Nearly everybody who follows college football knows that the award for sports’ most outstanding player is the Heisman Trophy. Presented annually by the Downtown Athletic Club, the trophy was named in honor of John Heisman, the club director who died in 1936, just one year after the club inaugurated the award.
A lot of fans know that the first award in 1935 (called the Downtown Athletic Club Award until the following year) went to running back Jay Berwanger of the mighty University of Chicago Maroons. Some probably know that the Maroons — and not the Bears — were the original “Monsters of the Midway,” as the midway for the 1893 Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) runs right through the southside campus. Alas, Chicago dropped its football program in 1939 and withdrew from the Big Ten in other sports in 1946.
Ohio State supporters likely know that six Buckeyes have won seven Heismans, Archie Griffin the only player in history to win it twice — in 1974 and 1975. Seven is tied with Notre Dame for the most winners. Southern Cal players have won six: four running backs before 1981 and two quarterbacks since. In fact, the early 1980s seemed a turning point in the award from runners to passers, as college offenses evolved. TTUN has had three recipients, as has Alabama, all under Nick Saban.
But how much do you know about the Bucks’ first Heisman winner, Les Horvath, in 1944?
The 1944 season was odd. At the height of US participation in the Second World War, Ohio State found Great Lakes Naval Station on its schedule and finished 9-0, ranked second in the final AP poll — behind only Army (with Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis). Curiously, the four positions in the final poll after the Buckeyes were also military affiliates: Randolph Field (TX, flight training), Navy, Bainbridge Naval Training School (MD), and Iowa Pre-Flight School (Iowa City). Like I said, odd year. Ohio State was coached by Carroll Widoes, who was in his first year after succeeding Paul Brown.
What did it take to win a Heisman under these conditions? Well, obviously, like now, it helps to be on a stellar team. But Les Horvath’s case is unique. Playing on Ohio State’s 1942 national championship team, as both halfback and quarterback, Horvath graduated after that season and enrolled in OSU’s dental school. Having used his three years of playing eligibility, Horvath didn’t play in 1943, but, for the following season, collegiate players (in short supply) were granted an additional year of eligibility. Widoes talked Horvath into returning to the playing field.
The Bucks put up a lot of offense, but they averaged nearly 60 runs per game, while passing it only 10 times on average. Horvath was a runner and rushed for 924 yards on 163 carries, for a respectable 5.7 yard average. He scored 12 touchdowns and caught a pass for 17 yards. Also a passer, the versatile dental student completed 14 of his 32 tosses for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Oops! He also had four interceptions — no wonder they didn’t pass much.
Horvath’s stats may seem modest by today’s standards (J.K. Dobbins ran for 2003 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2019 and finished sixth in the Heisman balloting, third on his own team!), but he was second in the nation in rushing and third in total offense.
The following year witnessed another oddity: the Heisman went to running back Doc Blanchard of Army, who wasn’t even the best rusher on his team. Blanchard ran for 722 yards and a 7.1 per carry average, while his teammate Glenn Davis rushed for 930 yards, averaging a whopping 10.9 yards per rush. I guess you had to be a dental student like Horvath or at least a senior; Davis deservedly won the Heisman in 1946.