The story of the original Johnny Heisman

Johnny Manziel’s heartfelt speech upon winning the Heisman Trophy Saturday undoubtedly would have made the honor’s namesake proud.

For as fearlessly — and occasionally brashly — as the Texas A & M quarterback plays the game, earning him the nickname “Johnny Football,” his humility in the wake of being the first freshman to win the award was refreshing.

But the story of the man bearing the name is a rather interesting one too, going beyond his status as a coaching legend and including his role in the growth of the game off the field.

Picture 1“Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy,” written by John M. Heisman, the coach’s great-nephew, with Mark Schlabach, a former colleague of mine at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was published in October in anticipation of the award.

Heisman moved to New York in 1930 as the first director of the Downtown Athletic Club, but he was bearish on the idea of awarding a trophy to the top player in college football when the idea was pushed within his own organization.

In an excerpt published Friday on The Quad, the college football blog of The New York Times, the co-authors reveal the artistic roots of the actual object that’s been handed out every year since 1935:

“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.”

The book is billed as the first “authorized and definitive biography” of Heisman, who died in 1936, and includes a forward from former Heisman winner Steve Spurrier, a noted coach in his own right.

While Manziel made a notable piece of Heisman history, the history of the man for whom that trophy is named has been been filled in admirably in this new account.

Here’s more on Heisman by Mike Jensen of The Philadelphia Inquirer from a couple of years ago.

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