They have lived above fireplaces and in closets, under custom-designed lights and under garbage, polished by caretakers with soft brushes and dropped by drunks.
Each December since 1935, a 45-pound bronze statue with a wood base has been handed to its newest winner, and for all time, its recipient isn’t just the season’s best college football player; he is the Heisman Trophy winner.
The Stanley Cup, given each year to the National Hockey League champion, spends at least some time with each player — visiting homes, bars, battlegrounds and swimming pools — before it’s returned and reissued to the next winning team. But a Heisman, sports’ most prestigious and recognizable individual award, is the winner’s to keep. And though it’s not exactly explained this way, each man is free to do with it whatever he wishes.
“Each one,” 1958 Heisman winner Pete Dawkins says, “probably has a different saga.”
So the assignment, handed down nearly a year ago, was to locate the physical whereabouts — and document some of the adventures — of each of the 78 winners’ copies of the Heisman Trophy before another one is issued Saturday evening. Each winner’s school is issued a copy, and years ago, winners could request multiple trophies — ’49 winner Leon Hart once owned three Heismans, a son says — but there’s only one each winner poses with in New York and, as tradition has it, carries onto the plane home, toward its new life.
Of the 58 living Heisman winners, 32 retain full-time possession of their trophy, displaying it on mantels or custom cases or even boxed in storage rooms. Nineteen overall Heismans are with family members, nine are on display in museums or restaurants and six have been sold at least once.
This is where they are now, but where have they been? Eddie George possessed his Heisman less than 24 hours before its outstretched fingers were severed by an airport metal detector. Johnny Lattner, the 1953 winner, lends his Heisman to classes and businesses; it spent part of November in an Irish pub at Chicago’s Midway International Airport. The trophy Howard Cassady won in 1955 was once stolen and, because it contained no gold or silver, thrown away.
But the 1968 Heisman’s life proved more complicated. The whereabouts of O.J. Simpson’s trophy were, for months, unknown, and the rumors of its location — and whether a trophy now existed at all — were at times both believable and ridiculous. For a long time, all that was known was that, in 1999, Simpson auctioned his Heisman to pay toward a civil-suit judgment after the 1994 deaths of Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman.
A flamboyant 47-year-old man from Pennsylvania bought the trophy for $255,500 because, he told reporters at the time, he hoped to impress his girlfriend. The man, a steel wholesaler named Tom Kriessman, held a news conference, where he taped his name over Simpson’s.
Then Kriessman — and the Heisman Trophy he purchased — just disappeared.
When Jason White returned to Norman, Okla., shortly after the Heisman ceremony in December 2003, he set the trophy on the floor in the closet of his apartment near campus.
The Sooners quarterback was a college student, and college students sometimes store precious things in humble places. Beer cans are icons; a grandfather’s pocket watch is ordinary. The weeks came and went after the ceremony, and sure enough, White’s Heisman was soon buried under a pile of clothes, emerging only when a visitor asked to see it. Then it would return to the floor, and occasionally his baby daughter, Tinley, would crawl toward the trophy. One day, she pushed up on the Heisman’s base and grabbed its outstretched right arm. The fingers on her other hand wrapped around the trophy’s bent knee, and Tinley came to her feet, steadying her legs and finally letting go to stand for the first time.
This is the thing about the Heisman: Its value to winners isn’t restricted to on-field memories or a once-a-year ceremony in New York. To many, it represents a life that has changed and a name that resonates for decades.
Charlie Ward, who won the ’93 Heisman, hasn’t seen his trophy since shortly after the ceremony. He loaned it to the public library in Thomasville, Ga., his home town, believing its purpose was greater than sitting on a shelf in his home. It’s on display near the children’s books, and Ward says that’s a good place for it; maybe it inspires another small-town youngster to chase his or her goals, no matter how extraordinary.
On a mild November Saturday, George Rogers, the 1980 winner, stands outside the University of South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium. He poses for photographs and hands his Heisman to anyone with at least a $5 donation to his foundation. His trophy’s base is chipped and dented, the black paint flecked, but the bronze has somehow survived dozens of drops — by children who are unprepared for its weight, for adults full of liquid strength.
“They always think they can handle it,” Rogers says. “. . . A lot of times when you’re intoxicated, you just try to grab it. I’m like: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’ve got to handle it with care.’ ”
Rogers, the first member of his family to attend college, uses the donations to pay expenses for first-generation college students. He says an education gave him the chance to win the Heisman, and now his Heisman gives others a chance at an education.
He says he has spent most fall Saturdays here, outside the stadium’s northwest corner and near the road named for him, for 22 years. So many Saturdays, so many photos, so many smiles — even after the Heisman’s latest fall to the pavement.
“I know what first-generation is,” he says. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
In early August, a memorabilia collector calls from Arkansas, saying he might know something about O.J. Simpson’s lost Heisman.
John Rogers once owned Charles White’s 1979 Heisman, a trophy that has changed hands at least three times, beginning when White auctioned it in 2000 to settle tax debts. Rogers has since sold the ’79 Heisman after a failed attempt to return it to White, one part poetic justice and another part stunt.
“I’ve probably gotten a million dollars in free publicity,” he says of owning White’s Heisman.
Rogers says a group of alumni from the University of Southern California called years ago, asking what it would take to return White’s trophy to him. Rogers says he was willing to relinquish it for what he paid, and the group seemed interested. But when they learned that White had sold it — Rogers says they initially believed the IRS had seized and auctioned the trophy — the alumni backed away, and Rogers sold it instead to a private buyer.
“Would’ve been a hell of a story,” Rogers says.
He became known for owning White’s trophy anyway, taking a few calls to gauge interest in another Heisman once awarded to a Trojans running back. Simpson’s Heisman is arguably the most infamous, and its value would reflect the story told alongside it. And so Rogers, a talkative man, listened — though he heard something unusual. They weren’t selling Simpson’s trophy; they were selling pieces of it.
Among the fates that supposedly befell the 1968 Heisman, a believable one was that Kriessman, the man who bought it at auction 14 years ago, melted down the bronze. Kriessman owned a steel company outside Philadelphia, was seen after buying the trophy as an eccentric, and anyway, here were several people calling Rogers, claiming to have bought a chunk of what was left of Simpson’s trophy.
Rogers says he passed on the offers, each asking for a few hundred dollars. But he says he fielded enough of those kinds of calls that he has come to believe Simpson’s Heisman is spread across the country in dozens of bronze pieces, each about the size of a ball bearing.
This 45-year-old trophy was becoming its own legend, and like so many, this was just the latest tall tale.
In September 2010, the Heisman Trust arranged for a shipping company to design two containers, each with a metal exterior and custom interior padding with an opening the perfect size for a Heisman Trophy. The prepaid return label would send the package to New York City.
Both containers were shipped to California, Heisman Trust spokesman Tim Henning said. One was addressed to Heritage Hall, the athletic department at USC, and the other directly to Reggie Bush, a Southern California native who at the time was a running back for the New Orleans Saints.
The day before Bush had said, in a prepared statement, he would forfeit his 2005 Heisman. The NCAA had ruled him ineligible following an investigation that revealed Bush had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts while still an amateur athlete. USC would be stripped of victories, scholarships and the 2004 BCS championship. The scandal would also contribute to the firing of Mike Garrett, the school’s athletic director and the 1965 Heisman Trophy winner; Garrett has since relocated (with his Heisman) to Edmond, Okla., where he’s the AD at Langston University.
When the ordeal was settled, the Heisman Trust, which would no longer acknowledge Bush — or anyone — as its ’05 winner, wanted its two trophies back.
Traveling is the norm for many of the Heismans, though winners have become more meticulous about protecting their treasures. Dawkins, the ’58 winner and a former Army brigadier general, returned home from Vietnam in the early 1970s and discovered in his car a heavy cardboard box with a rope around it.
“I said to my dad: ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s your Heisman Trophy,’ ” says Dawkins, who moved 41 times to fulfill military reassignments.
Archie Griffin, the only two-time Heisman winner, says he sends his trophies out every few years to be detailed. He likes the bronze polished, the wood unblemished, the nameplate gleaming.
“It’s like a good pair of shoes,” Griffin says. “You want to keep them shined and looking good.”
Johnny Rodgers, who won the Heisman in 1972, designed his own case, outfitting it with a light and making the materials sturdy enough to protect his prized possession but small enough to fit in most airliners’ overhead bins.
But there was no precedent for giving back a Heisman, as the Trust expected USC and Bush to do. Henning says now that the school returned its copy shortly after the shipping container arrived. Bush, though, took his time.
When it finally arrived in New York in 2012, the Heisman Trust made no announcement. For months it refused to reveal details about the ’05 trophy’s location and what would become of it.
But Henning says the two trophies that once belonged to Bush and USC now sit in separate storage units outside New York City. He will not reveal the units’ specific locations or how many storage facilities the Trust uses — more than one but fewer than five, he allows — though Eddie George’s mangled ’95 Heisman, which the Trust replaced, remains in one of them.
Neither of the Bush trophies has been destroyed or reissued. Henning says there have been no discussions about moving it from its life in the darkness, where the copy Bush was once awarded is kept among portraits and other items the Heisman Trust no longer has a place for.
Tom Kriessman answers the phone at his office, where his company still buys and sells excess steel and aluminum by the coil and gauge, clearing space for companies needing the extra room.
“My story,” Kriessman says, “is very boring.”
He has heard the many theories of what became of O.J. Simpson’s Heisman Trophy, whether it involves destroying it, selling it or whether it was the Heisman that Simpson was looking for when, in 2007, he entered the Las Vegas hotel room of two memorabilia collectors in what he said was an attempt to retrieve personal belongings. Simpson, who didn’t reply to a letter sent to him by The Post, was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping and is serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in a Nevada prison.
Kriessman also chuckles at the difficulty in locating him, his former business and past business partners. This difficulty, he says, is no coincidence.
“I’m keeping a low profile,” he says.
And so, as it turns out, is the Heisman he bought 14 years ago. Kriessman says the trophy is intact, but rather than displaying it, he stores the ’68 Heisman in a rented safety deposit box at a Philadelphia bank. The attention he received in ’99 and calls from collectors and journalists compelled him to shun the spotlight.
Now, he says, even close friends have no idea he owns Simpson’s Heisman. He will decline a request to visit Philadelphia, conduct an interview and see the trophy. That, he says, would be too much.
“I guess I was a little bit of a different type of person back then,” the 61-year-old says. “As you get older, some people change.”
He says he hasn’t visited the trophy in a long time, and he says he has no idea when it’ll next touch fresh oxygen. Kriessman figures someday he’ll sell it, though he isn’t looking forward to the attention that’ll bring. Whether winning a Heisman or buying or selling one, there’s little about a Heisman that’s done quietly.
“To be honest with you, it sort of happened that way, and you just get caught up in things sometimes. It sort of snowballed and it happened,” says Kriessman, who’s no longer with the woman he once tried to impress.
“I was a lot younger back then and just an attitude about things and was just kind of a fun thing to do. Turns out, it was.”