A Brief History of the Heisman Trophy

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Kelly Kline / Getty Images for the Heisman

The 2010 Heisman Trophy went to Cam Newton, then of Auburn University and now of the NFL's Carolina Panthers.

Sports fans know the Heisman Trophy nearly as much for what it looks like as for what it symbolizes. The annual award, handed out to the most outstanding college football player each December, weighs 25 pounds and depicts an old-school football player (don’t you love the leather helmet?) straight-arming an imaginary defender en route to what is certainly a game-winning touchdown.

But what started in 1935 as a way for the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan to debut college football’s first major award has turned into a near-mythical prize. This year, for the 77th time, a new group of Heisman finalists will descend upon New York on Saturday, Dec. 10, to see who can join the elite college football club.

Unimpressed with the deluge of cups and bowls largely defining trophies during the 1930s, the club’s Trophy Committee decided to honor athleticism (they were an athletic club, after all) and hired sculptor Frank Eliscu to craft a prize with personality. He enlisted the help of Ed Smith, a star of the 1934 New York University football team, to serve as his model. The original figure was designed in clay and then modified with modeling help from the Fordham football team. After final approval from the Notre Dame football squad, the trophy was bronzed.

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Ever since, the statue has stood 13.5-inches high, 14 inches wide, weighing 25 pounds. The first DAC Trophy was handed out to Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago (he never played in the NFL) in December 1935. But that was also the last DAC Trophy awarded. The next year, John Heisman, the director of athletics at the club and a renowned college football player and coach, died, and the trophy was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy in his honor.

Sports journalists from across the country select the winner of the coveted stiff-arming trophy. In total, 870 media votes, broken into six regions, combine with past Heisman winners (currently standing at 56) and one fan vote to determine the winner. Any name garnering a first-place vote earns three points and the player with the most points wins the trophy.

The first school claimed two trophy-winning players just three years into the history of the award. Yale’s Larry Kelley and Clint Frank took home the bronze hardware in 1936 and 1937, respectively. Since 1968, two trophies get handed out, one directly to the player and one to his school.

To this day, the only two-time winner in Heisman history remains Archie Griffin, an Ohio State running back. He won the trophy in 1974 and followed it up in 1975 after totaling more than 4,000 rushing yards in his career. Syracuse’s Ernie Davis holds the distinction as the first African-American player to win the trophy, earning the trophy in 1961 just two years before passing away from leukemia.

The actual award ceremony was held in the DAC for decades, but damage to the club during the Sept. 11 attacks forced the club to move the event to a hotel in Times Square. Because of security and also due to the DAC’s financial difficulties, the ceremony has actually bounced around New York; the Yale Club even took over presentations for two years. For now, the event is held at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square.

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