Filed Under Biography

John W. Heisman

Ohio City's Gridiron Pioneer

On October 23, 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, Heisman grew up in western Pennsylvania. He played college football at Brown University before transferring 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 (later the University of Akron), 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 because of the pounding that a player would endure while carrying 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 game. 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 sport's decline and revived it.

Images

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.
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.
West 29th Street & Bridge Avenue For more than forty years, 2825 Bridge Ave. was designated erroneously by the Ohio Historical Society as the birth site of John Heisman. The house, pictured here in 1978, was built in the 1910s. As early as 1984, the accuracy of the location came into doubt. Plain Dealer reporter Thomas Andrzejewski believed the correct location was actually 4006-8 Bridge Ave. In 2002, local architectural historian Craig Bobby discovered conclusively that the correct location was 3928 Bridge Ave. The homes were renumbered in 1906, a change that produced the original error that landed the marker in the wrong place. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Historical Marker at 2825 Bridge Avenue, 1978 The original marker designated 2825 Bridge Ave as the site of Heisman's birthplace based on a research error. 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, an 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.
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.
Heisman Winners Acknowledge John Heisman 'Heisman Day' held on May 11, 1978, officially dedicated the historical marker that designated John Heisman's birth site until a determined effort led to its being moved to a site later determined to be the true birthplace. 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.
The True Heisman Birthplace, 3928 Bridge Ave. After multiple researchers independently confirmed that the Heisman marker had been placed in the wrong location, it still took a concerted effort to raise funds to produce a new sign that corrected Heisman's birthdate as Oct. 23, 1869, rather than Oct. 3 of that year, as well as to erect the marker in the correct location. Longtime Ohio City resident Fay Harris spearheaded this effort, securing funds to make this happen in April 2021. Source: Cleveland Landmarks Commission Date: 2021
The Corrected Marker in the Correct Location Source: Cleveland Landmarks Commission Date: 2021

Location

3928 Bridge Ave, Cleveland, OH 44113 | Private Property

Metadata

Matt Sisson, “John W. Heisman,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 19, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/548.