The Heisman Trophy is awarded annually by the Downtown Athletic Club to the top player in college football’s highest division. While many of those who have hoisted the trophy named for football coach and pioneer John Heisman initially pursued careers in the NFL, the lives of these seven winners took much different paths:
1. 1935: First Heisman Trophy Winner Jay Berwanger Passes on NFL Career
Weeks after becoming the first recipient of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy—as the Heisman Trophy was originally known—Berwanger again made football history when the Philadelphia Eagles selected him as the NFL’s first draft pick. Professional football had yet to become a lucrative enterprise, and while the University of Chicago senior reportedly demanded to be paid $1,000 per game, Philadelphia offered no more than $150.
Chicago Bears coach and owner George Halas traded for Berwanger’s rights but ultimately refused the college star’s demands of $25,000 for a two-year, no-cut contract. Spurning the NFL, Berwanger went to work instead for a Chicago rubber company. “I thought I’d have a better future by using my education rather than my football skills,” Berwanger later said.
After a knee injury derailed his attempt to make the 1936 U.S. Olympic decathlon team, Berwanger coached the freshman football team at his alma mater, wrote a Chicago Daily News sports column and refereed college football games. After serving as a U.S. Navy flight instructor in World War II, Berwanger launched his own company that manufactured plastic and sponge-rubber strips for automobiles.
2. 1939: Iowa Star Nile Kinnick Dies in WWII Training Flight
Months after World War II ignited in the fall of 1939, Kinnick—a University of Iowa senior—delivered one of the more memorable acceptance speeches in Heisman Trophy history. “I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest and not on the battlefields of Europe,” he said. “I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country would much more, much rather struggle and fight to win the Heisman award than the Croix de Guerre [a French military honor].”
The war, however, would ultimately take the life of the “Cornbelt Comet.”
Born and reared in Iowa, Kinnick bypassed the NFL to attend law school and serve as assistant football coach at his alma mater. Three days before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he reported for induction with the U.S. Naval Air Corps Reserve.
When his plane developed an oil leak while on a routine training flight off the USS Lexington aircraft carrier on June 2, 1943, the 24-year-old died in an attempted water landing off the coast of Venezuela. The University of Iowa renamed its football stadium in Kinnick’s honor in 1972.
3. 1940: Michigan Star Tom Harmon Plays Himself in Movie
Although selected first in the 1941 NFL draft, Harmon—a tailback at Michigan—had more interest in becoming a professional sports broadcaster than a professional football player. The Heisman winner, the father of actor Mark Harmon, went to Hollywood after his graduation and starred in the 1941 film “Harmon of Michigan,” which was loosely based on his collegiate career.
Harmon served four years as a fighter pilot with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He earned the Silver Star and Purple Heart for surviving two plane crashes in 1943.
Six months after being the sole survivor when a plane he piloted crashed in the South American jungle, Harmon parachuted to safety when his aircraft was struck in a dogfight with Japanese Zeros over China. When he wed actress Elyse Knox, material for her 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 broadcaster.
4. 1945: Army’s Doc Blanchard Pilots Fighter Planes in Vietnam War
In 1945, fullback Blanchard became the first junior to win the Heisman Trophy after helping Army capture its second consecutive national title. Blanchard teamed with tailback Glenn Davis—who would win the Heisman Trophy in 1946—in one of college football’s greatest backfields. Dubbed “Mr. Inside” (Blanchard) and “Mr. Outside” (Davis), the running backs played themselves in the 1947 film “The Spirit of West Point.” (Harmon played a sportscaster in the movie.)
After being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Blanchard has his NFL aspirations dashed when the War Department denied him a four-month furlough from military service to play football. Trading in his football uniform for a military one, he became a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force.
Blanchard demonstrated bravery during a 1959 flight over England when his plane caught fire from a ruptured oil line. Rather than parachute to safety and risk the plane crashing into a nearby village, Blanchard executed a safe landing. He also flew 84 missions during the Vietnam War.
5. 1958: West Point Star Pete Dawkins Becomes a Soldier and a Scholar
Following in the Heisman footsteps of fellow cadets Blanchard and Davis, Army’s Dawkins never played in the NFL. However, he did compete on the rugby pitches at England’s Oxford University, 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 to the 82nd Airborne. After learning to speak Vietnamese, he earned a pair of Bronze Stars in two tours of duty in Vietnam.
Following two years of teaching at West Point, Dawkins received a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Princeton while still on active duty as an Army officer. Following commands in both the 7th Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions, he rose to the rank of brigadier general before retiring from the Army in 1983 to begin a second career on Wall Street.
6. 1959: LSU Legend Billy Cannon Imprisoned for Counterfeiting
Weeks after Vice President Richard Nixon presented Cannon with the Heisman Trophy, the LSU senior signed with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and the Houston Oilers of the upstart American Football League. After a federal judge invalidated his Rams contract, Cannon signed a lucrative deal with the Oilers to become football’s first $100,000 player.
In the offseasons of his 11-year professional career, Cannon earned degrees in dentistry and orthodontia. When his playing days were over, Dr. Cannon opened an orthodontist practice in Louisiana. After accumulating large debts due to gambling and bad business investments, he was arrested in 1983 with five others on a conspiracy to possess and distribute counterfeit money. Authorities discovered nearly $5 million in counterfeit bills in coolers buried on Cannon’s property, and the football star served nearly three years in prison after pleading guilty.
Following his release, Cannon regained his dental license but struggled financially. He sold his Heisman Trophy to a local ribs restaurant before filing for bankruptcy in 1995. In the last 22 years of his life, Cannon provided dental care 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, Syracuse’s Davis broke Jim Brown’s school records for rushing, scoring and touchdowns. After becoming the first Black player to be the top pick of the NFL draft, the “Elmira Express” was traded from Washington to the Cleveland Browns. Davis joined his idol, Brown—who became one of the greatest players in NFL history—in the backfield.
While practicing for the 1962 American Football Coaches All-American Game, Davis was hospitalized with an unknown illness. Later, he was given a leukemia diagnosis, but doctors cleared him to play football because the cancer was in a “perfect state of remission.”
Although Davis attended Browns practices, he never played in 1962 season. The cancer returned, and he died at the age of 23 on May 18, 1963. “When I look back, I can’t call myself unlucky,” Davis wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in March 1963. “In these years I have had more than most people get in a lifetime.”
Although he never played a game for Cleveland, the Browns retired his number 45 jersey.