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—and more about his inspiring life can be seen in the new documentary What’s My Name Muhammad Ali, premiering May 14 on HBO. Here are five more fast facts about 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.”

What's the Difference Between Pool and Billiards?

iStock.com/Steevy84
iStock.com/Steevy84

Walk into a bar or private rec room and you're likely to encounter a pool table, with patrons and guests leaning over a green felt surface and striking a white cue ball with a cue stick in an effort to sink the rest of the balls into six pockets. If you're invited to join, most people will ask about a game of pool, not a game of billiards. Yet both terms seemingly refer to the same activity. What's the difference?

According to the Billiard Congress of America, billiards was developed out of a lawn game similar to croquet in the 15th century. When play moved indoors, green tables were used to simulate grass. Originally, the balls in billiards were driven by a mace with a large tip instead of a stick and through something similar to a croquet wick. The game evolved and expanded over time to include pocketed tables and shot-calling for points, enjoying wide popularity in America in the 1920s. The term billiards comes from the French words billart ("wooden stick") and bille ("ball").

As the popularity of billiards grew, billiards tables became common sights in gambling parlors where horse racing wagers or other bets were being placed. Because a collection of wagers is known as a pool, pocket billiards began to be associated with the term. Some professional pool players still use the term billiards to describe what's more commonly known as pool. Typically, billiards can refer to any kind of tabletop game played with a cue stick and cue ball, while pool largely means a game with pockets.

In the UK, however, billiards can refer to English Billiards, a variation in which only three balls are used, with the player striking his cue ball and a red striker ball to move his opponent's cue ball. There are no pockets used in the game.

You may wonder where this leaves snooker, an even more obscure game. Since it's played with a cue and a cue ball, it's technically billiards, but snooker has a specific rule set involving 22 balls that need to be sunk with consideration given to each color's point value. At 10 to 12 feet in length, a snooker table is also larger than a conventional pool surface (from 7 to 9 feet) and its pockets are an inch smaller in diameter.

The bottom line? If you're in a social setting and get challenged to a game of billiards, it's probably going to be pool. If you're in the UK, it could mean the pocket-less version. And if you get challenged to a game of snooker, be prepared for a very lengthy explanation of the rules.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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