By the end of each year sports fans everywhere know who won the Davis Cup, the Stanley Cup, the Curtis Cup and a host of other trophies. But what do they know about the people whose names are on the cups? About Dwight F. Davis? About Lord Stanley? About Margaret and Harriot Curtis? Little enough, in all likelihood. All of us learned a few weeks ago that Jim Plunkett, the Stanford quarterback, had just won the Heisman Trophy for 1970. We know quite a bit about Plunkett—but what do we know about Heisman? Probably about as much as the man who in 1948, some 13 years after the trophy was instituted, introduced that year's selectee, Southern Methodist's fabulous Doak Walker as "the great Wassermann winner."
Even the record books haven't got things quite straight about the man they list as John William Heisman. In the first place, he was not John William, but Johann Wilhelm. In the second, even his claim to the surname Heisman was questionable. His great-grandfather was a German baron named von Bogart whose willful son married a peasant girl from Alsace-Lorraine and was promptly disinherited. Rather than give up his bride, the stubborn son gave up his name, took hers (Heismann) and fled to the U.S., where he struck it rich in the oil-barrel business in Pennsylvania. Although the old baron, by then fallen on hard times, eventually proved willing to overlook the defections of a son so obviously solvent, and offered him the comfort of his home and his name again, the son decided to stay where he was and stick to the new monicker. Thus it was that the son born to his son in Cleveland in 1870 bore the name Heismann or Heisman rather than Bogart; otherwise everyone might be guessing at year's end who would win the Bogart Trophy.
Whatever his proper surname, Johann Wilhelm was an avid athlete. He played baseball, ran track, and was one of the first football players to earn letters at two colleges. He played tackle for Brown for three years, then moved on to Penn to play tackle and end and pick up an LL.B. degree.
Even after graduation, football continued to have a greater appeal to Johann than the law, and he went on to win a place in Football's Hall of Fame as one of the game's most successful coaches and innovators. As a coach at eight colleges—Oberlin, Akron, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Penn, Washington & Jefferson and Rice—Heisman had a record of 186 wins against only 70 losses. As an innovator, he devised the center snap, the first legitimate scoreboard and was responsible for the ultimate legalization and recognition of the forward pass.
In 1895 Heisman had seen what was probably the first forward pass in football history, a last-ditch bit of inventiveness by a North Carolina punter who eluded onrushing Georgia tacklers by throwing, rather than kicking, the ball for a game-winning 70-yard touchdown. Heisman, already disenchanted with the old game's brutality—its flying wedges, mass formations, and bloodied players—saw in this gesture a whole new vision of football, gentled and made exquisite by the forward pass, and he determined one day to make it a basic part of the game.
Long before he was able to accomplish this, however, Coach Heisman kept busy winning games the old way. By the time his forward pass came into general use Heisman was starting the third of his 16 successful seasons at Georgia Tech. His 1899 Auburn team had beaten Tech 63-0 and four years later his Clemson club had embarrassed the Rambling Wrecks 73-0. Obviously there was nothing Tech could do but hire him, and in 1916 Heisman's Tech team ran up the highest score of all time, beating Cumberland College in Lebanon, Tenn., by a score of 222-0.
As a coach, Johann Wilhelm had more than a trace of his German great-grandfather's aristocratic mien (a coach, he insisted, "should be masterful and commanding, even dictatorial; he must be severe, arbitrary and little short of a czar") spiced with a generous helping of pure Westphalian ham.
"No apples, no apples," he would declaim at the training table. "Give my players raw meat. Lots of raw meat." Once at the college chapel services he rose to say, "Gentlemen, we are destitute of people. If you weigh 150 pounds or more, please come out for football."
Each fall as the football season began, Coach Heisman would face his recruits holding a football as Hamlet held Yorick's skull. "What is it?" he would ask rhetorically. "A prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere—in which the outer leathern casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing." Then, after a melodramatic pause, he would say in muted tones, "Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."
Heisman's stepson, Carlisle Cox, a retired cavalry colonel, recalled in the December 1964 issue of Atlanta magazine how Heisman used to pace the floor of his study "and talk out his problems aloud.... In this room there was a chandelier which hung just low enough to hit his bald spot. He would walk under that chandelier, it would clip him, he would cuss a little, move off to one side and four minutes later he would walk under it and bust his head again. For one entire season his head never got well."