John W. Heisman

Ohio City's Gridiron Pioneer

On October 3, 1869, one of football's most iconic figures was born in Ohio City. Today he is best known as the namesake of the most prestigious award in college football, the Heisman Memorial Trophy. The trophy is awarded annually to the nation's most outstanding college football player. While Heisman was a decorated college football player at the University of Pennsylvania, his true legacy lies in the progressive contributions he made to the sport of football during his coaching days. Heisman's did not merely improve the game of football and make it more exciting, he ensured its survival.

Although born in the Cleveland neighborhood of Ohio City, he grew up in western Pennsylvania. He played college football initially at Brown University, and then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he played football until he received a law degree. In 1892, he began his coaching career at Oberlin College, leading the team to a perfect season with victories over storied programs such as Michigan and Ohio State, which he beat twice. He went on to coach at Buchtel College, which is now Akron University, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Rice for a combined 36 years.

During his coaching career, Heisman revolutionized the sport of football. While coaching at Buchtel, Heisman conceived the center snap and the snap count. The center used to roll the ball on the ground to the quarterback to start an offensive play. However, Buchtel's quarterback at the time was too tall, and took too long to pick the ball up off the ground. The combination of snapping the ball, and the snap count granted the offense more time against the rush of defenders.

Heisman is also credited as the 'Father of the Forward Pass' because he was the first coach to use it in a game. During his time, football was much more dangerous, and one reason was due to the pounding nature associated with running the ball. Many casualties and crippling injuries occurred from players swarming around the runner with brute physicality. The forward pass spread players out to utilize more of the football field, adding a significant amount of finesse to the physical. Heisman's timing could not have been better. At the turn of the 20th century, many schools began to disband their teams for safety reasons, but Heisman's developments curbed the sports decline and recovered it.

Images

Striking A Pose

Striking A Pose

This 1891 photograph shows John Heisman in his University of Pennsylvania football uniform. His legacy lives on in the form of the Heisman Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the nation's most outstanding college football player. This pose, an outstretched 'stiff' arm and another clutching the ball, closely resembles the pose of the bronze trophy. Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio. View File Details Page

Student, Athlete, Coach

Student, Athlete, Coach

This photo dates circa 1908, roughly a decade and a half into Heisman's 36-year coaching career. Born in Cleveland's Ohio City, he grew up in Pennsylvania and went on to attend Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. Epitomizing the term student-athlete, he excelled on and off the football field at both universities, earning his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of University Archives. Penn Libraries. University of Pennsylvania. View File Details Page

West 29th Street & Bridge Avenue

West 29th Street & Bridge Avenue

2825 Bridge Ave. is designated by the Ohio Historical Society as the birth site of John Heisman. The house, pictured here in 1978, was built in the 1910s. Thus, this is not the actual house Heisman was born in. Local historian Christopher Busta-Peck has recently discovered that Heisman may have been born elsewhere. His research shows that the homes were renumbered at one point in time, which would place Heisman's birthplace .4 miles away at 3928 Bridge Ave. That home was built in the 1850s, and it is conceivable that Heisman may have been born in it. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections. View File Details Page

Historical Marker at 2825 Bridge Avenue, 1978

Historical Marker at 2825 Bridge Avenue, 1978

This marker designates 2825 Bridge Ave as the site of Heisman's birthplace. Standing proudly is Edward J. Wagner, V.P. of the West Side Savings and Loan Association, who organized his company's efforts to purchase the home standing on the site. In the mid-1970s, effort was made to establish a foundation with the intent of restoring the home as museum/shrine to Heisman for approximately $55,000. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections. View File Details Page

Joe Pa Comes to Cleveland

Joe Pa Comes to Cleveland

On May 11, 1978 Cleveland's Rotary Club hosted 'Heisman Day' to formally recognize Heisman's legacy and connection to Cleveland by dedicating the historical marker of Heisman's birth site in Ohio City. Joe Paterno, the winningest active head coach in college football at the time, was the guest speaker. The late Penn State coach noted, "It's a proud, historic moment, and Cleveland should flaunt it." Paterno is seated in the center of the photo. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections. View File Details Page

Heisman Winners Acknowledge John Heisman

Heisman Winners Acknowledge John Heisman

'Heisman Day' held on May 11, 1978, officially dedicated the historical marker that designates John Heisman's birth site. Many notable Heisman Memorial Trophy winners attended, two of which played for Ohio State; 1950 winner Vic Janovicz, pictured above, and 1955 winner Howard "Hopalong" Cassady. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Matt Sisson, “John W. Heisman,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 29, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/548.
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