A 1935 letter written and signed by John Heisman, the founder and namesake of college football’s most prestigious award, regarding the founding of the prize, has surfaced and is expected to bring $20,000 in Heritage Auctions’ Platinum Night event in February 2016. The award was named for Heisman two years after his death.
“This seminal document serves as a birth certificate of sorts for one of the most important awards in American sports,” said Chris Ivy, director of Sports Auctions at Heritage. “It not only assured athletic immortality for its namesake, it confers that same distinction on any player that wins it.”
In the letter, which Heisman wrote during his fifth year as director of the New York Athletic Club to a New York City sports editor who would serve as a member of the first balloting group (that directed the inaugural trophy to University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger) Heisman carefully enumerates the criteria for the honor, most importantly:
“1. The man to be picked must be the one you consider the most outstanding player of the year. By ‘outstanding’ is meant the best or most valuable,” he wrote, narrowing the potential suitors for the prize to athletes who “have played in two-thirds of his team’s games of 1935” and those “identified with a college team located East of the Mississippi River.”
Born and raised in the fertile football fields of Ohio and Pennsylvania, Heisman came to prominence as a center and tackle for both Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania during the late 19th century, when Ivy League football was the pinnacle of the sport. As his playing days ended, Heisman would begin a three-and-a-half-decade career as one of the game’s top collegiate coaches, retiring in 1926.
He became the first director of the New York Downtown Athletic Club in 1930. In his fifth year Heisman founded the award that would become his legacy.
“This letter speaks directly to the birth of that fabled prize,” said Ivy. “For a college football fan there can scarcely be a more important document.”
Also included in the auction are two rare, autographed Heisman ceremony programs from illustrious past winners Ernie Davis (1961) and Nile Kinnick (1939), each with $10,000+ estimates.