Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

John William Heisman (1869–1936) was an athlete turned college sports coach who became one of football’s greatest innovators.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Heisman grew up near Titusville, Crawford County, in northwestern Pennsylvania. He played football at Titusville High School and then at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. He received a law degree but, diverted by an eye injury, decided to take a football coaching position at Oberlin College in Ohio. His career as a college football coach continued for 35 years at eight colleges (including University of Pennsylvania and Washington & Jefferson College in the Keystone State) with an impressive record of 185 wins, 68 losses, and 19 ties.

Heisman was a strong proponent of instituting rules to increase the safety of players. He was moved by the deaths of 21 American college football players in 1904 due to injuries sustained on the field. Gaining the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, the persistent Heisman was able to secure major rule changes in 1906.

John William Heisman.

John William Heisman.
Permission of the Georgia Institute of Technology Library and Information Center, Archives and Records Management Department

In 1922 Heisman’s Principles of Football was published. In the book he laid out 175 basic axioms of football, which included player behavior, dietary restrictions, roles of the coach, and strategic formations and plays. He also advocated improvements to equipment and gear to improve safety. Although the technical aspects and many of the rules and formations are no longer legal or in use, the foundation of the modern game is evident in this work.

Heisman is credited with developments to the game: the center snap and its vocal signals of “hut” or “hike,” the hidden ball play, the double play, dividing games into quarters, and the statistical scoreboard. Many consider his greatest contribution to be the legalization of the forward pass, which led to higher scoring, changes in strategy, and decreased injuries.

Following his retirement in 1927, Heisman moved to New York and helped establish the Downtown Athletic Club and served as its first president. He also founded the Touchdown Club of New York and the National Football Coaches Association.

In 1935 the Downtown Athletic Club created an award presented annually to the outstanding collegiate football player east of the Mississippi River. After Heisman’s death the following year, the field was expanded to include players from across the nation, and the award was named the Heisman Memorial Trophy in his honor. The iconic statue has been won by many football greats, including Pennsylvanians John Cappelletti (Penn State University) and Tony Dorsett (University of Pittsburgh).

The Pennsylvania Historical Marker for John William Heisman was installed and dedicated at Carter Field in Titusville on August 28, 2009.

 

Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005.