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The Grave of John Heisman

by Randy Snow

Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Friday, July 4, 2014

The Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious and recognizable award in all of college football. But why is the man, who the award is named for, buried in a small, off-the-beaten-path town in northern Wisconsin? I recently set out to find the final resting place of John Heisman, and discovered that the town is protected by a monster, dating back to the late 1800s.

My youngest son, Abram, and I set out for the town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin from our home in Michigan early one morning. We drove through Chicago and continued to head north. While hunting down the graves of football legends is something I love to do and have been doing for several years, it is not the most interesting thing for my teenage son to do on his summer vacation. Thatís why I included a little side trip to a restaurant that we had seen featured on TV.

Itís called A J Bombers and it is on the corner of N. Water Street and E. Knapp Street in Milwaukee. It was featured on a Destination America channel show called United States of Bacon. Their signature burger is called The Barrie Burger, which is a bacon cheeseburger with peanut butter. We had to try one.

The restaurantís name comes from their unique way of delivering peanuts to your table. Peanuts in the shell are loaded into a bomb shaped metal container and sent via an overhead track from the bar. The bomb hits a target, which releases a trap door and sent the peanuts down a chute to a bowl in our booth. When the burgers arrived they looked perfectly normal, but after a few bites, an unmistakable flavor became apparent. The peanut butter gave the bacon cheeseburger a very unique taste that was unlike anything I have ever tried before. After we ate, we got back on the road and continued heading north to Rhinelander.

So, to get back to my original question; Why is John Heisman buried in Rhinelander? He never coached or played for a college team from Wisconsin, so what is the connection? The answer is simple; Love.

John Heisman was born in Cleveland and his family later moved to Pennsylvania. Heisman played college football at the University of Pennsylvania while attending the Law School. He graduated in 1892. He went on to be the head football coach at Oberlin College south of Cleveland and at Buchtel College in Akron, Ohio.

While at Buchtel, he fell in love with Edith Cole and wanted to marry her, but she came down with Tuberculosis, which at the time was almost always fatal. She did not want John to have to deal with her illness and possible death so she refused to marry him. John was so heartbroken that he decided to leave town. He took the head coaching job at the Agricultural and Technical College of Alabama, which later changed its name to Auburn University. He would also make a name for himself at Clemson and Georgia Tech.

Heisman married Evelyn McCollum in 1903. They divorced in 1919 while John was coaching at Georgia Tech and, once again, he needed to get away, so he took the head coaching job at his old school, the University of Pennsylvania. It was there that he was reunited with Edith, who had made a full recovery from Tuberculosis and was recently divorced herself. The two were soon married.

Heisman ended his coaching career at Rice University in Houston from 1924-1927. He and Edith moved to New York where John earned a living writing newspaper and magazine articles and was part owner of a sporting goods store. Even though they lived in New York, the couple maintained a summer home in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, which was near Edithís family.

In 1930, he became the athletic director at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. A few years later, the club wanted to give an annual award to the best player in college football, so they created the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy. The first one was awarded in 1935 to halfback Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago. The following year, Heisman died from complications of pneumonia. The award was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy in his honor before the second award was presented to Larry Kelly, an end from Yale, in the fall of 1936.   

Finding the Grave

As you come into Rhinelander on Highway 8 from the west, you will see the local Chamber of Commerce Visitorís Center. It is hard to miss as there is a giant Hodag standing out in front of it. The Hodag is a mythical creature created over a century ago by a local man and adopted as the townís mascot. You will see them all over town, but none as huge as the one at the visitorís center.

Follow Highway 8 into town until you a forced to turn either right or left. Turn left, then make a right at the first traffic light. Go four blocks and turn right onto Newell Street. On the corner of Newell and Coon Street you will find the entrance to the Forest Home Cemetery. Enter the cemetery and turn left. Drive a short distance and turn onto the first paved road that goes to the right. You will see a large marker with the name Donaldson on your right. This is the family plot for John Heismanís wifeís family. You will find Heismanís marker to the left of the Donaldson stone and his wife, Edith, to the right of it.

Rhinelander can hardly be called a football Mecca by football fans, but it does have something that no other city has. A one and only, original, Heisman.

To see a Hodag and to learn more about the town, visit www.ExploreRhinelander.com. Unfortunately, if you do a search on the word ďHeismanĒ on the web site, you will not find any mention of John Heisman at all.


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