Eliscu, Smith combined to create memorable image
The Heisman Trophy and its unforgettable pose are famous, but the story behind its creation almost was lost.
Halfback Jay Berwanger from the University of Chicago won the first Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in 1935. The award is now known as the Heisman Trophy -- and a famous bronze statue goes with it.
The model for the trophy is scarcely known even today and wasn't incontrovertibly revealed until 1982 (47 years after its first presentation).
Members of the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan established the award to honor the best college football player east of the Mississippi and turned to Frank Eliscu, a young, well-respected sculptor, to create a trophy.
Eliscu selected Ed Smith, a running back on the 1934 New York University squad, as his model. At that time, NYU played an intersectional schedule at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium.
Smith and Eliscu were native sons of the Washington Heights section of Manhattan's Upper West Side and knew each other from the neighborhood. Eliscu believed 6-foot-2, 200-pound Smith had the physical characteristics to illustrate what he was commissioned to create.
Eliscu asked his friend to come to his studio near the NYU campus on Washington Square and requested that he bring his uniform and a football. Smith struck a pose costumed in his leather helmet, canvas pants and the high-type cleated shoes of the era, with his right arm extended and his left arm cradling the football.
In a 1982 interview conducted at his home in Lynbrook on Long Island, Smith said he received nothing for the posing. "I was just doing a favor for a friend," he recalled.
Smith never asked -- and Eliscu never volunteered -- what "Heights Ed" was posing for in Eliscu's studio. Heights Ed had several sessions with Eliscu, then forgot the incident.
The passionate sons of Washington Heights remembered Ed Smith, however. They were Leonard Lewin, a sportswriter for 50 years for the New York Mirror and New York Post; Dick Young, a columnist and notable baseball writer for the New York Daily News and the Post; plus Stan Saplin, a longtime public relations official for NYU and a historian who's an expert on Washington Heights.
It was Saplin who told me NYU footballer and later boxer Bob Pastor was Smith's brother-in-law. Pastor, who boxed Joe Louis twice, gave me Ed Smith's address and phone number.
Smith confirmed all the details in the 1982 meeting, but said he really didn't know he was the model for the Heisman Trophy until that moment when every incident fit together so exactly. Eliscu confirmed the details in a later interview.
The trophy Eliscu created is 14 inches long and 13½ inches high and weighs 25 pounds.
In 1936, the Trophy was designated the Heisman Memorial Trophy in honor of John Heisman, the Downtown Athletic Club's first athletic director and a legendary coach at a number of schools, including Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Rice. Heisman died in October 1936.
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