7-Pound Purple Dumbbells and 14 More Gimmicky Heisman Campaigns

Last month, the Northwestern athletic department garnered national attention when it shipped two 7-pound purple dumbbells to about 80 college football writers across the country. A subtle hint that the recipients should spend a little more time in the gym? No, just part of the school’s preseason Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Dan Persa, who wears No. 7 and was named the Wildcats’ strongest player. Here’s a short history of the Heisman campaigning tradition and some of the more interesting gimmicks through the years.

1. Vote Terry Baker

The Heisman Trophy was first awarded in 1935, but schools didn’t do much campaigning for players until nearly 30 years later. In 1962, Oregon State publicist John Eggers helped Beavers quarterback Terry Baker become the first player west of the Mississippi to win college football’s most prestigious award by mailing updated stats and notes about Baker to voters every week. In 2010, Eggers was elected into the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Hall of Fame.

2. Meet Roger Staubach

Trumpeting your star player’s exploits on a national level would soon become the norm for college athletic departments.

In the summer of 1963, Navy sports information director L. Budd Thalman mailed 1,000, four-page pamphlets titled “Meet Roger Staubach” to media members near and far. Thalman also helped land the Navy quarterback on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time. Staubach was scheduled to appear on the cover of the November issue of Life, but he was bumped after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Staubach won the Heisman by a landslide, but Thalman, like Eggers one year before, refused to take any of the credit. “Roger would have won if Elmer Fudd was his publicity man,” Thalman told ESPN’s Darren Rovell in 2000.

3. Joey Heisman

In 2001, University of Oregon boosters spent $250,000 to erect a 10-story billboard of Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington across from Madison Square Garden in New York City. Harrington led Oregon to an 11-1 season and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl, but he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. In 2003, while playing in the NFL, Harrington sold pieces of the 80-foot by 100-foot billboard to help fund scholarships for Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.

4. A Little Something for Jason Gesser

Not to be outdone by its neighbor and conference foe to the southwest, Washington State promoted quarterback Jason Gesser for the Heisman in 2002 with a 25-foot by 15-foot vinyl poster on a 10-story grain elevator in tiny Dusty, Washington, which is on the road to Pullman from Seattle. “We did it for fun, for a spoof,” Washington State head coach Mike Price said. “Jason is a bit embarrassed by it.” The poster was about 100 times cheaper than Harrington’s billboard.

5. Bobble Byron Leftwich

The Marshall sports information department distributed approximately 1,000 Byron Leftwich bobblehead dolls to Heisman voters across the country to promote the Thundering Herd’s quarterback in 2002. “I think it’s a good idea,” Leftwich said. “My head’s already too big in real life. People will see the doll and think my head’s not so big.” Big head or not, Leftwich wasn’t a finalist for the award.

6. Air Ware

With Houston banned from appearing on television in 1989 as part of the NCAA sanctions levied against the school, the Cougars’ sports information department needed a creative way to promote quarterback Andre “Air” Ware for the Heisman. The result was a weekly flier designed to look like an airline timetable, which included updated stats and notes about the prolific passer. Ware won the award and would go on to become the seventh pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. By that point, his best football days were behind him.

7. Theismann as in Heisman

 After Joe Theismann arrived at Notre Dame in 1967, sports information director Roger Valdiserri convinced him to change the pronunciation of his name from Thees-man to Thighs-man. You know, like in Heisman. Theismann enjoyed a successful career in South Bend, but finished runner-up to Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett in the Heisman voting in 1970.

Six years later, Pittsburgh running back Tony Dorsett changed the pronunciation of his name (from DOR-set to Dor-SET) around the time that he was awarded the Heisman. “Lots of guys change their names,” Dorsett told a reporter in 1977. “Muhammad Ali. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I wanted to see the type of feedback I’d get.”

8. Fit to Be Tied

In 1990, BYU mailed cardboard ties that opened to reveal stats to Heisman voters as part of the campaign for quarterback Ty Detmer. The junior threw for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns in 12 regular season games and won the Heisman. Detmer would finish third in the voting in 1991.

9. Oats for Votes

Touting a center for the Heisman Trophy is a tough sell, but that’s exactly what BYU did in 1981 when it sprinkled rolled oats in envelopes along with notes about Bart Oates that it mailed to voters. Oates didn’t come close to winning the award, but he went on to a successful NFL career that included five Pro Bowls and later starred as himself in a 2005 episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

10. Super “Boo Boo”

After Paul Palmer didn’t receive a single Heisman vote despite averaging 193.7 yards rushing per game in 1985, Temple’s sports information office pulled out all the stops to promote its start running back. Nicknamed by his grandmother after the sidekick in the Yogi Bear comic strip, Palmer was featured in a 16-page comic book that was mailed to more than 1,000 sportswriters. Temple also sent photos of Palmer posing with golfing legend Arnold Palmer with the tagline “Pennsylvania has two Palmers” and Paul Palmer-emblazoned pens with sample Heisman ballots. Palmer finished runner-up for the Heisman that year to Vinny Testaverde.

11. Raking in the Votes

In 1997, Rod Commons, who worked under John Eggers at Oregon State, mailed envelopes with a single leaf inside to Heisman voters to promote Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf. The Pac-10’s Offensive Player of the Year in 1997, Leaf led the Cougars to the Rose Bowl, but finished third in the Heisman voting behind Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning.

12. See Ray Run

In addition to launching SeeRayRun.com, Rutgers mailed binoculars to Heisman voters so they could keep an eye on the Scarlet Knights’ diminutive running back in 2007. He wasn’t a finalist for the award, but he has enjoyed a solid NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens.

13. Stock in Williams

Memphis sports information director Jennifer Rodrigues made headlines with her campaign for running back DeAngelo Williams in 2005. Memphis mailed about 2,500 die-cast model stock cars featuring Williams’ No. 20 to media members and sold another 1,500 on the school website. Williams finished seventh in the Heisman voting that year and Memphis made $20,000 from the sale of the cars, which it put toward its general scholarship fund.

14. View-Master

 In 2008, the University of Missouri promoted quarterback Chase Daniel’s Heisman candidacy by issuing old-school View-master toys with slides featuring various images of Daniel. "I didn't want to do just a mouse pad or a coffee mug, other standard items or more basic items. I didn't want to do anything that people could just toss aside," Missouri sports information director Chad Moller told reporters. "We wanted to create a little splash and do it in a classy manner."

Bonus: Tom Garlick

OK, so it wasn’t for the Heisman, but Fordham deserves some credit for its three-week campaign to get wide receiver Tom Garlick some consideration for Division I-AA All-America honors in 1992. The school’s sports information office mailed fliers to sportswriters across the country. The top of the flier read “This Garlic Stinks” and included a piece of garlic. The middle section of the flier read “This One Doesn’t” and included Garlick’s stats. Garlick was an honorable mention All-America that season.

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories. Here are five more fast facts about Muhammad Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

Can Watching the Super Bowl Give You a Heart Attack?

iStock.com/skynesher
iStock.com/skynesher

With the clock nearing zero, the 2006 divisional round playoff between the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to be over: It was the fourth quarter, with one minute and 20 seconds left, and the score was 21-18. Pittsburgh held the lead and, by all appearances, was about to score again.

Pittsburgh's offense lined up on the Indianapolis 2-yard line and handed the ball to future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, a cannonball of a man who famously went by the nickname "The Bus." Nearly everybody assumed Bettis would pound the ball through the goal line. Instead, Colts linebacker Gary Brackett forced a fumble. The Colts picked up the ball and nearly ran it back for a touchdown. For Steelers fans, it was a sudden and heartbreaking turn of events. Literally.

Watching from a bar, a diehard Steelers fan named Terry O'Neill watched the ball tumble to the ground and suddenly felt a pain in his chest. Luckily, two firefighters in the crowd helped resuscitate him.

"My heart just quit beating completely," O'Neill later told the South Pittsburgh Reporter. "For all intents and purposes, I died."

Research indicates he wasn't the first. Watching a high-stakes game could actually kill you.

A 2002 study in The BMJ, which focused on the health of English soccer fans, found that a "myocardial infarction can be triggered by emotional upset, such as watching your football team lose an important match." A 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine followed the World Cup-watching habits of German soccer fans and found that watching a stressful game more than doubled viewers' chances of experiencing a cardiovascular event. A similar result was found when other researchers looked at cardiovascular deaths in the Netherlands after the country's soccer team lost the European soccer championships on a penalty shootout in 1996.

In 2011, a study published in Clinical Cardiology looked at the Super Bowl specifically and found that deaths increased after the big game in the losing city, finding an "absolute increase in all cause mortality" in people over the age of 65. The researchers argued:

"Acute risk factors usually involve some form of stress—physical, emotional, or both—that increase the sympathetic nervous system and releases catecholamines. The subsequent increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and ventricular contractility increase oxygen demand and may change the shear stress of blood against an atherosclerotic plaque, contributing to plaque fracture."

This particular study, however, has received some criticism. It only looked at mortality statistics for the 1980 and the 1984 Super Bowls, a relatively small sample. Some researchers said the study went too far in implying that the Super Bowl caused death, considering that the viewer's behavior and health history (and not the events of the game itself) could have been responsible. Super Bowl Sunday, after all, is a day filled with fatty fried foods and copious amounts of alcohol—all possible risk factors for a cardiovascular event.

As Gregg Fonarow, director of the Cardiomyopathy Center at UCLA, tells LiveScience, "It may be other behaviors associated with important sporting events rather than the stress of watching the home team lose that may explain these associations." Additionally, pre-existing conditions could be a huge contributing factor. (This was the case for our fateful Steelers fan.)

Study limitations aside, becoming invested in the outcome of a sporting match is undeniably stressful on the heart. A recent (though small) study out of Canada surveyed the heart rates of hockey fans during games, revealing "a mean increase of 92 per cent among the 20 test subjects, rising from an average rate of 60 to 114 beats per minute," according to the Montreal Gazette. In other words, people sitting and watching TV had heart rates equivalent to people undergoing mild exercise. Their heart rates only got higher when they watched games in person.

Of course, you don't have to do a study to learn that close games can cause a diehard fan's heart to pound—just go and ask one. And if they mutter, "This team is going to kill me!," kindly suggest that they step away from the TV before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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