The First Decade of Excellence: A Look at the Initial 10 Heisman Trophy Winners

The First Decade of Excellence: A Look at the Initial 10 Heisman Trophy Winners. Jay Berwanger.
Jay Berwanger: Source

The First Decade of Excellence: A Look at the Initial 10 Heisman Trophy Winners

From its inception in 1935, the Heisman Trophy has been awarded to the most outstanding player in collegiate football. This article takes a journey back in time to explore the first 10 athletes who had the honor of receiving this prestigious award.

Jay Berwanger (1935) - University of Chicago

Who was the first Heisman winner? The answer is Jay Berwanger, a standout player from the University of Chicago. 

In 1935, Berwanger made history by becoming the inaugural recipient of the Heisman Trophy, an award that recognizes the most outstanding player in collegiate football. Berwanger's exceptional performance on the field set a high standard for all future Heisman winners.

For a comprehensive list of all Heisman Trophy winners from 1935 to the present, you can visit this page.

Larry Kelley: The Second Heisman Winner

Larry Kelley was the second winner of the prestigious Heisman Trophy in 1936, making him a significant figure in the history of American football. He was a star end for Yale University, where he made a name for himself with his exceptional performance on the field.

After winning the Heisman Trophy, Kelley continued to make his mark. He chose a career in education rather than pursuing professional football. He served as the athletic director and football coach at the Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey, for many years. His dedication to education and youth sports was a testament to his character and values.

In 1969, Kelley was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, cementing his legacy in the sport. Despite his success on the field, Kelley will always be remembered for his contributions off the field, particularly in the realm of education.

Clint Frank (1937) - Yale University

The third in the line of Heisman winners is Clint Frank, who played as a halfback for Yale University. Frank won the Heisman Trophy in 1937, making him one of the oldest Heisman winners in history.

After his successful college football career, Frank chose not to pursue professional football, despite being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 1938 NFL Draft. Instead, he embarked on a career in the advertising industry. He founded the Clinton E. Frank, Inc. advertising agency in 1954, which was later sold to Campbell-Ewald Co. of Detroit in 1976.

Frank also served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel and serving as an aide to General Jimmy Doolittle. His life after football was marked by significant contributions to both the military and the advertising industry.

Davey O'Brien - The Fourth Heisman Winner

Davey O'Brien, known as the "Little Giant of Texas Christian University", was the fourth Heisman winner. Born on June 22, 1917, in Dallas, Texas, O'Brien played as a quarterback and made a significant impact in the world of football. After winning the Heisman Trophy in 1938, O'Brien was the fourth overall pick of the 1939 NFL draft. He played professionally in the National Football League (NFL) with the Philadelphia Eagles for two seasons.

After his NFL career, O'Brien became an agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), where he worked for ten years. He later entered the oil business, working for Dresser Atlas Industries of Dallas. O'Brien was also an adviser to Lamar Hunt during the founding of the American Football League. He passed away on November 18, 1977, due to cancer. 

Nile Kinnick - The Fifth Heisman Winner

Nile Kinnick, also known as "The Cornbelt Comet", was the fifth Heisman winner. Born in Adel, Iowa, Kinnick was a star athlete in football and basketball before his family moved to Omaha, Nebraska. He played college football at the University of Iowa and led his team to a 6-1-1 record, winning Iowa’s first Heisman.

During World War II, Nile served as a pilot attached to an aircraft carrier in the Caribbean. In June 1943, he crash-landed his fighter in the sea and was killed in action. Kinnick was elected to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame in 1951. His life and career remain a testament to the spirit of the oldest Heisman winners

Tom Harmon - The Sixth Heisman Winner

Tom Harmon, known as "Old Ninety-Eight", was the sixth Heisman winner. Born in Rensselaer, Indiana, Harmon was an outstanding athlete at Horace Mann High. In addition to 14 varsity letters, he was twice named all-state quarterback, captain of the basketball team, and as a senior, won the 100 yard dash and the 200 yard low hurdles at the state finals.

After a four-year stint as a pilot during World War II (for which he earned a Silver Star and the Purple Heart), he married actress Elyse Knox and played for the Los Angeles Rams in 1947 and 1948.

Harmon's subsequent career in broadcasting proved as successful if not more than his time spent on the field. In 1949, after two posts as Sports Director of WJR in Detroit and commentator on KIEV in Glendale, he became Sports Director of the Columbia Pacific Network managing daily radio and television shows. 

Harmon reported live on major sporting events from the Olympics to the Rose Bowl for CBS, ABC and NBC, to name just a fraction of his 10,000 broadcasts. Until his passing on March 15, 1990, Harmon was broadcasting the Los Angeles Raiders football games.

Bruce Smith - The Seventh Heisman Winner

Bruce Smith, also known as "The Cornbelt Comet", was the seventh Heisman winner. Born in Faribault, Minnesota, Smith excelled at Faribault High. He chose to attend Minnesota, where his father had starred back in 1911. 

The marquis triple-threat tailback of his era, Smith epitomized the single-wing offense and could seemingly do it all. Although well over 200 pounds, he was one of the Big Ten Conference’s fastest men. In 1941, the team captain led the Gophers to their second consecutive undefeated season and national championship.

Smith went on to become a Navy fighter pilot, and also played service football for the Great Lake Navy team. He returned home in 1945, and signed on with the Green Bay Packers and later with the Los Angeles Rams. He played for four years in the NFL, mostly on defense, but injuries prevented him from performing up to his unbelievable collegiate standards. 

In 1947, he nearly died when he suffered a ruptured kidney during a Chicago Bears game. With that, he retired at the young age of 29, and moved back to his native Faribault to raise his family.

Frank Sinkwich - The Eighth Heisman Winner

Frank Sinkwich, the first Georgia Bulldog to win the Heisman and the first Heisman winner to be born outside the United States, was the eighth Heisman winner. Born in Zagreb, Croatia, Sinkwich was an outstanding high school star at Cheney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. He came to Georgia and led the freshman team of 1939 to an unbeaten season and the reputation as the “Point-A-Minute” Bullpups.

In his record-setting senior season with the Bulldogs, he gained 795 yards rushing and set the SEC passing record with 1,392 yards, a mark that stood for eight years. He set the SEC total offense record of 2,187 yards that same season. He led Georgia to another SEC record — 4,725 yards of team total offense. Although playing with two sprained ankles, he scored Georgia’s only TD in 9-0 victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl game at Pasadena.

He was a two-time All-Pro selection with Detroit in 1943-44 but a knee injury in 1945 essentially ended his professional football career. He served as head coach of an Erie, Pa., professional team in 1949 and as head coach at the University of Tampa in 1950-51. He was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and into the State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1967.

Angelo Bertelli - The Ninth Heisman Winner

Angelo Bertelli, the first T-formation quarterback to win the Heisman and one of six Heisman winners to also finish as a Heisman runner up, was the ninth Heisman winner. Born in West Springfield, Massachusetts, Bertelli was All State in football, baseball and hockey at Springfield’s Cathedral High.

During his senior year in 1943, the Marine Corps activated Bertelli after six games of Notre Dame’s 10-game season. In the six games Bertelli started in, he threw 36 passes, completing 25 with 10 touchdowns. Bertelli’s six-game 1943 performance was enough to win the Heisman Trophy. During Bertelli’s three seasons, Notre Dame lost only three games. In 1943, Notre Dame won 43 to 5 on average.

In 1944, Bertelli was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant, where he served as an infantry and recreation officer. After stops at Quantico, Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton, Bertelli embarked to participate in combat operations in the Pacific. After World War II, Bertelli entered the Marine Corps Reserves where he was promoted to the rank of captain and served until 1957.

Les Horvath - The Tenth Heisman Winner

Les Horvath, born in South Bend, Indiana, was the tenth Heisman winner and the first from Ohio State. He spent most of his youth in Parma, Ohio, and played on the track, basketball, and football teams for Parma until the 11th grade. He then switched schools and enrolled at James Ford Rhodes High in Cleveland, where he played as a quarterback for the Rhodes Rams.

In 1940, he enrolled at Ohio State where he became a football sensation. He lettered in football for the Buckeyes in 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1944. Horvath was right halfback on the 1942 national championship team but in 1943 he was in dental school and not eligible for football. 

Due to World War II and the resulting shortage of athletes in school, football players received an additional year of eligibility. In 1944, Buckeye coach Carroll Widdoes asked Horvath to return to the team for a fourth year. Ohio State went 9-0, won the Big Ten and ranked No. 2 nationally. Horvath rushed for 905 yards and passed for 345. He ranked second in the nation in rushing, third in total offense, was unanimous All-America, Most Valuable Player in the Big Ten, and won the Heisman Trophy.

He graduated from dental school in 1945, joined the Navy as an ensign, and was discharged in July 1947. A sixth-round pick, Horvath played three years of pro football with the Rams and Browns, then practiced dentistry in Los Angeles. He was elected to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame in 1969. Horvath passed away on November 14, 1995, at the age of 74.

Final Thoughts

The Heisman Trophy is a testament to the skill, dedication, and hard work of the players who have won it. The first ten Heisman winners, from Jay Berwanger to Les Horvath, set the stage for the many great players who would follow in their footsteps. Their stories are a fascinating glimpse into the early years of this prestigious award and the players who made it what it is today.

While we honor the past, we also look forward to the future of college football. The game continues to evolve, with new stars rising to prominence and legendary coaches like Nick Saban shaping the next generation of players. For an in-depth look at how Saban has ushered in a new era of dominance at Alabama, check out the following article: The Saban Effect: A new era of Alabama Heisman Winners.

As we reflect on the legacy of the first ten Heisman winners, we are reminded of the rich history of college football and the exceptional players who have left their mark on the game. Their stories continue to inspire future generations of players to strive for excellence both on and off the field.

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