Imagine volunteering for an art project when a buddy from school asks you to help him out. Maybe you do so begrudgingly; maybe it produces a few laughs as you pose as the subject of his work. After it’s over, you probably don’t think much of it. Now imagine that the art project later took on much greater significance and was made famous all over the world. And you realize, almost a half-century later, that it was your likeness that became the inspiration for the Heisman Trophy. Such was the case for Ed Smith.
Principally, there are two men whose names you will need to remember for this story: Smith and a man named Frank Eliscu. Old schoolmates at George Washington High School in Manhattan Heights, New York, the two men would later reconnect when Eliscu was tasked with designing a trophy for the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) in 1934.
Eliscu, an up-and-comer in the New York art scene as a graduate of the Pratt Institute, was in his early 20s when the project was commissioned. After submitting several raw options in the form of wax, Eliscu was advised by members of the DAC’s trophy committee—which included John Heisman and Notre Dame’s Jim Crowley of Four Horseman fame—that if the figure could appear to be shedding tacklers, he’d have a winner.
So Eliscu called on Smith, who, as a stout fullback for the New York University (NYU) Violets, would be the perfect inspiration for the brawny image Eliscu was trying to convey. Smith brought his togs—leather helmet, canvas pants, and cleats—to Eliscu’s studio in Greenwich Village and struck the now-famous pose: football tucked away in left arm, right arm extended.
How Smith didn’t know he was the subject of the Heisman Trophy sounds far-fetched but the explanation is rather simple. First, Smith never asked what he was posing for, and Eliscu never told him. “Back then it was just a trophy for the Downtown Athletic Club,” Eliscu told Jim Harmon for an 1988 article in Sports Illustrated called “Striking a Pose for Posterity.” “And you don’t usually tell a model what he’s posing for.”
Today the word “just” doesn’t seem appropriate, but at the time, the trophy wasn’t a big deal. Besides, it wasn’t until the second presentation of the award, which occurred after Heisman’s death in 1936, that it was renamed the “Heisman Memorial Trophy.”
Secondly, Eliscu and Smith lost touch. After completing the project, Eliscu served in World War II, taught art in Manhattan, and later sculpted several statues for banks and office buildings in New York. Aside from the Heisman Trophy, his two most famous projects were his design of the medals for President Gerald Ford’s inauguration in 1974 and the five-story “Falling Books” relief installed at the Library of Congress. On the other hand, Smith had a short professional football career, playing for the Boston Redskins in ’36 and the Green Bay Packers in ’37 under head coach Curly Lambeau. Smith later worked for an elevator company and played and coached semipro football.
As time rocked on, the two men remained disconnected but Eliscu’s sculpture grew in stature. In 1942, Georgia’s Frank Sinkwich was the first Southern player to receive the award, and in 1962, Oregon State’s Terry Baker was the first player from the West Coast to place one on his shelf. Though the Heisman had grown to national eminence by that time, Smith remained unawares.
It wasn’t until 1982 that documentary filmmakers working on a project about the Heisman Trophy unlocked the mystery. “The filmmakers wanted to find out who the actual person was who posed for it, and there was a lot of talk about who it might be. Finally, they asked Eliscu, and he said that it was my father who had been the model,” said Ed Smith’s son, Ed Smith Jr., in a 2008 article for the Naples Daily News.
Smith Sr. admitted that when the filmmaker’s publicity director first contacted him, he thought it was a prank. “Then what he was saying sank in,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. It almost threw me off my feet.”
Upon hearing that Smith was the subject of the bronze statue, the Downtown Athletic Club made a big to-do about it. They gave him a standing invitation to the annual awards dinner held every December. And in 1985, the Club gave Smith his own Heisman, this time to keep.
After a half-century of poses, he’d earned one. H&A