Heisman is one of the most recognizable names in American sports history. But most people purely associate it with a trophy, not a person. And by such association what a person we’re all missing out on knowing.
John William Heisman is not only the namesake of the trophy, as well as a phenomenal football pioneer and coach who led more than handful of programs in the early day of the sport. He was also a prolific writer and newspaper contributor, a historian and correspondent of the game’s early contributors, and an experienced stage actor.
“Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy” chronicles the inventive life of the man who created so many of the game’s modern facets. When Heisman discovered and began his lifelong obsession with the young sport in the late 1800s, football was a game that would be unrecognizable to today’s players, coaches and fans.
In 30-plus years around the sport, he coached at Georgia Tech, Clemson, Auburn, Rice and his alma mater Penn, along with a handful of other schools. He coached the winner of the biggest blowout game in college football history (Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0 in 1916). He won a national championship at Georgia Tech in 1917, and he received interest from schools coast to coast who appreciated his knowledge of the game and his enthusiasm for creating a winner on the field.
Much of his on-field success was due to his obsessive innovation with improving his strategy, his players’ mental and physical skills, and his schools’ spirits. The game as it’s played today benefits from his introduction of the scoreboard, the “hike” signal, the upward snap, shifting formations, a defensive alignment that in essence created the middle linebacker position, and so much more. He also supported the evolution of the forward pass, the division of the game into quarters to help players rest and recover from injuries, and many other advancements for which he didn’t take original credit.
“The Man Behind the Trophy” book, written by Heisman’s grand nephew with assistance from sportswriter Mack Schlabach, covers all of that history and the origins of the now-hallowed Heisman Trophy. But it delves into so much more in an incredibly fast read. (And I’m not a fast reader.)
The book shares how football almost ceased to exist (but revived itself, of course) in its early days after the death of a player in the state of Georgia. And it connects Heisman, his family and the surrounding cast of his life to so many key moments from just after the Civil War to right before World War II.
I’ve noticed a few “unimpressed” comments about the book on Goodreads. And I greatly disagree with those assessments. “Heisman” is one of the my favorite biographies of a sports legend who lived in a far different age of America. To me, the book is essential historical literature for any sports fan or journalist. It’s a work full of football guts, but its skeleton and heart are a compelling and connecting American story of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For any football fan in particular, it’s somewhat of a genealogy of the game we prize so much today. And boy do we ever prize it. If baseball was once “America’s pastime,” football on many levels has now become America’s obsession.
Reading this book felt like a pilgrimage to football’s ancient grounds. Its contents have deepened my connection with the sport of football and my appreciation for the meaning of the trophy presented at the end of each college football season.