Seventy-nine years ago Wednesday, America was still in shock. Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on a sleepy Hawaii Sunday two days earlier had thrust the country into World War II. Millions of lives would be changed and over 400,000 would be lost.
Daily life went on, however, and in New York, the Downtown Athletic Club presented the 1941 Heisman Trophy Award to Bruce Smith, the star of Minnesota’s back-to-back undefeated national champions. The original trophy awarded to the man who gave one of the most memorable Heisman acceptance speeches of all-time is now on the auction block.
SCP Auctions is selling the trophy, which has a current high bid of over $170,000. Company President David Kohler called it “one of the most important pieces of memorabilia we have ever handled.”
Only 11 Heisman trophies have ever come to auction. In 1999, the DAC decreed that no winner could sell their award.
Smith was a national sensation for the Gophers, a shifty, powerful running back and team captain who also filled in at safety, quarterback and kicker. Smith was on crutches in the days leading up to national championship game but ignored the pain and led the Gophers to a 41-6 win over Wisconsin that cemented Minnesota’s national title.
Handsome, musical and an excellent student, Smith was the proverbial big man on campus but with a humility that made him a perfect choice to represent college football at the dawn of the war. He was the first and remains the only Minnesota player ever to win the Heisman.
Smith’s acceptance speech that day was different than the one he had planned to give as he boarded an east-bound train two days earlier. It would become one of the most famous Heisman addresses ever given by a player. He had rewritten the speech en route to New York after word of the attack reached him.
He began with, “So much of emotional significance has happened in such a brief space of time, that the task of responding on this occasion leaves me at a loss to assign relative values.” Then, after thanking his teammates and coach, Smith ended his speech with the earnest declaration, “Those Far Eastern fellows may think that American boys are soft, but I have had and even now have plenty of evidence in black and blue to show that they are making a big mistake. I think that America will owe a great debt to the game of football when we finish this thing off. It keeps millions of American youngsters like myself hard and able to take it, and come back for more, both from a physical standpoint and that of morale. It teaches team play and cooperation, and eggs us on to go out and fight hard for the honor of our school and, likewise, that same spirit can be depended on when we have to fight like blazes to defend our country.”
Smith’s uniform number 54 was the first one retired by the University of Minnesota. After college, he served in the Navy and then spent time in the NFL but injuries and a ruptured kidney ended his pro career in 1948. He died of intestinal cancer in 1967 at age 47.
The trophy stands 18 inches tall and weighs 25 pounds. The brass plaque on the base reads, “The Heisman Memorial Trophy Presented by The Downtown Athletic Club of New York City to Bruce Smith University of Minnesota as the Outstanding College Football Player in the United States for 1941.”
The trophy was a centerpiece in the Smith family home as Bruce and Gloria Smith raised their children back in their home state, but it also occasionally served a practical purpose.
“One day, my mom was ironing Dad’s shirts. After she finished, she would hang them from the Heisman,” Scott Smith recalled to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2016. “Apparently, she pulled too hard and lopped off a pinkie. She was just mortified.”
It’s the second time Smith’s Heisman has reached the auction block. Lelands sold it for $395,240 back in 2005. The trophy was purchased then by Gary Cypres, who had it on display at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles. The museum is now closed and the trophy is once again available.
It’s one of hundreds of items in the SCP catalog, including a PSA 10 Michael Jordan rookie card, Mickey Mantle’s 1964 American League Champions Rolex watch, Gil Hodges’ 1955 World Series ring and another presented to Jesse Haines following the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1926 World Series title. Bidding ends Friday, December 11.