athletic excellence, began discussing the idea of an award that recognized the most outstanding college football player of the season. The group quickly organized a Club Trophy Committee to head a project for a DAC Trophy, a unique award that honored athletic talent and symbolized American collegiate athletics.

To capture the greatness of such a grand trophy, the committee hired renowned sculptor Frank Eliscu to produce a clay prototype of a football player fighting for a touchdown. Eliscu recruited Ed Smith, a triple-threat (proficient in running, throwing, and kicking) running back for New York University, to pose in the now legendary side step, stiff-arm position for the initial prototype.

After receiving several revisions from coaches and players alike, the Notre Dame football team made the final approval on November 16, 1935. At the end of the season, the DAC Trophy was awarded to Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago on December 9, 1935, and marked the first year of recognition for an elite class of football players.

Honoring the Late John Heisman

The following year the DAC Trophy became known as the Heisman Memorial Trophy to commemorate the passing of football’s greatest innovator: John W. Heisman. With an illustrious coaching career that spanned over three decades, John Heisman is credited for shaping many of college football’s earliest rules including the forward pass. Members of the DAC committee agreed to rename the trophy before Yale’s Larry Kelley received the award in 1936.

Voting for the Heisman

Three groups are allowed to vote for the Heisman nominees: sports journalists (selected by state representatives), former Heisman winners, and one fan (chosen by ESPN). Sports journalists, the largest percentage of voters, are organized by region. The six regions include:

  • Far West
  • Mid Atlantic
  • Mid West
  • Northeast
  • South
  • Southwest

Each region is awarded 145 state votes (870 across the U.S.). With one fan vote from the public plus the surviving Heisman winners from previous years (currently 57), the total number of votes for the Heisman ballot comes to 928.

Voters are given a choice in the ballot between three possible candidates and the scores are calculated based on ranking—i.e. the first choice is worth three points, the second choice is worth two points, and the third choice is worth one point. The player that receives the most points is awarded the Heisman Trophy.

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