Best Heisman Trophy Winners (1935-1949)

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Davis and Blanchard
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The Heisman Trophy award was created in 1935 in honor of legendary college football coach John W. Heisman. Heisman had a career record of 186-70-18 as a coach. This included seven Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA) championships as well as one National Championship.

In addition to his accomplishments, Heisman contributed a lot to the game. In fact, he was one of the biggest contributors to incorporating the forward pass into the game.

That being said, each year since 1935 the Heisman Trophy is given to the most outstanding player in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) football. That means there have now been 85 Heisman Trophy winners.

In honor of the Heisman Trophy, we have decided to rank every single winner of the award, but we won’t do it all at once. Starting from the beginning, we will have separate lists of either 10, 15, or 20 award winners. In those articles, we will break down the best of that specific era.

After we rank each generation, we will handpick the best 25 Heisman Trophy winners of all-time.

To kick off this series we have the years 1935-1949. In this time Minnesota led with four total team national titles, Notre Dame was right behind with three, while Army had a total of two.

During this time, four new bowl games were created; the Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Sun Bowl, and the Cotton Bowl. Also, in 1936, the Associated Press (AP) began with its weekly polls where they rank each team. This is something that is still very prominent even today.

The game was still evolving and adjusting to the forward pass at this point in history. However, games were still won and lost in the trenches as the run game was still the go-to for most teams.

 

Les Horvath

Les Horvath - Heisman Trophy
[Image via NBC Sports]
  • Year: 1944
  • Heisman Voting: 18.31% of votes

In 1944, Les Horvath became Ohio State’s first-ever Heisman Trophy winner. The five-foot-ten quarterback/running back from Glendale, California made it known that his small stature was no knock on his ability. He rushed for 924 yards and accumulated 1,200 all-purpose yards en route to a Heisman Trophy-winning season.

One cool thing to note about Horvath is that his college football eligibility actually expired following the 1942 season. Back in those days, players only had three years of eligibility, rather than the four they have today. Due to World War II, players who already graduated were given an extra year of eligibility.

This gave Horvath one more chance with the Buckeyes, which he clearly made the most of. Despite being drafted as the 45th overall pick in the 1943 NFL Draft, he decided to go back to Ohio State.

Following his epic 1944 season, he had a short stint with the NFL playing for Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns. He even won an AAFC championship with the Browns in 1949 before retiring from the game of football. Upon retiring, he decided to pursue a career in dentistry!

 

Davey O’Brien

Davey O'Brien
[Image via Davey O’Brien Foundation]
  • Year: 1938
  • Heisman Voting: 29.62% of votes

In 1938, a quarterback from Texas Christan University (TCU) named Davey O’Brien lit the college football world on fire. The reason? He threw for 1,509 yards and five touchdowns while only throwing four interceptions. This was en route to leading his team to an undefeated season, resulting in a National Championship victory.

His 1,509 passing yards set a Southwest Conference passing record that would stand for 10 years. Of course, you should keep in mind that the forward pass was still in its infancy at this point.

In addition to winning the Heisman trophy and being named a unanimous All-American, O’Brien also won the Maxwell Award, which made him the first player to ever win both awards in a single season. He was also the first Heisman winner from the Southwest Conference.

In an interesting note, Davey was 5’7 and weighed just 150-pounds. This makes him the smallest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy.

In 1939, he was selected as the fourth overall pick in the 1939 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He had two great seasons with the Eagles, leading the league in passing and making it to the Pro Bowl in 1939, with another solid season in 1940. He’d then retire from the game of football.

In 1977, shortly after the death of O’Brien, the “Davey O’Brien Award” was created. The award is given to the most outstanding player in the Southwest Conference following each season. Eventually, the NCAA adopted it as an award for the best Quarterback in a given season.

He is also a member of the Texas Football Hall of Fame.

 

Nile Kinnick

Nile Kinnick - Heisman Trophy
[Image via The Athletic]
  • Year: 1939
  • Heisman Voting: 31.00% of votes

Nile Kinnick had quite the year in 1939. As a halfback for the Iowa Hawkeyes, he won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Memorial Trophy, the Big 10 MVP Award, and was named the AP Male Athlete of the Year. He beat out names like Joe DiMaggio to win the AP Award and was also the first college football player to win the award.

He rushed for 374 yards and five touchdowns in 1939, leading the Hawkeyes to one of their best seasons ever. The ‘Ironmen’ as they became known, went 6-1-1 and finished second in the Big 10, finishing the season as the ninth-ranked team in the nation.

In addition to playing halfback, Kinnick did virtually everything for the Hawkeyes. He threw for 638 yards and 11 touchdowns on offense. He even set a school-record eight interceptions on defense, which still stands today. Kinnick also played 402 of 420 possible minutes and was involved in 107 of the 130 points that Iowa scored that season.

Their offense was so good that they never kicked a field goal the entire season!

Kinnick also contributed on the basketball court for Iowa. In fact, in the 1937-1938 season, he was Iowa’s second-leading scorer and the 15th leading scorer in the Big 10.

A few years after winning the Heisman Trophy, he enlisted into the Navy following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Sadly, Kinnick died in June of 1943 due to an Oil leak in his plane, causing him to crash.

Since his death, many things have been named in honor of him. This includes the Hawkeye’s current football stadium, which is named Kinnick stadium.

 

Clint Frank

Clint Frank
[Image via New Haven Register]
  • Year: 1937
  • Heisman Voting: 32.89% of votes

Clint Frank played phenomenal in 1937 for the Yale Bulldogs. He led them to a 6-1-1 record and they ended the year as the 12th ranked team in the nation.

Frank himself rushed for 667 yards and 11 touchdowns, in addition to 465 passing yards and four interceptions on defense. His stats were good enough to make him a unanimous All-American, win the Maxwell Award, and win Heisman Trophy.

He started his college career in 1935, coming in as a solid recruit out of Evanson Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. By his second year, Frank had already become one of the faces of the program, as he was named team captain and was honored as an All-American by the year’s end.

Following his 1937 season, Frank was selected in the 12th round of the 1938 NFL Draft by the Detriot Lions. However, he decided to bypass professional football and enlist into the military instead to help his country during World War II.

After his service, he pursued a career in advertising and later founded the Brain Research Foundation at the University of Chicago and the Eye Research Institute in Boston.

Although Frank never pursued a career in football, his 1937 career was still great nonetheless and should not be forgotten.

 

Doc Blanchard

Doc Blanchard - Heisman Trophy
[Image via Heisman.com]
  • Year: 1945
  • Heisman Voting: 33.81% of votes

Doc Blanchard is a dominating force that is still known for his amazing abilities, proving this exponentially in 1945. After transferring from the University of North Carolina two seasons prior, he was now comfortable with the Army Cadets. As you can imagine, playing alongside Glenn Davis, Blanchard was a deadly weapon for them.

He rushed for over 700 yards in 1945 and picked up 888 total yards from scrimmage with 17 total touchdowns. He helped the Cadets achieve a perfect 9-0 season en route to a National Championship. Their offense averaged 45 points per game. This was the second of three-consecutive National Championships Blanchard and the Cadets would win together.

Blandchford’s numbers in 1945 were good enough to capture the Maxwell Award as well as the James E. Sullivan Award. He was also named Sporting News Player of the Year.

Following the 1945 season, he played one more season with the Cadets, in which he was named an All-American for the third-straight year. Later in 1946, he was the third overall selection in the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers but was turned down in 1947. He then enlisted into the Air Force.

He later fought in the Vietnam War and retired in 1971 as a Colonel. Doc sadly passed away in April of 2009. To honor him, West Point proudly retired his number 35 jersey.

 

Larry Kelley

Larry Kelley - Heisman Trophy
[Image via Heisman.com]
  • Year: 1936
  • Heisman Voting: 36.41% of votes

One year before Clint Frank won the 1937 Heisman Trophy, his teammate Larry Kelley dominated for the Bulldogs.

Kelley played tight end and proved to be a terrific pass catcher. In a time when passing the ball was about as rare as kicking it, he was able to catch 17 passes for 372 yards and four touchdowns in his Heisman-winning season. He even beat out names like Sammy Baugh to win it!

In addition to winning the Heisman, the 6’2 Bulldog was also a unanimous All-American. He also led Yale to seven wins, finishing the season at 7-1 as the 12th ranked team in the country. That year, the Bulldogs also beat rivals Princeton and Harvard. At this point in history, those were some of the greatest rivalry games in sports.

After his football career, Kelley became a teacher. He taught history and then algebra and later worked at a factory for 12 years.

Prior to his death in 2000, he sold his Heisman Trophy to help support his family. He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1969.

 

Leon Hart

Leon Hart - Heisman Trophy
[Image via Heisman.com]
  • Year: 1949
  • Heisman Voting: 36.53% of votes

From one tight end to the next, Leon Hart became the second and most recent tight end to take home the Heisman Trophy after a terrific year with Notre Dame. He is Notre Dame’s third Heisman Trophy winner. Of course, the Fighting Irish have had four more winners since, bringing them to a total of seven total winners. This is tied with Oklahoma for the most total Heisman Trophy winners.

In his Heisman-winning season, Hart caught 19 passes for 257 yards and five touchdowns. In addition to winning the Heisman in 1949, he also won the Maxwell Award and was named the Sporting News Player of the Year.

He originally began playing college football as a 17-year-old with the Fighting Irish. Seeing this today would be uncommon, but Hart entered college slightly early.

In his college career, he was a two-time All American and three-time National Champion. Following his 1949 season, he began his professional career in the NFL after being selected number one overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1950 NFL Draft.

Hart went on to have a solid NFL career in which he was named First Team All-Pro in 1951. He even won three NFL Championships throughout his eight-year NFL career.

 

Jay Berwanger

Jay Berwanger
[Image via AP News]
  • Year: 1935
  • Heisman Voting: 43.08% of votes

Now lets through it all the way back to the first-ever Heisman Trophy winner: Mr. Jay Berwanger.

Berwanger rushed for 477 yards and passed for 921 yards en route to the University of Chicago’s first and only Heisman winner. That season he also was named the Big 10 MVP as well as a unanimous All-American.

Less then than a year later, he became the first player ever selected in an NFL Draft when the Philadelphia Eagles took him with the first overall pick. However, he never ended up playing in an NFL game. This was because the Eagles were unable to pay him, causing him to look elsewhere. While the Chicago Bears had interesting, coach George Halas could not come to a compromise on salary.

Following this unsuccessful attempt to go pro, Berwanger later became a sportswriter and then worked at a rubber company.

He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as well as the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame and in 1989. Berwanger was also honored by Sports Illustrated when they added him as part of their 25-year anniversary All-America team.

 

Bruce Smith

Bruce Smith of Minnesota with Heisman Trophy
[Image via TwinCities.com]
  • Year: 1941
  • Heisman Voting: 49.99% of votes

Just two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bruce Smith from the University of Minnesota was awarded the Heisman Trophy. Smith had an excellent year for the Golden Gophers in which he rushed for 473 yards and five touchdowns. He even passed for another 320 yards and an additional two touchdowns.

He led the Gophers to an undefeated 8-0 season where they steamrolled over rivals Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin. They ended the season by winning the Big 10 Conference Championship as well as the Division-I National Championship.

Following his 1941 season, Smith enlisted into the Navy and became a fighter pilot during World War II. After the war, he played in the NFL for four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, the team that drafted him in the 1942 NFL Draft. He’d even play some for the Los Angeles Rams.

After losing a battle to cancer, Smith passed away in 1967. In 1972, he was indicated into the College Football Hall of Fame, and later, his college number (54) was retired by Minnesota.

 

Tom Harmon

Tom Harmon
[Image via Michigan Football History]
  • Year: 1940
  • Heisman Voting: 54.29% of votes

Tom Harmon crushed it for the Michigan Wolverines in 1940. As a running back and quarterback, he rushed for 852 yards with 15 touchdowns and passed for 506 yards along with six touchdowns. That year he was also given the Maxwell Award, named the Big 10 MVP, and named the AP Athlete of the Year.

He averaged 9.9 points per game throughout his college career, which was an NCAA record ten years. He also played all 60 minutes of a game eight times in his career.

Harmon was then selected as the number one overall draft pick in the 1941 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. However, Tom declined to play because he decided he wanted to pursue a career as a movie actor and sports commentator.

Shortly after, he was drafted by the military and after a couple of attempts to appeal and get out of serving, he was forced to enlist.

In spite of the attempt, from 1942-1945 he was part of the Air Force and fought in World War II. He put all of his ability and energy into serving his country. So much so, he received a Purple Heart for his service. He eventually served the time he was supposed to take on in the Armed Forces, allowing him to pursue other interests.

Thus, in 1946, he signed with the Los Angeles Rams where he played for only two years. Sadly, Harmon’s injuries piled up consistently on him and caused him to retire.

Although his professional career wasn’t much, Harmon had an ever-lasting impact on college football. Due to his impressive play, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

 

Frank Sinkwich

Frank Sinkwich - Heisman Trophy
[Image via Heisman.com]
  • Year: 1942
  • Heisman Voting: 56.15% of votes

In 1942, Frank Sinkwich became the first winner of the Heisman Trophy to be born outside of the United States. Born in Croatia, his family moved to Ohio when he was two-years-old.

After starring as a running back for his high school, the Georgia Bulldogs decided to pursue him. Upon arrival, Sickwich took the nation by storm and finished fourth in Heisman voting in 1941. However, Sinkwich built off of his momentum for an even better 1942 season. He rushed for 826 yards with 17 rushing touchdowns and passed for 1,456 yards along with 10 passing touchdowns.

He also led the Bulldogs to an 11-1 season, which was enough to win an SEC title and finish as the second-best team in the nation.

This included a massive 75-0 victory over Florida!

After his college career, Sinkwich was drafted number one overall in the 1943 NFL Draft. He would go on to have a good NFL career. In fact, he won the NFL MVP Award in 1940 and was even named a First-Team All-Pro twice in his career.

Later on, his college number (21) was retired by Georgia.

 

Angelo Bertelli

Angelo Bertelli
[Image via Heisman.com]
  • Year: 1943
  • Heisman Voting: 64.80% of votes

After finishing in the top six in Heisman voting in 1941 and 1942, Angelo Bertelli finally brought home the Heisman Trophy in 1943.

He began his college career in 1940 with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Just a year later, he would become one of the best gunslingers in the nation, using the T-formation to propel his success. The following years Bertelli seemingly got better and better, which built up to his senior year in 1943.

That season, Bertelli passed for 512 yards and 10 touchdowns, leading the Irish to a 9-1 season where they won the Division-I National Championship.

Bertelli himself also was named an All-American and was won The Sporting News Player of the Year.

He’d go on to be drafted number one overall in the 1944 NFL Draft but would not begin playing until 1946. This was due to enlisting into the Marine Corps due to World War I.

Sadly, his professional career never truly went anywhere and he’d end up retiring in 1948.

 

Johnny Lujack

Johnny Lujack
[Image via The Delite]
  • Year: 1947
  • Heisman Voting: 74.20% of votes

About 73 years ago, Johnny Lujack won the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback and defensive back for the University of Notre Dame.

This true ironman is still alive today as of this writing at 95-years-old, making him the oldest living Heisman winner.

In an interesting note, Johnny Lujack actually began playing for the Irish in 1942. He had a few good seasons but this was around the time of World War II. Johnny wanted to take part in the fight, so he left college to join the U.S. Navy. Then, in 1946 he came back and finished his final two college seasons.

Lujack used his great 1946 season, in which he finished third in Heisman voting, to build off of for his 1947 season. During his Heisman-winning season, he passed for 777 yards, 9 passing touchdowns, and rushed for another 139 yards. Also, he helped Notre Dame achieve a perfect 9-0 record and win the NCAA Division-I National Championship.

He would finish his college career as a three-time National Champion and two-time Unanimous All-American.

Right after his 1947 season, Lujack was drafted number four overall in the 1948 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He went to play four seasons in the NFL with the Bears. These were not just okay seasons either, rather, four great seasons!

Lujack made two Pro-Bowls, four All-Pro teams (three of them First-Team). He led the league in passing yards and touchdowns in 1949 and even led the league in rushing in 1950.

Lujack has been deemed one of the top 100 Bears players of all-time and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960.

 

Glenn Davis

Glenn Davis - Heisman Trophy
[Image via Heisman.com]
  • Year: 1946
  • Heisman Voting: 79.20% of votes

To close off this first list, we have the dominant Glenn Davis. We thought he was so good that he made our article highlighting the best college football players of all-time. 

Davis accumulated 1,464 all-purpose yards and 17 total touchdowns for the Army West Point Cadets. With Davis, the Cadets went 9-0-1 in 1946 and won the Division-I National Championship.

Davis started his college career in 1944. He and his twin brother were originally going to attend UCLA but changed their minds in favor of the Army. The Cadets are glad Davis changed his mind. During his time with the Army from 1944-1946, they had an unbelievable combined record of 27-0-1.

Davis spent a few years in the Army after college and then had a brief stint in the NFL after being selected number two overall in the 1947 NFL Draft.

He played a few seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, making the Pro Bowl in 1950. However, it was short-lived as multiple knee injuries caused him to retire. In spite of this, Glenn was absolutely amazing in college. In fact, his Heisman win percentage is still among the highest in the history of the trophy.

Due to his impressive play, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1961.

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