According to Heisman.com, the Heisman Memorial Trophy is an award bestowed on the college football player “whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”
It’s named for John Heisman, legendary coach and “all things football” man who considered legalization of the forward pass in 1906 his greatest contribution to the game because he spent three years in the endeavor.
In 1930, three years after he retired from coaching, he took on the position of Athletic Director of the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City. The Heisman website states that the Athletic Club chose him to take on the gargantuan task to “organize and set in motion the structure and voting system” to choose the best college football player in our country.
The first award (unsurprisingly called the Downtown Athletic Club Award) was bestowed in 1935. Mr. Heisman died from pneumonia before the second selection was made, and the Club voted to rename the award the Heisman Memorial Trophy. Most people today refer to it as the Heisman Trophy or simply, the Heisman.
But (as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to ask) do you know the rest of the story?
On October 7, 1916, the football game played between Georgia Tech and Cumberland University made history. Cumberland was in serious financial distress and was close to bankruptcy. As a money-saving step, they had dismantled their football team and notified its opponents they would not be playing that season.
But they forgot to give Georgia Tech advance notice.
When the error was discovered, they appealed to Tech to let them forfeit because, well, they didn’t have a team. But coach John Heisman (yes, THAT Heisman), still upset over a baseball loss to Cumberland earlier that year, insisted that Cumberland show up for the game or else pay a $3000 breach of contract fee. That doesn’t sound like much but in 2018 dollars that would be nearly $72,000. Having to pay a fee of that amount likely would have pushed the school into bankruptcy.
So they got themselves a football team. Of sorts. According to the book “Heisman’s First Trophy” by Sam Hatcher, Cumberland “rounded up 14 members of the university’s Kappa Sig fraternity, who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, and took them by train to Atlanta.”
Guess what? Cumberland lost. But they didn’t just lose. They REALLY lost. They were pummeled. They were mauled. They were on the losing end of the final score of 222 to zero. They went down in history as the losers of the most lopsided college football game ever.
But even though that embarrassing loss is what most people remember about Cumberland, some believe that both schools won that day. Author Hatcher says the game “put Georgia Tech on the pathway to winning the national championship the following year because of the national attention the game received, and by playing the game Cumberland avoided financial demise.”
Is it just me or do you find it highly ironic that the Heisman Trophy stands for excellence with integrity?
So if you’re tired of the scandals and pathetically bad behavior on display by some of today’s professional football players, now you know that it’s not really anything new, that it has a history going back at least 102 years.