Rudy Riska was born across the street from The Downtown Athletic Club of New York City (DAC), of which he would become a lifetime employee. A talented high school athlete, Riska was signed by the New York Yankees and played professional baseball for three seasons. Following his baseball career, he enlisted in the United States Army where he served for three years prior to joining the staff of the DAC in 1961.
At the club, Rudy was tasked with changing the culture of the club from a dining establishment to a true athletic facility, of which he excelled. Rudy created cherished fitness and sports programs for the DAC members and their children. He established All Sports Nights that honored notable athletes from across the sports universe. The DAC was most famous for awarding The Heisman Memorial Trophy to the most outstanding college football player in The United States. Rudy would go on to serve as the Executive Director of the Heisman Trophy and the unofficial torchbearer of the trophy.
For 30 years, Riska also served as the director of athletics at the DAC while having the prestigious honor of being executive director of the National Association of Club Athletics Directors.
In 2002, Rudy Riska along with John and Peter Clark wrote a book about Riska’s life at the DAC. Within the book it reads: “In addition to the programs Rudy established at the DAC, Rudy was instrumental in creating and maintaining a strong rapport with leading athletic, educational, and community organizations, including the Amateur Athletic Union; the National Collegiate Athletic Directors Association; the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports; the West Point Athletic Association; the Boys Club of New York; the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball Scouts; the Boxing, Baseball, Basketball and Football Writers Associations; the Junior Olympics; the New York Police and Fire Department Sports’ the National Collegiate Boxing Association; the How Cup of Women’s Squash; the Women’s Sports Foundation; the Golden Spike Award of Collegiate Baseball; the Eastman Kodak Basketball Awards; the Touchdown Club of New York; St. John’s University and many others”. He was also instrumental in helping with the formation and guidance to both The Wooden Award and The Tewaaraton Award.
Over the years, Rudy’s life had been intertwined with the largest celebrities and athletes of the day. The list includes, but is not limited to, Muhammad Ali, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Coach John Wooden, Billie Jean King, Jack Dempsey, Carl Erskine, Bobby Thomson, Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Gale Sayers, Coach Eddie Robinson, Rick Pitino, Gerry Cooney, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Dr. J. Erving, Don Imus, Don Criqui, Yogi Berra, Coach Joe Paterno, Coach Bobby Bowden, Jack Kramer, Thurman Munson, Joe DiMaggio and countless others.
Of the relationships Rudy maintained with celebrities and athletes, the most special to him though, were his relationship with the Heisman Trophy winners, whom he shepherded in New York when they won the award, and whom in return looked at him as an extended member of their family.
A 2010 New York Times profile on Riska read: “For nearly 50 years, it was Riska’s job to be the advocate of the Heisman Trophy and the indispensable, behind-the-scenes facilitator and confidant for its winners. Those responsibilities made him among the most popular and influential people in college football.”
It has been said that Rudy became known as the “conscience of the Heisman and caretaker of the fraternity of winners.” Rudy was the consummate gentleman. A truly generous man, it was not uncommon to walk into his office to say hello and walk out with a gift or two. He had a keen eye and a true attention to detail. Rudy appreciated a good conversation whether it be with a longtime friend or stranger. He treasured lasting relationships and would love to establish connections and make introductions between others.
Rudy loved sports. He often would tell people how fortunate he was to be able to have a lifetime career where he could pursue his passion. In a 2011 interview in Brooklyn’s Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, Rudy was quoted as saying “What made the job so good was that I was in sports my whole life.” In later years, Rudy grew to love the game of golf and planned and played in countless charity golf tournaments. He and his brother and best friend Steve, who predeceased him, would travel to play at golf courses throughout the area. He would especially enjoy catching up with the other celebrity athletes playing at the tournaments.
Rudy Riska retired in 2003 after more than 50 years with the club as the executive director of both The Heisman Trophy Trust and The Heisman Foundation. Under Riska’s helm, his work with the Heisman Foundation helped raise and donate more than $1 million dollars to various foundations and charitable organizations throughout the country. He was the recipient of several honors including the Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football Award by The National Football Foundation.
“Rudy Riska was both my mentor and my friend, and I will forever be grateful. His gift was his incredible ability to create lasting friendships in a momentary encounter. Meeting Rudy was meeting a friend for life. His selflessness, compassion, and generosity were unmatched. He put people at ease in his presence and was quick to offer kind words of encouragement” stated Rob Whalen, the current Executive Director of the Heisman Trophy Trust and longtime employee of Rudy’s. “His impact on the Heisman Trophy is immeasurable. It was often said Rudy was the glue that held the Heisman family together, but it was Rudy’s friendship to all that was the simple common denominator. He will be dearly missed, and his legacy of friendships are irreplaceable. The world has lost a great friend.”
Rudy is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, Lorraine, his two daughters, Elizabeth and Barbara and four grandchildren, Brian, Emma, Jessica and Kristin.
The Heisman Trophy Trust extends our sincere condolences to his family and the countless individuals who had the honor to call him a friend.
In lieu of flowers, Rudy’s family has asked for donations to be made in Rudy’s memory to: The Alzheimer’s Association.
In 2002, Riska published a book detailing his 40 years at the Home of the Heisman. Within the book, various celebrities from the sports world wrote about him. Below are some of the quotes written about Rudy at that time.
“Through the years, all of the past winners have grown by association with one another, and that is hard to do. There are a lot of ways that life tends to pull you apart. Whenever we seem to get a little bit tattered, there was always one guy there to pull the strings back together- Rudy Riska. Rudy has single handedly knit together the fabric of the fraternity of Heisman Trophy winners. To me, achievement is a function of effort over time. It is not just effort and is not just being there a long time. It is putting the effort in over a long period of time. Rudy Riska epitomizes this. It has been my experience that no matter what I have been involved in over the years, there are always a lot of people whose contributions are important. But within the events that are really successful and truly special, there is always one individual person who has the spirit, the soul, the passion, the commitment, and the belief in what it is all about who will not allow it to be anything but great. For me, and I think for all the Heisman winners, Rudy has been that individual with the Heisman, and for that we will forever be grateful. Rudy Riska is truly the spirit and the soul of the Heisman Trophy.”— Pete Dawkins, 1958 Heisman Trophy Winner
“I admire Rudy as a man who puts other things aside when it comes to the Heisman Trophy. The one thing that Rudy cares the most about is maintaining the integrity of the Heisman Trophy, making sure it stands alone as the top award of college football. In that regard, he has certainly done an outstanding job. Although people have come and gone at the Heisman, and the Heisman has grown so much in attention and national recognition, the one constant throughout the years has been Rudy Riska. His attention to detail and the effort he expends in promoting the Heisman award and its winners has truly made it a truly special fraternity. My hat is off to Rudy- as a friend and a keeper of the Heisman flame.”– Jim Plunkett, 1970 Heisman Trophy Winner
“Rudy has always worked hard to put the Heisman Trophy and the past winners up another notch. I truly enjoy coming back each year and seeing all of the great guys and being part of the enthusiasm surrounding the Heisman. I don’t know how many more trips out to New York I have left in me, but if Rudy calls, you can count on Johnny Lattner to be there.”– John Lattner, 1953 Heisman Trophy Winner
“Rudy is a great man and a great friend. He does things first class.” – Yogi Berra
“Rudy is the glue that has kept the Heisman Trophy together. He is the link that keeps all the winners together. He is a great guy with a tremendous respect for the Heisman Trophy and what it stands for.” – Roger Staubach, 1963 Heisman Trophy Winner
“There is a reason that I have only missed one Heisman ceremony since 1966—Rudy Riska. Rudy is a friend to all of the former Heisman winners and he truly does a great job of keeping the fraternity of Heisman winners together. I am proud to call him my friend.” – Steve Spurrier, 1966 Heisman Trophy Winner
“Through it all, there was a consistent smile, a supporting handshake, and a hand on my shoulder, guiding me through crowds of friendly strangers; it was Rudy. Frank Eliscu produced it, the DAC and the sports writers awards it, and fortunate collegiate participants receive it. But, the Heisman’s Most Valuable Player is Rudy Riska.”– Gary Beban, 1967 Heisman Trophy Winner
“When I think of the Heisman Trophy, I, of course, think of my University of Oklahoma teammates and coaches. But, what first comes to mind is Rudy Riska. Rudy exemplifies the Heisman award and what it stands for. Rudy is the glue that keeps the Heisman family together. 1969 was a very special year, Rudy Riska became a part of my life forever.”-Steve Owens, 1969 Heisman Trophy Winner
“Rudy not only cares for the individual Heisman winners, such as myself, year-after-year, but he has cared for and held dear the Heisman Trophy and what it represents, for many years. If I had to pick one individual that has all the characteristics you would want to see in a Heisman Trophy winner, it would be Rudy Riska. – John Cappelletti, 1973 Heisman Trophy Winner
“The world has been a better place to live in because of Rudy Riska. My life has been fuller because of my association with Rudy and the great Heisman winners. Thank you for being my friend, Rudy.” –Jay Berwanger, 1935 Heisman Trophy Winner
“Rudy has given of his time freely for many charity functions and his warmth and gentleness brightens any affair he attends. He has always been a friend to the Heisman winners, but it’s well known he becomes friends with everyone he meets.” -John Lujack, 1947 Heisman Trophy Winner
“When I think back to the two years that I attended the Heisman banquet and reflect on my experiences in New York, I have very few memories that do not include Rudy Riska. For myself, the Heisman award, its traditions, its prestige, and all that it has come to be is synonymous with Rudy Riska.” –Danny Wuerffel, 1996 Heisman Trophy Winner
“Rudy Riska is the best friend the Heisman trophy has ever had. The guy has contributed so much to the growth of the Heisman, while retaining the strength and meaning of the award. Fans of college football and the Heisman trophy owe him a debt of gratitude.” – Chris Fowler , ESPN