Golden Football Magazine
Football Profiles
John Heisman - I
The namesake of the most prestigious award in college football was born in Cleveland OH in 1869 and grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania.
  • His first loves were baseball and acting. But young John also played on the football team at Titusville High School, although what was played was a combination of soccer and rugby. Though undersized, he played guard.
    John's father, a German immigrant, refused to watch his son play football. Mr. Heisman proclaimed that the game was "brutal ... a waste of time" that "should be prohibited."
  • An outstanding student, John gave the salutatorian address at graduation. A newspaper account of the ceremony praised his talk as "full of dramatic emphasis and fire" which earned it "well-merited applause."
    Even before Knute Rockne, Heisman would become known as a great motivator of his teams
At age 17, Heisman left home to attend Brown University with an ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer.
  • He quickly learned that a different brand of football was played in New England from what he experienced in Titusville. The oval ball could be lateralled and kicked much easier.
  • Heisman became a 148-pound LT on a makeshift team of freshmen who played against boys from the town of Providence. He quickly learned to read the stance of the much bigger man across from him. This enabled him to sidestep blocks and make tackles or at least force the ball carrier into another gap.
  • However, his enthusiasm was dampened by the news that Brown had dropped no varsity football team. Heisman wrote later, "I had chosen my college badly. Brown had played such a rotten game during the several preceding seasons that the authorities had decided ... to abandon intercollegiate competition." So he slaked his football thirst by playing for a local club team.
  • He fared well academically at Brown for two years before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania. Penn had two advantages over Brown - a law school and an intercollegiate football team.
John Heisman at Penn in a pose
that would be memorialized
on a statue
The "football mad" Heisman (his words) joined the Quakers' varsity team for the 1889 season.
  • He was a substitute center that year and the following one but also played tackle in 1890. Then he started at end in 1891. At 160 pounds, he was the smallest lineman on the team.
  • Football rules were changed for the 1889 season to permit tackling down to the knees. Before that, a tackle was allowed only from the waist up to and below the head. Heisman had been a "high tackler" but changed his approach when he caused an injury to a teammate at practice. He chased down the ball carrier from behind and leaped on his back and neck. The added weight broke the runner's leg. Heisman recalled, "I grieved mightily over the accident and determined never again to make a high tackle."
  • His signature play at Penn came in the third game of the 1890 season against Penn State. Late in the game, the Nittany Lions went into punt formation. Hiking the ball to start each play wouldn't be invented for another five years. Instead the pigskin was pawed back to the QB, who picked it up, spun around, and passed it back underhanded to the punter. Calling on skills he learned as a gymnast, Heisman moved back a couple of feet, guessed the snap count, leaped over the center, and headed for the punter. Years later, he described what happened in the florid Shakespearean style he learned in drama classes.
    High in the air I leaped with both hands upraised. Did I block it with my hands? No! The durned thing found a hole between them just big enough to wiggle through, but it wouldn't get past my nose! Holy Kitty Cats of Isis! How it did smart! Another bloody nose for me and my eyes running tears as big as 'taters. But I took after that black comet [the football] as fast as I could, and, of course, along went Atherton [the punter]. Neck and neck we ran until he took a sudden dive at something I couldn't see well. He must have missed it, but dimly seeing something round and dark on the ground, I pounced on it like a duck on a June bug. The thing wiggled out from under my clutch, and a harsh voice snarled, 'What t'hell yah tryin' to do?!' It was Atherton's voice. I had mistaken his head for the ball. I wished then I had given it a swift kick! Meanwhile, Ammerman [John's teammate] had fallen on the ball for us and a touchdown.
    John was left with a battle scar that would remain with him the rest of his life.
An 1890 game against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden in New York almost ended Heisman's chance of graduating from law school.
  • The arena's lighting system was being serviced, which involved lowered the lights to the floor and working on them. As one of the units was being tested while the Quakers were practicing, the lights were turned on, "emitting noxious and acrid fumes." Heisman was nearby and his eyes were stung by the bright lights and hot fumes. Blinking back tears, he experienced blurred vision, which continued throughout the game.
  • When the team returned to campus after the 13-10 victory, he couldn't see to read. A doctor advised him not to read for six months to avoid blindness. He enlisted the aid of fellow students to review class material orally and petitioned the faculty to allow him to take all his law exams orally. The plan worked, and he received his law degree.
  • When he left Penn at age 22, still suffering from blurred vision, he wasn't sure what the future held.

His eyesight improving, Heisman accepted a position as football coach at Oberlin College, which was the largest college in Ohio - 1,492 students.

  • In addition to being the first professionally paid coach in the state, he enrolled as a postgraduate student in the arts department, which allowed him to play on his varsity team.
  • Heisman demanded that his players spend as much time focusing on the mental aspects of the game as the physical ones. He was among the first, if not the first, coaches to institute a system of audibles at the line of scrimmage and a script for his team's plays. The QB called a signal that indicated the script to follow for the next six offensive plays. The system was necessary because coaches weren't allowed to coach from the sideline. Only team captains were allowed to give instructions on the field.
  • Oberlin won all seven of its games, shutting out five of the opponents, including Ohio State (50-0).

    1892 Oberlin football team. Heisman is at the far left of the second row.
The season ended with a trip to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan. The Wolverines had defeated Amos Alonzo Stagg's Chicago Maroons 18-10 the week before.
  • On a playing field covered by several inches of snow, the visitors had to overcome the hometown referee. Heisman recalled, "Three times he called our halves back after long runs and stated that, in snapping, [the center's] had been offside." Nevertheless, the Yeomen forged an 18-10 lead.
  • Michigan drove to the Oberlin 20 behind runs by massive T William Pearson. Heisman recalled what happened next.
    This huge tackle took the ball and plowed 15y toward the goal. It took us all, like a pack of timber wolves, to bring him down. He struck the ground at the 5y line and rolled onto his back while his jersey pulled up exposing his abdomen. Quicker than a flash our end, Merriam, scooped up a double handful of "fleecy' [snow] and plopped it down on his bare tummy. Suffering wildcats! What a roar he let out, while simultaneously he dropped the ball and swung at Merriam's head. Instantly Carl Williams recovered the ball for us. The umpire saw the big tackle swing but not his provocation, so put him out of the game. Merriam's "cold-hearted" trick perhaps saved us the game.
  • Oberlin's players were under strict orders to return to campus that night lest they miss Sabbath services the next morning. So the captains had agreed to shorten the second half to end the game by 4:50 PM so the visitors could return to their hotel to shower and catch a train back home.
  • With less than two minutes left before the deadline and Oberlin trailing 22-18, the Yeomen took over on downs on their own 5.
  • HB Charles Savage dodged through the line and sprinted 90y to the Michigan 5. Two plays later, Oberlin scored a TD - worth four points in those days - to tie the game. With only a few seconds left, Oberlin kicked the two-point conversion to win the game 24-22.
  • At that point, a dispute broke out that has never been settled. The Oberlin timekeeper said the game was over because the clock read 4:50. But Michigan argued that four minutes were left.
  • As Oberlin's players left the field, the Wolverines lined up and ran a play. With no defense on the field, the ball carrier ran into the end zone. To this day, Michigan maintains it won the game 26-24 whereas Oberlin's records show the Yeomen victorious 24-22 to complete an undefeated season.

To be continued ...

Reference: Heisman: The Man behind the Trophy, John M. Heisman with Mark Schlabach (2012)

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Football Profiles Archives - I

John Heisman
Sammy Baugh
Glenn Presnell
Mac Speedie
Wahoo McDaniel
Stephen Neal
Chris Cagle
Brad Van Pelt
Jake Delhomme

Football Profiles Archives - II

Paul Brown

Football Profiles Archives - III

Earl Blaik

Football Profiles Archives - IV

Ernie Nevers
Riley Skinner
Brian Kelly
Alex Karras
Merlin Olsen
Ryan Who?
Joe Bellino
Chris Long

Football Profiles Archives - V

Don Shula
Joe Don Looney
Charlie Justice
Jimmy Taylor
Jesse Harper

Football Profiles Archives - VI

Dak Prescott
Bill Walsh - I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII

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