The Heisman Trophy is possibly the most iconic prize in American sports.
And yet, there’s something you probably never realized about the statue with the stone-faced look and textbook stiff-arm: it’s not fabled college football player and coach John Heisman. In fact, Heisman was a lineman at Penn and Brown in the late 19th century, not a running back.
We know what you’re thinking:
“So just whose mug are we looking at every December?”
That would be NYU’s Ed Smith, a bruising fullback for the Violets during the 1930s.
“And how did an unknown player from a school that doesn’t even have a football team anymore end up on college football’s Holy Grail?”
Well, first you need to understand the genesis of the trophy. College football was booming back in the 1930s and nowhere was that more evident than New York City, where powerhouses Army and Notre Dame drew 80,000 people 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 a young, local sculptor fresh out of college named Frank Eliscu 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 football uniform. Eliscu said later he never told the football star what he was posing for because the project seemed like a small assignment at the time and he didn’t normally tell his subjects about his projects anyway.
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 masterpiece.
In December of 1935, the first Downtown Athletic Club Trophy was presented to Chicago’s Jay Berwanger. But after Heisman passed away the following fall due to pneumonia, the athletic club decided to rename the trophy after the college football legend.
As the Heisman Trophy became a staple of college football, Eliscu and Smith went their separate ways. Eliscu went into the Army for World War II and then continued 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, on what came to be the most prestigious award in college football. In fact, Smith didn’t find out until nearly a half-century later in 1982, when filmmaker Bud Greenspan contacted Smith to interview him for that year’s Heisman coverage on TV.
Weeks later Smith was at the award dinner, 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.”
Two years after Eliscu died, Smith passed away 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 and safely sealed in bronze.