Today we continue our tBBC College Football Hall of Fame series, with the first player every to win the Heisman Trophy from Ohio State University. A tradition that has witnessed seven trophies awarded to members of the Scarlet and Gray. This afternoon, we take a look at the accomplishments of Quarterback/Running Back Les Horvath, who helped to put Buckeye football on the map during the World War II era.
To say that Les Horvath was competitive at a young age would be an understatement. Born in South Bend Indiana in 1921, Horvath’s family would make their way to the Cleveland area early in his life. That’s where he would star as a talented athlete at Parma High School. A star in track, basketball, and football — Horvath reveled in competition. In 11th grade, when he found out his basketball teammates were more concerned about an upcoming party during a time out, Horvath packed his bags and his family moved cross town from the Parma school district to Rhodes.
One thing was clear early in the life of the first graduate player to win the heisman trophy. His drive to compete would fuel him as a Buckeye.
It’s hard to imagine a six foot 140 pound running back that could have success, let alone win a Heisman trophy. Horvath attended Ohio State on a work scholarship and began seeing playing time as a sophomore. It was truly in 1941 though, when Paul Brown noticed the back’s talent. As a backup, he would see the field quite a bit. Against Pitt that season, Horvath averaged over 8 yards per carry. The 1942 season saw a 9-1 record, behind the work of Horvath and his fellow running backs in the Wing T. Including a pass heavy 21-7 win against Michigan.
1943 was set to be a special one for the Buckeyes. Horvath was set to be back for his senior season and lead a very talented group of players. But like war time in many sports across the country, tons of college football stars put their ability to a more important cause. Many of the Buckeyes best players enlisted or volunteered, including head coach Paul Brown.
With Brown temporarily away from the program, assistant Caroll Widdoes was named the head coach.
Horvath, who was drafted after the 1942 season by the Cleveland Rams, entered the Army Specialized Training Program and instead of playing while attended classes, decided to take advantage of a new NCAA bylaw that allowed graduate students to re-attend their undergraduate college and play football, as long as they still had remaining eligibility.
In 1944, while attending dental school, Widdoes asked Horvath to return to the gridiron — because he needed his leadership.
Never given the opportunity to play left halfback in the T, the player known as the fastest ever in the conference suited up and lead a young group that included 31 freshman. Horvath was given the keys to the offense, and well — the rest is history.
Playing in 401 1/2 minutes of OSU’s 540 minute season, the senior running back was an All-American, behind 924 yards rushing, nearly 6 yards a a carry and a total 12 touchdowans. What made the 44 team so unpredictable was their run-passing game. Out of the single wing , Horvath completed 14 of 32 pass attempts for 344 yards and six touchdowns.
What was more impressive about the season goes beyond stats. Despite being banged up throughout the whole year, because he wasn’t able to train nearly as much as a grad student, the 140 pound back battled through injuries the whole season.
“All my life I always trained a lot, and I used to do a lot of roadwork. Except, when of course while I was in the service in school we barely had time for anything except going to school. Doing some marching here and there. But I didn’t do any competitive activity of any kind. I didn’t have any time. So I was probably not in very good condition and, well, they kind of beat up on me a little bit once in a while. I was always having Charlie Horses and leg problems and stuff. Our trainer was remarkable. He’d get me ready for every ball game. The final game of the season I had a big problem
getting ready for that one. We had played in Cleveland; it was cold, and I got Charlie Horses in both legs and I was really having trouble going up stairs for about three or four days and it wasn’t until Thursday that I could practice. So they built up my thigh pads and stuff from the inside with rubberized support on the inside of the thigh pads and that seemed to take care of things. At least I forgot about it when I played.”
And the nation didn’t forget about him. As various media outlets voted him the Heisman Trophy winner over the talented duo of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard from Army.He was donned the “Playing Coach” across the country, for his leadership and determination on the field. The Buckeyes would go undefeated in 1944, but turn down a Rose Bowl invite because of conference rulings.
Statistics and Honors
Post Ohio State
After his time at Ohio State in 1945, Horvath entered the service and served in the Navy as a Dentist and football coach up until 1947. In fact, he was an assistant for Paul Brown with the Great Lakes Bluejackets. A service team that Brown coached after the war — which sparked some controversy with Ohio State faithful, considering he was expected to return to the OSU after his time in service. After spending time as an assistant under brown, Horvath spent his final year in Navy as a Marine Service League Coach in Hawaii — where is team went 8-1.
In ’47, Horvath returned to the gridiron, playing for the Rams, who had relocated to St. Louis. He would spend two seasons there and then return to Cleveland, to play for the Browns up until 1949.
After football life, Ohio State’s first Heisman winner made his home base in Los Angeles, where he had his own dental office. He also coached youth football in the area. Horvath passed away in 1995.
But will always be known as the first Buckeye recognized for individual greatness.