Our second article on this series of best Heisman trophy winners will feature the 1950s. In the college football world, the 50s were an introduction to a few new contenders.
Oklahoma was by far the most dominant team of the decade. They won three Division-1 National Championships along with a perfect 10 out of 10 Big Eight Conference Championships. In addition, the Big 10 Conference juggernauts Ohio State and Michigan State also experienced some success.
Ohio State won three Big 10 Championships and two National Championships while Michigan State won two National Championships in the decade.
The 1950s was a decade of the running backs. Passing numbers were down and teams were running the ball about 50 times per game on average. In fact, nine out of the 10 Heisman winners in the decade were running backs.
Outside of the sports world, the Korean War would last the first three years of the decade. Although its impacts were crumbs compared to World War II just a decade before.
The Brown V. the Board of Education Supreme Court case occurred in 1954. This ended segregation in schools but the Civil Rights Movement and the war on equality were far from over. In fact, just a year after the case, a 14-year-old African American boy named Emmett Till was brutally murdered.
While Civil Rights took a little longer to be given a proper law, the groundwork that built to it happened in this decade. It was also a decade in which black men were given a chance to shine in football, especially on the West Coast.
- Year: 1952
- Heisman Voting: 14.32% of votes
Billy Vessels was the first player to win the Heisman Trophy using the T-formation. For those unaware, the T-Formation is often known as the Full House Formation. It tends to create a T-design in the backfield, resulting in usually 3 running backs behind or beside the Quarterback.
As a running back for Oklahoma, Vessels rushed for 1,072 yards and 17 touchdowns en route to a Heisman Trophy. He also averaged 6.4 yards-per-carry. Vessels also led Oklahoma to an 8-1-1 record, finishing the season as the fourth-best team in the country. For the time, this was considered a remarkable record for the Sooners to have.
Later Vessels went on to become the second overall selection in the 1953 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts. Instead of taking the Colts’ offer, he decided to play in the CFL. He went on to become a star for the league in his one year there, even winning CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award in 1953.
While he only played a year for the league, football career was not yet finished yet. In 1956, he jumped to the NFL and played for the Colts. That’s right, the team that originally drafted him! After one solid season, mainly as a kick returner, he was forced to retire after injuring his leg.
Vessels eventually became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1974.
- Year: 1950
- Heisman Voting: 22.03% of votes
Vic Janowicz was a threat in all three phases of the game. He played an array of different positions which made him a big threat as an Ohio State Buckeye.
During his Junior season in 1950, he hit his peak as a college football player. As a utility player, he rushed for 314 yards and four touchdowns, while also passing for 561 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He helped the Buckeyes to a 6-3 record, which saw them outscore their opponents 286-111 and finish the season as the 14th ranked team in the country.
Janowicz would go on to play one more season with the Buckeyes before being drafted by the Washington Redskins. However, he decided to pursue a career in professional baseball instead. He played baseball for two seasons, making it to the major leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates for a few games.
In 1954, he returned to football to play with the Redskins. He played two seasons before being tragically paralyzed in an automobile accident. This forced him to retire, but he would later recover and became a lead broadcaster for Ohio State football.
26 years after he won the Heisman, in 1976, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
- Year: 1956
- Heisman Voting: 26.96% of votes
Usually leading your team to a 2-8 record does not result in winning the Heisman Trophy. In 1956, however, this actually happened. Mr. Paul Hornung led Notre Dame to an awful season, and became the first and still the only player to ever win the Heisman Trophy while playing on a losing team.
The only non-rusher on this list played a terrific year despite his team’s poor season.
He passed for 917 yards and three touchdowns & rushed for 420 yards and six touchdowns. He also led his team in six offensive categories and was second on his team in interceptions and tackles.
Despite an awful year in 1956, Hornung was part of great teams and Notre Dame the two years prior. In 1954 and 1955 the Fighting Irish combined for a 17-3 record and finished in the top 10 each season.
After college, Hornung became the first overall pick in the 1957 NFL Draft. He went on to have a terrific NFL career. In 10 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, he won the NFL MVP Award and made two Pro Bowls.
He also won four NFL Championships and was part of the Packers squad that won the first-ever Super Bowl.
- Year: 1954
- Heisman Voting: 27.01% of votes
Nicknamed “The Iron Horse,” Alan Ameche became one of two fullbacks to win the Heisman Trophy and the first player from The University of Wisconsin to win it.
During his 1954 run, he picked up 641 yards on the ground and contributed a lot on defense as well. The Badgers finished the season with a 7-2 record, beating three ranked teams in the process while finishing the year as the ninth-ranked team.
Ameche’s totals in 1954 added to his already impressive career totals. In fact, he finished his college campaign with 3,345 rushing yards which, at the time, was an NCAA record.
He was then selected as the 3rd overall pick in the 1953 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts. He ended up having a ton of success with the Colts as well.
Ameche made it to four Pro Bowls, won the Rookie of the Year Award, and was the NFL’s leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 1955. During his career, he also won two NFL Championships. This led to him making the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team.
Ameche surely would’ve been an NFL Hall of Famer, but he suffered an Achilles tendon injury. However, he is still one of the best college players of all-time and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975.
John David Crow
- Year: 1957
- Heisman Voting: 31.12% of votes
In 1957, John David Crow pulled off quite an impressive feat when he won the Heisman Trophy. He managed to do this in spite of missing parts of three games during the season.
Despite missing all of that time, Crow managed to rush for 562 yards and six touchdowns for Texas A&M. Also, he threw for five touchdowns and picked up five interceptions while playing defense. He became the first player from Texas A&M to win the Heisman.
In addition to winning the Heisman Trophy, he also was named the UPI Player of the Year, the Sporting News Player of the Year, and was honored as a unanimous All-American.
Not long after, Crow was taken as the second overall pick by the Chicago Cardinals in the 1958 NFL Draft. He’d go on to have a great NFL career. He made it to four Pro Bowls and is part of the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team.
He’d later go on to coach for just over a decade before becoming an administrator. This includes even serving as an Assistant Coach under Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama.
For all that he did for football, Crow is part of the Texas A&M Hall of Fame, Louisiana Hall of Fame, National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, Texas Sports Hall of Fame, and the College Football Hall of Fame.
- Year: 1958
- Heisman Voting: 39.01% of votes
Pete Dawkins helped the Army Cadets go 8-0-1 in 1958 and finish third overall. Dawkins himself was impressive enough to win the Heisman Trophy that year.
Offensively he rushed for 428 yards and five touchdowns and picked up 494 yards and six touchdowns as a receiver. He took home the Maxwell Award and was named an All-American, in addition to winning the Heisman.
Despite the great season in 1958, he would never go on to play professional football.
In fact, Dawkins decided to stay in the Army and served the nation for over 20 years. He finished his career as a Brigadier General after fighting in the Vietnam War.
In 1975, he was inducted into the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame.
One thing to note is his college choice. He was accepted by Yale when he was making his college choice but decided to go to the Army instead. Who knows what would have happened if he had chosen Yale. Perhaps his football and Army careers never would have happened.
- Year: 1953
- Heisman Voting: 49.14% of votes
After finishing fifth in Heisman voting in 1952, Johnny Lattner made it his goal to be the best college football player in 1953. Boy, was he ever.
He rushed for 651 yards and had 14 catches for 204 yards while leading Notre Dame to a great season. The Fighting Irish went 9-0-1 and finished as the second-best team in the country.
Lattner was also named an All-American and won the Maxwell Award for the second year in a row. He’d also finally get the Heisman Trophy he felt he earned the previous year. It was part to argue against him in 1953, however.
He’d go on to be drafted number seven overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1954. He only played one season with the Steelers (in which he was a Pro Bowler) before joining the Air Force. Unfortunately, he suffered a career-ending injury that prevented him from playing football again.
Later he coached for a short while before retiring from that in 1961.
Lattner’s two great seasons with Notre Dame, especially his 1953 Heisman-winning season, makes him one of the best Fighting Irish players to put on the uniform.
- Year: 1959
- Heisman Voting: 53.72 % of votes
70 years before quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy in 2019, Billy Cannon became the first LSU Tiger to win the award.
Just a year prior, Cannon and the Tigers had a terrific season. Cannon finished third in the Heisman race and the Tigers won an NCAA Division-1 Championship. Cannon wasn’t satisfied, however. He was determined to bring home a Heisman Trophy.
Cannon did just that in 1959 when he dominated, playing just about everywhere on the field. He had a combined 759 rushing and receiving yards, along with five touchdowns. He also led the Tigers in a few defensive categories.
In addition to winning the Heisman, he repeated as the SEC Player of the Year and as a Unanimous All-American.
Following the season he was the number one overall pick in both the NFL and AFL drafts in 1960. He chose to play with the Houston Oilers in the AFL where he rocked it.
In 1961, he led the league in rushing yards, which was also the season he’d make one of two career All-Star Teams. He was even part of three AFL Championship-winning teams.
Later in life, one of his sons, Billy Cannon Jr. went on to be drafted in the first round of the 1984 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. This completes a football legacy that only a select few football players can say they experienced.
Billy Cannon Sr. is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame (inducted in 2008) and had his college number (20) was retired by LSU.
- Year: 1955
- Heisman Voting: 55.87% of votes
After being named a Unanimous All-American and the Sporting News Player of the Year in 1954, it was no secret that Ohio State running back Howard “Hopalong” Cassady was going to be a force to be reckoned with in 1955.
The Buckeye did not disappoint.
That season he rushed for 958 yards and 14 touchdowns. He led the Buckeyes to a 7-2 record; which included a 17-0 shutout win over rival Michigan. They won the Big 10 Championship and finished as the fifth-best team in the country.
All of this led to a Heisman win that few could argue.
Cassady would repeat as a Unanimous All-American and the Sporting News Player of the Year. He’d also win the Maxwell Award, Big 10 Player of the Year Award, the UPI Player of the Year Award, and be named the AP Male Athlete of the Year.
Cassady went on to become the third overall pick in the NFL Draft. He played eight seasons in the NFL and scored 27 career touchdowns.
His college number (40) was retired by the Buckeyes and in 1979 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
- Year: 1951
- Heisman Voting: 60.01% of votes
To conclude our second list of the series we have Dick Kazmaier.
He is Princeton University’s only Heisman Trophy winner, which came after his unforgettable season in 1951. He led the Tigers to a perfect 9-0 season, ending as the sixth-best team in the nation.
Zazmaier rushed for 861 yards and nine touchdowns, en route to winning the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, and Unanimous All-American honors. He also passed for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns.
By the time he left Princeton, he was already a legend. Between his three positions (quarterback, running back, kicker) he accumulated over 4,000 yards and 55 total touchdowns.
In addition to being Princeton’s most recent Heisman winner, he is also the most recent winner to play for an Ivy-league school. No Heisman has been won by a player from the Ivy-League ever since.
Kazmaier forwent professional football as he decided to attend Harvard Business School. He then spent three years in the Navy before founding his own company.
He went on to become part of many charities and organizations and contributed plenty to the world. We can’t be upset with a guy deciding against a pro-career when he does such amazing good for the world like this.