The 2009 college football season was filled with record setting performances and it marked the 75th annual presentation of the Heisman Memorial Trophy, simply know as the Heisman. Named after former college football coach John Heisman, he was serious about football, famously telling his team: “Gentlemen, it is better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.”
Heisman was an innovator of the modern game and a proponent of the legalization of the forward pass in 1906. He originated the “hike” shouted by quarterbacks to start each play, and suggested that the game be divided into quarters instead of halves.
In 1935, Heisman became the director of the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan, and the club began awarding a Downtown Athletic Club trophy for the best football player east of the Mississippi River. When Heisman passed away in December of 1936, the award was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy and was expanded to recognize the best collegiate football player of the season nationwide.
Winning the Heisman says you’re a great college player; it doesn’t guarantee success at the professional level. Only eight Heisman winners are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and not every winner went on to play professional football. We’ll take a look at one Heisman winner a decade and see which were award winning signers as well as players.
Nile Kinnick: 1939, Iowa
University of Chicago running back Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman in 1936, but it’s Nile Kinnick whose signature is the rarest. Berwanger died in 2002 and genuine autographs are easy to find through reputable dealers in the $50-$100 range. But for a Nile Kinick, expect to pay over $4,000 for even a cut signature or a signed index card.
Kinnick was an All-American halfback from the University of Iowa. Prior to the 1939 season, Kinnick wrote, “For three years, nay for 15 years, I have been preparing for this last year of football. I anticipate becoming the roughest, toughest all-around back yet to hit this conference.” His prediction proved true: he was responsible for 16 of the 19 touchdowns (11 passing, 5 rushing) that Iowa scored. Kinnick played 402 out of a possible 420 minutes that season, and all told he set 14 school records, six of which stand today. Nile Kinnick was more than an exceptional football player; he was an exceptional young man. His Heisman acceptance speech was so moving that he received a standing ovation, prompting Bill Cunningham of the Boston Post to write, “This country’s okay as long as it produces Nile Kinnicks. The football part is incidental.”
After graduation he chose to attend law school rather than pursue a lucrative career in the NFL, but left school a year later to enlist in the Naval Air Reserve, reporting for duty just three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. On June 2, 1943, he died during a training flight while serving as a U.S. Navy airplane pilot in World War II. Rescue boats arrived at the scene of the crash off the coast of Venezuela a mere eight minutes later, but they found only an oil slick. At 24, Nile Kinnick was the first Heisman Trophy winner to die.
Kinnick’s signature is toughest of all Heisman winners in any form. A simple signed index card realized over $7,000 in 2006 and signed photos can bring well over $10,000. A boon to any sports historian, the Special Collections Department of the University of Iowa holds the papers of Nile C. Kinnick, donated by his parents.
Johnny Lujack: 1947, Notre Dame
Johnny Lujack’s story is very different than Kinnick’s. Johnny is 84 now and the oldest living Heisman winner. He lead Notre Dame to three National titles, in 1943, 1946 and 1947, making him the only quarterback in college history to achieve that feat—and he did it while playing defense.
Lujack was a late bloomer and would never have seen game time if it weren’t for a series of accidents. The other quarterbacks at Notre Dame were largely All-State players in high school. Lujack was All-County, which seemed decent enough until his teammates discovered his was the only high school in the county. Pulled into a scrimmage purely by chance, (“They just pointed, they didn’t even know my name,” he said) he impressed the coaches. By his sophomore year, Lujack was back-up quarterback to Heisman winner Angelo Bertelli. It was only when Bertelli left college to fight in World War II that he got his chance.
Lujack was a great athlete and football was just one of four sports that he starred in. “The reason I was able to play all four sports is I was in the service, so I didn’t have to go out for spring practice,” Lujack said. “My first baseball game I got two singles and a triple out of four times up. In between the innings, I won the high jump and javelin in track, so my roommate, being a very comical guy, said, ‘If you get dressed real quick, I know where there’s a swimming meet.’”
Lujack went on to enjoy four seasons with the Chicago Bears before his career was cut short by injuries. With advancing age don’t expect to see Johnny making appearances near you, but he’s a great through the mail signer with a strong steady signature. I sent him a 1947 Sport magazine with an SASE and he responded in just nine days.
Pete Dawkins: 1958, Army
Not only is Pete Dawkins the Heisman winner that I admire the most, he’s one of the most accomplished people I have ever come across. At West Point, he became Brigade Commander, class president, captain of the football team and was in the top five percent of his class. A cadet is considered outstanding if he attains even one of these positions. Dawkins was the only cadet in history to hold all four at once.
After winning the Heisman in 1958, he opted not to play pro ball, instead winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Dawkins went on to spend 24 years as an officer in the Army, earning two Bronze Stars for Valor for his service in Vietnam. In 1981, at 43, he became the Army’s then youngest brigadier general. Along the way he earned a Ph.D. in public policy from Princeton and became a White House fellow, while playing a mean jazz trumpet, piano, guitar, clarinet, trombone and French horn.
“I was, uh, sort of intense,” the 59-year-old Dawkins said sheepishly in a Sports Illustrated interview. After retiring from uniform, he ran for the U.S. Senate, became CEO of Primerica, and is currently the vice chairman of Citigroup. And did I mention he beat polio at age 11 and appeared on the cover of Life?
Dawkins is extremely busy and rarely does shows. At his last appearance in Houston signatures ran $40-50. He is known to sign by mail if you’re patient. Pete can take nearly two years to respond to requests. But, believe me, it’s worth the wait.
Other signing winners from the ’50s include Dick Kazmaier ($35), Johnny Lattner, Howard Cassady, Paul Hornung ($35) and John David Crow, who were all among my recent through the mail successes.
Gary Beban (1967, UCLA)
Known as “The Great One,” Gary Beban excelled in both athletics and academics at UCLA, majoring in European History and playing in the 1967 game that came to be known as the greatest college football game ever played. Pitted against USC, led by Heisman candidate O.J. Simpson, Beban played the game even though he was badly injured. Fighting the pain, Beban threw for over 300 yards and two touchdown passes, though USC eventually won, just 21-20. Following the effort, L.A. Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, “If Gary Beban wins the Heisman Trophy, they ought to fill it with aspirin.” Beban won it alright. He also won the Maxwell Trophy, the Washington Touchdown Club Trophy, W.J. Voit Memorial Trophy and the Dolly Cohen award, given to the player best combining academic and football achievement.
After graduating, Gary was selected in the second round of the 1968 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins. He spent two seasons sitting behind veteran quarterback and future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen before choosing to retire after the 1969 season. He went on to a successful career in real estate.
His nickname, The Great One, holds true for his signing habits as well. He often responds through the mail in just over a week and typically includes the inscription UCLA ’67. He rarely makes show appearances, but he was one of 24 former Heisman winners to appear at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland in July 2009.
All of the 1960s Heisman winners are relatively affordable and obtainable, with the exception of Ernie Davis who played for Syracuse. Davis was the first African American to win the Heisman and he died of leukemia in 1963, making him the second most difficult Heisman autograph. Joe Bellino, Terry Baker, John Huarte, Steve Spurrier and Steve Owens all signed for me through the mail in less than a month.
Archie Griffin: 1974 and 1975, Ohio State
Archie Griffin is the first and only two-time Heisman winner. In 1973, the running back finished fifth in the voting and went on to win back to back awards in 1974 and 1975. Archie won four Big Ten Conference titles with the Ohio State Buckeyes and was the first player to start in four Rose Bowls. Legendary coach Woody Hayes called him “The greatest football player I’ve ever coached.” And Hayes coached a lot of great players over his 27 seasons at Ohio State. In 1976, Archie was drafted 24th overall in the NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, where he went on to a seven year NFL career. Archie had 26 touchdowns in college, but only seven in the NFL.
After football, Griffin returned to his alma mater to earn his MBA and he is currently president of the Ohio State University Alumni Association. After years of signing for free by mail, Archie now charges $25 per signature. He is a highly sought after public speaker and I’ve found him to be a very accommodating signer in person.
Other 1970s Heisman winners currently signing by mail include Pat Sullivan ($10), Johnny Rodgers ($20), Earl Campbell ($35), John Cappelletti and Billy Sims.
Herschel Walker: 1982, Georgia
Three-time All-American running back, Herschel Walker won the Heisman in 1982, during his junior year at the University of Georgia. At the time, the NFL would only accept players who had completed their collegiate career. But Walker didn’t want to wait that long. With the founding of the United States Football League, Walker had his chance for big marketing endorsements and he didn’t want to turn them down.
He signed with the New Jersey Generals in 1983. Lucky for Walker, he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1985 while the USFL was teetering on the verge of collapse. Playing for the Cowboys was good for Walker and he became America’s premier running back before he was traded to the Vikings for no less than five players. While this famous trade worked out beautifully for the Cowboys, pushing them into the top echelon of the NFL, the Vikings realized the stupidity of the exchange too late and took out the bad decision on Walker, never using him to his full potential. Walker was passed around to several teams before finally being reacquired by the Cowboys.
Besides being one of the greatest college football players of all time, Walker danced with the Fort Worth Ballet, earned his fifth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and became a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Bobsled team. In 2008 Walker published a memoir, Breaking Free, in which he revealed his long time struggle with multiple personality disorder (MPD). While none of his coaches or teammates noticed anything amiss, Walker himself can’t remember winning the Heisman. His entire junior year in college is a blank. It is hard to imagine the strength of character and bravery that allowed Walker to manage his mental illness by himself for so many years, without treatment or medication. It is a triumph of will that makes his achievements even more impressive.
Walker is a true gentleman and a great signer. He makes public appearances throughout the year and he is an excellent signer by mail. The rest of the 1980s Heisman winners are hard to get. George Rogers is known to sign by mail, as is Andre Ware. Marcus Allen signs through the Football Hall of Fame.
Danny Wuerffel: 1996, Florida
Gator fans love their quarterbacks and Danny Wuerffel is one of their most beloved. In 1996, Wuerffel won the Heisman playing for head coach Steve Spurrier, who won the Heisman for Florida as a QB in 1966. Danny led Florida to four consecutive Southeastern Conference titles between 1993 and 1996, capping his collegiate career by winning the National Championship with a decisive victory over Florida State at the Sugar Bowl with a score of 52-20. Wuerffel was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1997 and completed his NFL career in 2002 with Washington.
Wuerffel left the NFL in 2006, long before his career was over, to become executive director of Desire Street Ministries. Originally based in New Orleans, Desire Street Ministries worked to transform impoverished neighborhoods through spiritual and community development. When Katrina devastated the city, Wuerffel lost his house, his ministry and everything he’d worked for. He said at the time, “Earlier in my life, I would’ve tried to bury my emotions. Now I wake up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning and find myself weeping for my city.”
But it didn’t stop him. Returning to his hometown, Niceville, Florida, Wuerffel and his wife opened a boarding school. Running on practically nothing, the school took in children fleeing Katrina and other displaced children throughout the country. Today, Desire Street Ministries is thriving, reopening its New Orleans office, running after-school programs and doing its part to help rebuild the city.
True to form, Danny is an accommodating signer in person and by mail. Desmond Howard and Ty Detmer are also signing through the mail.
Carson Palmer: 2002, USC
Last summer during Cincinnati Bengals training camp I set out for rural Georgetown, Kentucky, on a mission to get an autograph from Carson Palmer. As a senior quarterback in 2002, Palmer became the fifth Heisman winner for USC and was followed by fellow Trojans Matt Leinart in 2004 and Reggie Bush in 2005.
After college, Carson was selected as the first overall pick of the 2003 NFL draft by Cincinnati, but he didn’t end up playing a single down the entire season. By 2004 he was entrenched as the starting QB, and by 2005 he led Cincinnati to the playoffs, only to be injured on the first pass of the game in the first round of the AFC Playoffs. He had to undergo major reconstructive surgery to his left knee but despite his doctor’s proclamation that it was “a career ending injury,” Palmer was back and on top at the start of the next season. Now a two time Pro Bowl veteran, Palmer has established himself as one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL.
I ended up getting two hurried signatures from Carson that are little more than a scribble with his No. 9 attached, but my mission was completed that hot summer day.
The 2009 Heisman Trophy
Mark Ingram of the University of Alabama was named the 2009 Heisman winner. He won the award over Toby Gerhart of Stanford by only 28 points in the closest finish in the 75 year history of the Heisman. While leading the Crimson Tide to an undefeated (13-0) regular season and a No.1 National ranking, Ingram was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year and the SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
I mailed 2007 winner Tim Tebow through the University of Florida and received back a color preprint and a note that due to the overwhelming number of requests, the University of Florida Athletic Association has asked Tim not to reply to autograph requests.
Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch and Jason White are all players from this decade that recently signed for me by mail. Getting an autograph from any of the USC winners in person or by mail isn’t an easy task, and that includes O.J. Simpson, who may not be out of prison for another 31 years. So mark your calendars for 2041, if you’re brave enough to ask for an in person signature.
Winning the Heisman Trophy is the greatest individual accomplishment in all of football. With 55 of the 75 winners still living, now is the ideal time to go after the signatures of these gridiron greats. Heisman autographs are much like the winners themselves: in demand, cherished and forever appreciated.