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 something."
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
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
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 professional football."
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 played."
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 unexpected."
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
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."