Les Horvath's football debut was hardly the most auspicious possible. Not by
several yards. Back in 8th grade, the future Ohio State star tried out for his school
football team. "This was a small school," says Horvath, "and they didn't have
enough uniforms for everybody so I played in street clothes until a couple of guys
quit and I finally got a uniform."
But by the time he had hung up his number twenty-two Ohio State jersey, the rail-
thin future dentist had edged out such competitors as Glenn Davis and Doc
Blanchard and captured the 1944 Heisman trophy.
And while Horvath may not have always had a uniform, he always had
determination. After all, it isn't without cause that he's history's only graduate
student Heisman winner.
Horvath was born September 12, 1921 in South Bend, Indiana, but soon moved to
the Cleveland area where he starred at football, basketball and track at Parma
High School. But during a time out in an eleventh grade varsity basketball game,
he heard his teammates talking about a party they would be attending after the
game. That was enough. Concentrating on anything but winning violated all
Horvath's competitive instincts. He enrolled at rival Rhodes High even though it
meant a physical relocation of the entire Horvath household. "We moved into the
city overnight . . .," says Horvath, "We had a home in Parma and we rented that
and we moved into one in Cleveland and I think we paid $15 a month or
Horvath attended Ohio State on a work scholarship, gaining large amounts of
playing time as a sophomore on an injury-plagued 1940 squad. In the season's
last contest, a 40-0 pasting by Michigan, most valuable sophomore Horvath
provided Ohio State's lone highlight when he tackled Michigan's immortal Tom
Harmon: "Quite a thrill for me. He was one of my football heroes."
In 1941 Paul Brown replaced George Schmidt as Ohio State head coach and the
following year led the school to number one ranking. Horvath averaged eight yards
per carry against Pittsburgh and scored two touchdowns and threw another
against Illinois.The 1942 team's captain George Lynn later remarked: "Les
Horvath in my estimation was overlooked that year for All-American."
Speed was his forte. Some said Horvath "had the most intense speed ever seen
in the Conference," and it certainly wasn't bulk that carried him to greatness. The
six foot Horvath weighed a mere 140 pounds when he graduated from high school
and reached a pro playing weight of just 165 pounds.
Upon graduation Horvath entered the Army Specialized Training Program but
returned to graduate school at Ohio State in the late summer of 1944. He could
have turned pro. "The [Cleveland] Rams had already drafted me after the '42
season," Horvath recalls, "so they asked me to play and they said if I got in
condition and learned the plays I could stay in school and fly to the games on
Sunday and go back to school, so I wouldn't miss school. Naturally, if I missed
school I was going to be off in the service. I decided not to take my professional
contract and I played another year at Ohio State because Carroll Widdoes, who
took over as coachâ€”I always wanted to play left halfback and Paul Brown had
made me play right halfbackâ€”said, 'I'll put you under the T. You'll be tailback left
to right on a single wing and you know we don't have any real veteran backs so
you can sort of run the whole offense. You'll call the signals and things.' So I took
the challenge decided to stay and play my collegiate career rather than play
Horvath was tireless. He was on the field for nearly the entirety of each contest,
performed for 401 1/2 minutes of OSU's 540 minute season. He was nominated
to the All-American and Big-Ten teams and garnered the Chicago Tribune, Nile
Kinnick and Christy Walsh Awards. He ranked second nationally in rushing, third
in total offense and eleventh in scoring, carrying the ball 163 times for a total of
924 yards, an average of 5.7 yards per carry. In the air, he completed 14 of 32
pass attempts for six touchdown and an additional 344 yards.
Yet 1944 was no easy season for Horvath. "All my life I always trained a lot, and I
used to do a lot of roadwork," he notes, "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
That 1944 Ohio State team has been described as a squad "composed
exclusively of seventeen-year olds, 4-F's and medical dischargees--31 freshman
and 12 upperclassmen. Carroll Widdoes later wrote: "Our first team was made up
of six veterans and five freshman. . . . We had very fine leadership for this team in
the person of Les Horvath . . . We had fair reserve strength and only a fair passing
attack. We mixed our passing into the running attack and our run passing was
most effective for us. We had fine morale on this team, combined with good
speed in the line and clever, hard running backs."
Still the team finished its season undefeated and untied (it's first such campaign in
28 years) and ranked second nationally only to undefeated Army but ahead of
Navy, Southern California, Michigan and Notre Dame. Widdoes was named
"Coach of the Year in a New York World-Telegraph poll.
"I've been on a bandwagon for Carroll Widdoes because I think Carroll Widdoes
was a very unusual person," says Horvath from his Southern California home, "I
didn't know at the time we were playing in '44 but his parents were prisoners of
war of the Japanese and he never ever mentioned it and he coached that team.
He was not like Paul Brown; he was not a demanding person. He was pretty strict
about a lot of things and he was a fundamentalist but he was sort of a shy
individual. He expected you to do things, but he never embarrassed you by
correcting you in front of them of people. I think he did one fantastic job coaching
that team to an undefeated season."
Winning the 1944 Heisman came as a complete shock to Horvath. "Well, it was
rather a stunning thing," he remembers, "I was in dental class and the dean called
for me to come down to the office that I had a phone call from New York. They told
me that I had won the Heisman. I was sort of stunned because it was totally
Horvath ran first among Midwestern Heisman electors, second among Eastern,
Southern, and Far Western voters and ran third in the Southwest.
Les Horvath, Ohio State 412
Glenn Davis, Army 287
Doc Blanchard, Army 237
Don Whitmire, Navy 115
Buddy Young, Illinois 105
Bob Kelly, Notre Dame 76
Bob Jenkins, Navy 60
Doug Kenna, Army 56
Bob Fennimore, Ok. A&M 54
S. McMillan, Miss State 37
After gaining the Heisman, Horvath found himself not in the pro ranks but in the
service. Graduating from dental school in June 1945 he spent the next two years
as a Lieutenant in the United States Navy, stationed at the Great Lakes Naval
Training Base and in Hawaii. Although primarily a dentist in those two years,
football was hardly far from his thoughts. He served as assistant football coach at
Great Lakes, under Paul Brown and later coached the Marine team in the
Hawaiian Service League, compiling a respectable 8-1 record.
In July 1947 Horvath returned to civilian life. In need of money to start up a dental
practice he returned to the gridiron ranks as a halfback, with the Rams, now
relocated to Los Angeles. He played two seasons for the Rams, then returned to
Cleveland with the AAFC's Browns, but his tenure was short as he retired in 1949
after suffering a rib injury. In his abbreviated pro career Horvath rushed 58 times
for 221 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and scored one touchdown. He caught nine
passes for 142 yards (15.8 yards each) and scored another touchdown.
Horvath practiced dentistry in Glendale, California until his retirement and remains
deeply appreciative of his Heisman honors. "It's carried through for my entire life,"
he contends, "Wherever I go people seem to known about it and the Downtown
Athletic Club never forgets you. You're always a part of their organization. Every
year for the last 20 or 25 years I've gone back to the dinner and it's almost like re-
winning the Heisman the way they treat you. They focus on the other players but
they certainly take care of us in every possible way. So it's almost like winning the
award every year."