September 22, 2010
Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. Today he looks at the men who made the Heisman Trophy.
The Heisman Trophy has no rival as the most iconic prize in American sports. Imagine another award that could evoke the emotion and backlash that followed Reggie Bush's decision to become the first player to give his Heisman back last week. Or another pose that could move the president. Or turn a quick snap by a student photographer into a cause for celebration. No other award – not just the honor and pomp, but the actual hunk of metal itself – is such an integral part of the sporting landscape.
But there's something you probably never realized about the leather-helmeted runner with the stone-faced gaze and textbook stiffarm: It's not the fabled, journeyman coach who helped shape and spread the game at the turn of the 20th Century. In fact, Heisman was a lineman at Penn and Brown from 1887-91, not a running back. (Though he did take time to strike an early version of the pose in his playing days.)
Instead, the famous image that dominates the airwaves every December belongs to a player from a school that doesn't even have a football team anymore: New York University’s Ed Smith, a bruising fullback for the Violets during the 1930s who nearly became lost to history – even to Smith himself.
Consider the context of the game at the genesis of trophy. Before the post-war emergence of the NFL and its television empire, college football was booming during the Great Depression, and nowhere more so than New York City, where powerhouses Army and Notre Dame drew 80,000 for their epic 1934 match-up in Yankee Stadium. The game was so popular that New York's Downtown Athletic Club and its first athletic director, John Heisman, decided to award an annual trophy to the greatest college player east of the Mississippi River.
So they approached Frank Eliscu, a young, local sculptor fresh out of college, and offered him $500 for the assignment. Needing a model, Eliscu asked his childhood friend Smith to come by his Greenwich Village studio and pose in his NYU uniform. Eliscu made a preliminary clay version in Smith's likeness and then perfected the player’s sidestep and stiff-arm by watching a Fordham player pose. Afterward, a plaster cast was sculpted and cast in bronze for the final edition.
Later, Eliscu said he never told Smith what he was posing for because he didn't normally tell his subjects about his projects, and this project seemed like a small assignment, anyway. Initially, it was: In December of 1935, the first Downtown Athletic Club Trophy was presented to Chicago's Jay Berwanger. After Heisman passed away from pneumonia the following fall, the club decided to rename the award after the late legend.
As the trophy became a staple of college football, Eliscu and Smith went their separate ways. Eliscu served in the Army in World War II and returned to continue his distinguished sculpting career. Meanwhile, Smith had a brief career in the NFL before going into the elevator construction business in New York.
Having lost touch, Eliscu never tipped off his childhood friend that it was Smith, not Heisman, adorning what came to be the most prestigious individual award in sports. It wasn't for nearly a half-century after the original pose, in 1982, that Smith was alerted to his own famous face, after filmmaker Bud Greenspan contacted Smith to interview him for that year's Heisman coverage on television.
Weeks later, Smith was at the award dinner in Manhattan, and in 1985 he was presented his own Heisman Trophy. Before the 1986 presentation, he was even introduced to the candidates before the presentation and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time."
Smith passed away two years after Eliscu, in 1998. But while he remains an unknown player from nearly a century ago, his legacy in college football is easy to measure and secure: It's precisely 25 pounds, safely sealed in bronze and beamed across America on a weekly basis every fall.
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Jim Weber is the founder of HYPERLINK "http://www.lostlettermen.com/" LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sport's past to the present.