It takes a special physical talent to win a Heisman Trophy.
Sometimes that talent reaches beyond the confines of college football and into other athletic pursuits.
There’s a long list of past Heisman winners who played at a high level in multiple sports. Some were so brimming with talent, they may have turned out to be just as famous had they never strapped on a football helmet.
In its heyday, track and field was, arguably, the third-most popular sport in the country after college football and baseball. It often lured Heisman winners away from the gridiron and several excelled at the highest of levels of the sport.
Here’s a look at six Heisman winners who dominated on the track:
Army’s “Mr. Outside” might’ve been the fastest of the early Heisman winners, with a best of 9.6 in the 100-yard dash. Some old-time observers claimed that track would have been Davis’ best sport, had he concentrated on it. As evidence, note that in 1947 he ran a 6.1-second 60-yard dash at Madison Square Garden. In doing so, he beat Barney Ewell, who would go on to win the silver medal in the 100 meters at the London Olympics in 1948.
No story about Davis’ athletic accomplishments would be complete, however, without recounting what happened later that spring. Davis played nine innings of baseball for Army in center field, collecting a couple of hits. After, he rushed to the track and, in borrowed shoes, won the 100-yard dash in 9.7 seconds, then later won the 220 in an academy-record time of 20.9.
At Istrouma High in Baton Rouge, Cannon set a state record with 57-4 in the shot put and ran the 100 yard dash in 9.7 seconds. At LSU, he threw the heavier college shot over 54 feet and improved his 100 time to 9.5 seconds (9.4 wind-aided). How many other athletes could throw the shot that distance while running that fast? Oh, he also bench pressed 435 pounds. At 6-1, 210 pounds, he was a 1950s version of a physical phenom.
”I’ve never seen that combination of speed and strength in anyone else, including Bo Jackson,” said Boots Garland, a former longtime track coach at L.S.U.
There’s only one Heisman winner who holds a world record in a track event and that is O.J. Simpson. The 1968 Heisman winner ran the third leg on USC’s world-record setting 440-yard relay that won the NCAA title in the spring of 1967. Since the 440 relay is no longer run in the track world — meters became the preferred standard in subsequent years — the record still stands to this day.
Simpson is one of the fastest running backs in the history of college football, with a best of 9.53 in the 100-yard dash and a 10.3 in the 100-meter dash. He finished sixth in the 100 at the NCAA championships in 1967, making him the first of three Heisman winners to earn All-American honors in both track and football.
Walker, the 1982 winner, joined Simpson as a football/track All-American when he placed seventh in the NCAA’s 100-meter dash final in the spring of 1981. Walker ran a wind-aided 10.30 in a race won by future Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis. The spring before winning the Heisman, Walker clocked a personal-best 10.23 and went as low as a 10.10 with the aid of the wind. He also ran the 55-meter dash in 6.11 seconds.
All these numbers make Walker, arguably, the fastest Heisman winner despite weighing a solid 220 pounds.
Jackson might be the best athlete in the history of the Heisman. Not only did he run a best of 10.44 in the 100 meters at 6-1, 225 pounds, he also twice qualified for the NCAA indoor 60-yard dash while at Auburn (his 6.18 60 yard dash run in 1983 is still in the Auburn record books). He was also a high-level decathlete in high school with a best mark of 8,340. Though some of his claimed marks are unverifiable, we do know he high jumped 6-foot-9, triple jumped 48-8, threw the discus over 150 feet, the shot put over 50 feet and went 12.9 in the 110-yard hurdles.
Given those marks, it’s quite possible that Jackson could have gone on to be a world-class decathlete had he not played football.
Robert Griffin III
Griffin III is one of the most unique athletes in the history of the Heisman. As a dual-sport athlete at Copperas Cove (Texas) High, Griffin III was probably more coveted for his hurdling ability than he was for his quarterbacking skills. As a junior in high school, he ran a nation-best-tying 13.46 in the 110-meter high hurdles and a nation-leading 49.56 in the 400-meter hurdles (the second-fastest time in prep history). He graduated high school at the end of 2007 and enrolled at Baylor in time for the 2008 spring semester, immediately taking up his place on the track roster.
But that time with the track team was quickly interrupted by spring football, during which he put himself into position to compete for the starting spot as Art Briles’ quarterback the following fall (he eventually won the position and had a stellar true freshman campaign). When spring ended, Griffin III returned to the track and promptly won the Big 12 title in the 400 meter hurdles before finishing third at the NCAA championships with a personal-best time of 49.22 — a mark that garnered him an invite to the 2008 Olympic Trials, where he placed 11th. To fully appreciate what Griffin III accomplished that spring, consider that he did it during what should have been his senior year in high school and without the benefit of an uninterrupted training regimen.
If not for football, it’s a good bet that RG3 would’ve been an Olympian in 2012.