Commentary

From the legendary to the little-known, Heisman history is never dull

Updated: May 26, 2010, 12:42 PM ET
By John D. Lukacs | Special to ESPN.com

With apologies to Ralphie Parker's old man and his beloved fishnet-clad leg lamp, there is one, and only one, major award: the Heisman Memorial Trophy.

[+] EnlargeThe Heisman Trophy
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThere is a side of the Heisman Trophy few know about.

Of course, that's hardly a surprise to anyone who doesn't live on snowy, idyllic Cleveland Street, the fictional address of the Parkers in December's other timeless tradition, "A Christmas Story." The Heisman long ago distanced itself not only from its prize peers in college football, but also from the America's Cups, Borg-Warners, Claret Jugs, Cy Youngs and the innumerable gold medals, silver Tiffany bowls and Waterford crystals of the sports world.

With its media-fueled millennial cachet as a universal American symbol of celebrity, sustained superlative achievement and gridiron gallantry, the Heisman is now equal parts Oscar, Nobel Prize, Lombardi and Congressional Medal of Honor cast into one transcendent, iconic -- not to mention heavy -- 25-pound hunk of bronze.

As the cult of the Heisman approaches its ninth decade, the 13½-inch-tall trophy casts an ever larger shadow. Yet in that shadow is a side of the prestigious award that few outside the hallowed Heisman fraternity know exists. It involves tales both legendary and little-known, stories so good, so bad, so funny, so fascinating, so sordid and so sad that they would cause even Lord Stanley's Cup -- perhaps the Heisman's only rival in this regard -- to tarnish in embarrassment, if not envy.

Equally suited for both ESPN and E!, they are tales of exorbitant price tags, physical abuse, parties, VIP treatment, entourages, travel adventures, tragic deaths, fiery calamities, legal battles, unfounded rumors, grand theft and surreal encounters spanning the lofty heights of the Oval Office to the seedy depths of the underworld.

But the tales you are about to read are not True Hollywood Stories (unless, of course, you are referring to some of those surrounding the eight total Heismans won by players at USC and UCLA); they're True Heisman Stories.

In the tradition of self-made stars, the Heisman's humble roots reach back to the Great Depression. According to sculptor Frank Eliscu, his first commission was a thing of minimalist beauty, "not my best work, but it turned out to be like the Statue of Liberty."

Jay Berwanger's Aunt Gussie thought the piece was quite utilitarian, too. Berwanger, the University of Chicago Maroons star, was the first recipient of The Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in 1935 (it was renamed in honor of coach John Heisman following the renowned football innovator's death in 1936). But Berwanger did not have room for the trophy in his fraternity house, so initially it resided at the home of his aunt, who famously employed it as a doorstop.

The indifference of both Berwanger and his aunt to what was then just another college football award established a precedent of bizarre, sometimes irreverent treatment that continues to this day.

The bronze statue awarded in 1956 to the "Golden Boy," Notre Dame's Paul Hornung, spent its later years in Hornung's possession in his garage. Hornung's 21st century counterpart, former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, at least displayed his 2004 trophy -- reportedly on the kitchen floor of his Los Angeles apartment, of all places.

Steve Spurrier, however, relinquished his Heisman before he had a chance to display it. Upon receiving his trophy in 1966, the young Florida Gators quarterback and future Ol' Ball Coach immediately presented it to university president Dr. J. Wayne Reitz so that the award could be shared by Florida students and faculty. The magnanimous gesture was so moving that Florida's student government raised funds to purchase a replacement for Spurrier. From that time forward, the Downtown Athletic Club has issued two trophies, one to the individual winner and one to his school.

Spurrier's selfless sentiments echoed those of another swashbuckling '60s signal-caller, Navy's Roger Staubach. Insisting that his 1963 trophy was a team honor, Staubach promised his Midshipmen teammates that he'd cut his Heisman up into pieces and distribute them equally. But the Vietnam vet realized that discretion was the better part of valor and didn't dismember his statue. Unlike New York Yankees wives in the '70s, the Heisman can't be shared.

[+] EnlargeJason White
Paul Hawthorne/WireImage.comOklahoma's Heisman winners -- Billy Sims (1978), left, Jason White (2003), center, and Steve Owens (1969), have been part of the Trophy's lore and legend.

And that's created a problem for some winners. In December 1999, former Yale end Larry Kelley sold his 1936 Heisman for the sum of $328,110 to settle his estate and provide a bequeathment for his 18 nieces and nephews. Sadly, Kelley, who had suffered a stroke, died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound only months after parting with his Heisman.

Kelley's Heisman currently resides at the sports memorabilia mecca known as The Stadium restaurant in Garrison, N.Y., a fact that illustrates the increasingly insatiable demand among collectors -- the private, wealthy variety -- for the coveted statues and assorted Heisman memorabilia.

The second winner of the Heisman Trophy was also the second to auction his off.

In February 1999, O.J. Simpson's 1968 Heisman had netted $230,000 in a court-ordered auction of Simpson's property organized to help settle a $33 million dollar judgment that had been levied against Simpson after a civil trial found him liable for the 1994 deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.

The Heisman won by Simpson's fellow Trojans alum Charles White in 1979 has changed hands twice in recent years, first selling for $184,000 and then for nearly $300,000 in December 2006. White sold the trophy to help pay back federal income taxes. Although Eliscu's original plaster cast sold at Sotheby's auction house for $228,000 in December 2005, the current record price paid for a Heisman belongs to the trophy won by Minnesota halfback Bruce Smith in 1941: $395,240.

Hornung's Heisman is on display next to Kelley's at The Stadium, but his decision to sell was a voluntary, altruistic one. His trophy fetched the sum of $250,000, which he used to endow scholarships for Notre Dame students from his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

Billy Cannon's 1959 Heisman rests on a rotating platform inside a glass display case at TJ Ribs, a Baton Rouge restaurant, but according to his daughter Bunnie, an assistant vice chancellor at LSU, the rumor that has long circulated Tiger Nation that he sold the Heisman to owner T.J. Moran and eats for free at the restaurant is false. Cannon wanted LSU fans to be able to see the trophy, and Moran, a longtime family friend, obligingly accepted it on loan.

Officially, Ohio State's Archie Griffin is the only player with two Heisman Trophies. But John Lattner also claims the rare distinction. A fire at Lattner's Chicago steakhouse in 1968 claimed the trophy the quadruple-threat Notre Dame star was awarded for the being the best college football player in 1953. Lattner contacted the Downtown Athletic Club for a replacement, but was told that he needed proof of the trophy's demise. After sending some newspaper articles regarding the fire, he received another trophy at the cost of $300, shipping included.

One would assume that Lattner would thus be overprotective of his replacement, that the trophy would never see the light of day nor be touched by anything but a gloved finger. Wrong. Lattner's second trophy might just be the most traveled, battle-worn Heisman around. It logged duty on the piano bar at his Marina City restaurant and as a tie rack. The trophy now makes appearances at Notre Dame tailgates and numerous charity events, something Lattner is extremely proud of, despite the fact that the hand on his trophy's stiff-arm has suffered a broken finger and the finish on both the trophy and the black base has been all but stripped off over the years. "It's better than sitting around my office collecting dust," reasoned Lattner.

Several winners have followed Lattner's lead and employed their Heisman hardware for charitable purposes. Dick Kazmaier, the former Princeton halfback and 1951 Heisman winner, has held an annual golf outing in the Toledo, Ohio, area since 1990. This past year he brought his Heisman, the first time since it had been in his hometown of Maumee since 1952. It ended up staying -- Kazmaier donated the trophy to his alma mater, Maumee High School.

Across the country, the Heisman's unique, mesmeric lure continues to cause people to line up for pictures at countless fundraisers, gala dinners, golf outings and other events. If such a claim can be made about an inanimate object, the Heisman truly has become larger than life. Larger, in fact, than the lives of the men who own one. "People like to see the trophy," laughed Lattner. "They don't care for me at all."

Starting with Davey O'Brien's arrival at the Downtown Athletic Club in a frontier stagecoach pulled by white horses in 1938, transportation tales have long been a part of Heisman lore.

In 1994, Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam and sports information director Dave Plati boarded a United Airlines flight with Salaam's Heisman bundled up in a blanket. "It looked like we were transporting E.T. from New York to Denver," Plati said. But everyone on the plane knew what Salaam was carrying. The pilots welcomed Salaam and the trophy aboard, and then, after an ovation from the other passengers, upgraded Salaam, Plati and the Heisman to first class. Plati was worried about the possibility of an NCAA violation, so the pilots extended the offer to any CU alums or students on the plane, all of whom declined so that the Heisman party could be seated.

As if having its own seat in first class was not special enough treatment, the Heisman -- as well as its travel companions -- was welcomed by 20 of Salaam's teammates on the jetway upon landing. The trophy and its entourage ended up at a sports bar where it posed for pictures with a herd of celebrating Buffaloes and strangers.

A year later, Eddie George's Heisman fared considerably worse. An airport X-ray machine amputated the tip of the right index finger and bent the middle finger of the Ohio State star's newly won statue.

In 2003, Oklahoma's Jason White was told that the box containing his trophy exceeded his baggage weight allowance and that he would have to pay an extra fee to take his Heisman home.

"It was just funny that the airline was treating the Heisman Trophy like a box of clothes," said Oklahoma SID Kenny Mossman. "We told them what it was, but it didn't make any difference. Guess rules are rules." … Or a Nebraska fan was working the ticketing counter that day.

In December 2006, the latest Buckeyes Heisman winner, Troy Smith, was prevented from bringing his Heisman on the plane by airport security. But Smith, knowledgeable of what happened to George's trophy, did not mind the inconvenience and preferred to have his Heisman shipped safely back to Columbus.

After accepting his Heisman in 1969, Steve Owens reportedly hitched a ride to the Arkansas-Texas showdown with President Richard M. Nixon on Air Force One. While en route, Nixon -- a certified football fanatic -- eyed Owens' statue as well as the Heisman cuff links the Oklahoma back was wearing. Nixon would later famously claim that he was "not a crook," and Owens would be able to attest to that fact. Sort of. Before landing, Owens and Nixon worked out a fair trade whereby Owens received a set of cuff links bearing the presidential seal in return for his pair.

At USC, the mystery of O.J. Simpson's missing Heisman remains unsolved. Sometime right after Simpson's infamous Ford Bronco chase on Interstate 405 in June 1994, the school's trophy was stolen from Heritage Hall. Police launched an extensive investigation, but the trophy was never found.

"It's not something you can fence easily or display," said SID Tim Tessalone. "We figure it's probably at the bottom of Santa Monica Bay somewhere."

Despite being fated to a seemingly star-crossed life, the fabled trophy and the mystique surrounding all things Heisman continue to endure both in public and private, behind glass and closed doors, inside restaurants and other more unlikely and unimaginable places.

And speaking of unlikely places, you might be interested to know that Jay Berwanger's Heisman is enjoying an easy retirement on display at the University of Chicago's Gerald Ratner Athletics Center.

Presumably, unlike Aunt Gussie, the world-renowned research institution has other more practical -- not to mention less historically significant -- doorstops.

John D. Lukacs is the creative and historical consultant to "College GameDay."