The Heisman Trophy is awarded annually by the Downtown Athletic Club to the best player in the top division of college football. While many of those who hoisted the named trophy for football coach and pioneer John Heisman initially pursued careers in the NFL, the lives of these seven winners have taken very different paths:
1. 1935: Jay Berwanger, first winner of the Heisman Trophy, spends his career in the NFL
Weeks after becoming the first recipient of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, as the Heisman Trophy was originally known, Berwanger made football history again when the Philadelphia Eagles selected him as their first draft pick. of the NFL. Professional football had yet to become a lucrative business, and while the University of Chicago senior reportedly demanded to be paid $ 1,000 per game, Philadelphia was offering no more than $ 150.
Chicago Bears coach and owner George Halas traded Berwanger’s rights, but ultimately turned down the college star’s $ 25,000 demands for a two-year uninterrupted contract. Dropping out of the NFL, Berwanger went to work for a Chicago rubber company instead. “I thought I would have a better future using my education rather than my football skills,” Berwanger said later.
After a knee injury derailed his attempt to make the 1936 United States Olympic decathlon team, Berwanger coached the freshman football team at his alma mater, wrote a Chicago Daily News sports chronicle and refereed college football matches. After serving as a US Navy flight instructor during World War II, Berwanger started his own business which made plastic and foam rubber bands for automobiles.
READ MORE: Heisman Trophy is named after this trainer and innovator
2. 1939: Iowa Star Nile Kinnick dies in WWII training flight
Months after the outbreak of World War II in the fall of 1939, Kinnick, a senior at the University of Iowa, gave one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in Heisman Trophy history. “I thank God for having fought on the gates of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe,” he said. “I can say with confidence and in a positive way that the players from this country would be much more, much more to strive and fight to win the Heisman Prize than the Croix de Guerre [a French military honor]. ”
The war, however, will eventually take the life of “Comet Cornbelt”.
Born and raised in Iowa, Kinnick bypassed the NFL to attend law school and become an assistant football coach in his alma mater. Three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he presented himself for induction into the US Naval Air Corps Reserve.
When his plane suffered an oil leak during a routine training flight off the USS Lexington aircraft carrier on June 2, 1943, the 24-year-old died during an attempted landing off the coast of Venezuela. The University of Iowa renamed its football stadium in honor of Kinnick in 1972.
3. 1940: Michigan star Tom Harmon plays his own role in a film
Although first selected in the 1941 NFL Draft, Harmon, a Michigan full-back, had more of an interest in becoming a professional sports broadcaster than a professional football player. The Heisman winner, actor Mark Harmon’s father, went to Hollywood after graduation and starred in the 1941 film “Harmon of Michigan,” which was loosely based on his college career.
Harmon served four years as a fighter pilot in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for surviving two plane crashes in 1943.
Six months after being the lone survivor when a plane he was piloting crashed in the South American jungle, Harmon was parachuted to safety when his plane was struck during aerial combat with Japanese zero over China. When he married actress Elyse Knox, the material for his wedding dress came from the silk parachute that saved his life.
After the war, Harmon played two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams before fulfilling his dream of becoming a successful radio and television host.
4. 1945: Doc Blanchard of the army pilots fighter planes during the Vietnam War
In 1945, full-back Blanchard became the first junior to win the Heisman Trophy after helping Army win their second consecutive national title. Blanchard teamed up with full-back Glenn Davis, who would win the Heisman Trophy in 1946, in one of college football’s biggest backfields. Nicknamed “Mr. Inside” (Blanchard) and “Mr. Outside” (Davis), the running backs played out in the 1947 film “The Spirit of West Point”. (Harmon played a sports commentator in the movie.)
After being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Blanchard saw his NFL aspirations dashed when the War Department denied him four months off military service to play football. Exchanging his football uniform for a soldier, he becomes a fighter pilot in the US Air Force.
Blanchard showed bravery on a flight over England in 1959 when his plane caught fire from a ruptured oil line. Rather than parachuting and risking the plane crashing into a nearby village, Blanchard made a safe landing. He also flew 84 missions during the Vietnam War.
5. 1958: West Point star Pete Dawkins becomes soldier and scholar
Following in Heisman’s footsteps of fellow Cadets Blanchard and Davis, Army Dawkins never played in the NFL. However, he did compete on the rugby grounds of the University of Oxford in England, which he attended for three years as the only Heisman winner to also be a Rhodes Scholar.
Returning from England in 1962, Dawkins began his military career with a post with the 82nd Airborne. After learning to speak Vietnamese, he was awarded a pair of Bronze Stars during two periods of service in Vietnam.
After two years of teaching at West Point, Dawkins obtained a master’s degree and a doctorate. of Princeton while still on active duty as an army officer. After commanding in the 7th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division, he reached the rank of Brigadier General before retiring from the army in 1983 to begin a second career on Wall Street.
READ MORE: How military service teams dominated college football in WWII
6. 1959: Billy Cannon, LSU legend, jailed for forgery
Weeks after Vice President Richard Nixon presented Cannon with the Heisman Trophy, senior LSU signed with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL and the Houston Oilers of the upstart American Football League. After a federal judge struck down his contract with the Rams, Cannon signed a lucrative deal with the Oilers to become the first $ 100,000 football player.
During the offseason of his 11-year professional career, Cannon earned degrees in dentistry and orthodontics. At the end of his playing days, Dr. Cannon opened an orthodontic practice in Louisiana. After accumulating large debts due to gambling and bad business investments, he was arrested in 1983 along with five other people for conspiring to possess and distribute counterfeit money. Authorities discovered nearly $ 5 million worth of counterfeit bills in coolers buried on Cannon’s property, and the football star served nearly three years in prison after pleading guilty.
After his release, Cannon regained his dental license but had financial difficulties. He sold his Heisman Trophy to a local spare rib restaurant before filing for bankruptcy in 1995. For the last 22 years of his life, Cannon provided dental treatment to inmates at a Louisiana state penitentiary.
7. 1961: Syracuse Great Ernie Davis dies of leukemia
The first black player to win the Heisman Trophy, Davis of Syracuse broke Jim Brown’s school records for running, goals and touchdowns. After becoming the first black player to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, the “Elmira Express” was traded from Washington to the Cleveland Browns. Davis joined his idol, Brown, who went on to become one of the greatest players in NFL history, in the backfield.
While training for the 1962 football coaches game, Davis was hospitalized with an unknown illness. He was later diagnosed with leukemia, but doctors allowed him to play football because the cancer was in “perfect remission”.
Although Davis attended Browns practice, he never played in the 1962 season. The cancer returned and he died at the age of 23 on May 18, 1963. “When I look back, I can’t say I’m unlucky, ”Davis wrote in the Saturday night message in March 1963. “During those years I have had more than most people in a lifetime.”
Although he never played a game for Cleveland, the Browns retired his number 45 jersey.