Photo, below right: via Getty Images. John Heisman when he was the coach at Georgia Tech. He coached the team from 1904 to 1919.
Early in 1935, the officers of the Downtown Athletic Club of New York proposed an idea to name one football player the best in the country. The club would honor that player at a formal banquet hosted by the club with great pomp and circumstance. It seemed like such a grand notion that they took the idea to the club’s college football authority, John Heisman.
“Why?” Heisman asked.
Heisman had been hired as the club’s first athletic director in May 1930. He was an obvious choice for the position, having been one of college football’s most successful early coaches and innovators, as well as having worked in similar capacities at the Atlanta Athletic Club and Houston Athletic Club. For the position in New York, Heisman received recommendations from Amos Alonzo Stagg, Grantland Rice and Robert Jones Jr., among others.
Heisman argued that since the Touchdown Club of New York’s annual banquet was already in place for December, having another ceremony to honor a player of the year would be redundant. How could an individual be found or judged as the best in the country? Football is and always has been a team sport, Heisman argued, so where exactly is the merit in creating this type of award?
As to how the player of the year would be determined, the Downtown Athletic Club officers argued that a voting system could be implemented. Sportswriters, whose jobs required them to have a degree of objectivity in reporting on football players and teams, would be the likely voters. Their qualifications would need to include the breadth of their reporting, both in the number of teams they covered and the number of regional conferences attended.
The player of the year would be determined by a consensus vote, weighted by opinions across many regions.
Ignoring Heisman’s objection, the officers continued to press the issue. Finally, they argued, it would enhance the reputation of the club and become a driving force for new membership.
Heisman, then 65 and eight years removed from his last coaching job, had worked arduously in his position of athletic director and supervisor of physical facilities at the Downtown Athletic Club.
He and his wife, Edith, had moved in 1927 to New York, where he worked with a sporting goods company and continued his writing career. His role at the Downtown Athletic Club was to attract new membership, host social events and bring a wholehearted physical fitness program to the business community of Lower Manhattan. Heisman’s constant admonishments for fitness and overall health maintenance had not been ignored.
When one of his Downtown Athletic Club Journal articles proclaimed how fitness promoted a good digestive tract, one of the members jibed, “Heis, I knew you were a coach and a lawyer, I didn’t know you were a doctor, too!” The moniker stuck. Doc Heisman roamed the club and carried a well-earned, yet unpretentious air of authority. Doc simply seemed fitting, and the nickname was used with respect, affection and appreciation.
Heisman probably debated the merits of awarding a national player of the year trophy for hours in his second-floor office at the Downtown Athletic Club. It was his favorite method in mulling over a problem and devising its solution.
Finally, Heisman admitted there were some merits in a trophy.
With great enthusiasm, the officers encouraged Heisman to draw up the qualifications, figure out a voting system and give the award a proper name. Heisman was put in charge of awarding the first Downtown Athletic Club Award.
The trophy’s initial voting system was a simple majority vote from sportswriters. Voting would later include a system of regions with each voter giving weighted first-, second- and third-place votes. The initial voting region was simply “east of the Mississippi River,” as Heisman still wasn’t convinced that great football was being played out west.
More than anything else, Heisman wanted the award to reflect his own ideals of a football player. The individual needed to be of good character, someone who always presented himself as a gentleman. The player’s attitude should be selfless with his team’s best interest in mind – not self-aggrandizement. After jotting down about a half-dozen qualifications, Heisman sent the requirements to the club’s executive committee, which approved them as written.
Next came the issue of what the trophy would look like. In searching for a unique design, the Downtown Athletic Club commissioned Frank Eliscu, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, to design the trophy. Eliscu had won a National Academy prize for his sculptures, and was looking for a job that paid.
Eliscu decided to make the trophy by using a metal-casting method known as the lost-wax process. He asked his friend, Ed Smith, a running back at New York University, to pose for the design of the sculpture. Eliscu decided to go with a football player sidestepping and straight-arming a would-be tackler. The Downtown Athletic Club officers approved Eliscu’s initial design and he molded a clay sculpture. Eliscu took the model to Fordham University and Rams Coach Jim Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s famed Four Horsemen, had his players take various positions to illustrate the football sidestep.
Over the next 76 years, it would become one of the most recognized trophies in American sports.
On Dec. 9, 1935, Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger, the “one-man gang,” was presented the first Downtown Athletic Club Award at a noon luncheon at the club. The New York Times reported: “the luncheon gathering was large enough to fill two dining rooms of the club and overflow into a third.”
Berwanger was an excellent student and his athletic abilities won the respect of his peers. Of the 107 opponents he played, 104 of them named him the best halfback they had ever seen.
Heisman didn’t have much of a role in the first Downtown Athletic Club presentation, but he did preside over a Touchdown Club of New York meeting at the Hotel Martinique, where Berwanger was honored again.
It was the last time Heisman would meet a winner. It was also the last time the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy would be presented.