- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

In his preface to “The Heisman: Great American Stories of the Men Who Won” ($25.95, Regan Books, 347 pages, illustrated), sportswriter Bill Pennington of the New York Times makes a strong case the stiff-arming statue presented each season to college football’s best player is the most recognizable trophy in sports.

“Can anyone describe what the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player Award looks like?” Pennington writes. “How many people can close their eyes and conjure the image of baseball’s Cy Young Award? Quick, if you win the Indianapolis 500, what do you win? (It is not a car. It is a check and a flower wreath.)”

Pennington has a point. Nearly every sports fan recognizes the Heisman, awarded annually since 1935 by New York’s Downtown Athletic Club (DAC). Says Pete Dawkins, who won it as a running back for Army in 1958: “Everybody [who visits me] wants to see or touch the trophy. That’s when you get a sense of the reach of the Heisman.”

It is ironic, therefore, to learn the idea of such a trophy was scorned at first by the man after whom it was named. Legendary coach John Heisman became athletic director at the DAC in 1930 with the rather mundane job of providing fitness and recreation for members. When it was suggested several years later that the club honor football’s best player, Heisman was aghast.

A team man through and through, Heisman felt such an individual award would be divisive, saying (according to one club historian), “Is [football] not meant to exemplify the grandeur of a thousand men?”

Nevertheless, a member named William Prince pushed the idea of having such an award voted by sportswriters each fall. Thus in 1935, University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger became the first of 69 recipients to date selected by the media.

Pennington tells the stories of 26, most of them compellingly. His first subject is 1939 winner Nile Kinnick of Iowa, so idolized as a player and a man that after he and his plane disappeared over the Pacific in World War II — he chose an emergency landing on water rather than endanger lives on the crowded deck of an aircraft carrier — former Hawkeyes teammate Red Frye inquired, “Lost at sea? How does somebody like that just vanish.”

Perhaps time and distance lend enchantment, because Pennington’s tales of Heisman winners in the 1940s and 1950s seem the most interesting. He identifies 1940 winner Tom Harmon of Michigan as “the first mass media sports hero” and relates dramatically the exploits of Army’s Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, Felix “Doc” Blanchard (1945) and Glenn Davis (1946).

Other subjects include Notre Damers Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart and John Lattner, single-wing Princeton triple threat Dick Kazmaier and Paul Hornung, who somehow won in 1956 playing quarterbackon a 2-8 Irish team.

Later profiles spotlight Navy scrambler Roger Staubach, troubled Nebraska running back Johnny Rodgers and the only two-time winner, Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975.

And your tear ducts may get a workout when Pennington writes of Ernie Davis (1961), the magnificent Syracuse running back whose career and life were ended by leukemia before he carried a ball for the Cleveland Browns.

Equally emotional, near book’s end, is the story of how two winners a half-century apart — Doak Walker of SMU in 1948 and Ricky Williams of Texas in 1998 — became unlikely close friends before a skiing accident left Walker paralyzed and eventually resulted in his death.

At a memorial service, Williams praised Walker for his “gentleness of spirit” and received permission from the NCAA to switch his uniform number to Doak’s 37 for the Longhorns’ 1998 game against Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl, where Walker had gained fame. He scored two touchdowns that day and pointed to the sky after each, crying, “That’s for you, Doak!”

Badly damaged by fire, smoke and debris on September 11, the Downtown Athletic Club is shuttered now. But the Heisman Trophy lives on, and Pennington’s fine book can only enhance its legend.

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