Trophy Cases: The Lions’ Heisman winners

Billy Sims poses with his Heisman Trophy, which he won in 1978.

Billy Sims poses with his Heisman Trophy, which he won in 1978.

This year’s Detroit Lions haven’t been great, but they’ve been fun to watch, with newcomer Reggie Bush infusing the backfield with the kind of explosiveness and versatility missing in recent seasons. In addition to his considerable ball carrying and receiving skills, the 28-year-old veteran back brings a much-needed winning attitude into the huddle. Before coming to Detroit, Bush won a national championship with the USC Trojans and a Super Bowl with New Orleans.

Most notably, Bush also won the Heisman Trophy – and then had it snatched back a few years later when USC was retroactively busted for various NCAA infractions. It’s the only time since college’s top individual honor was first awarded in 1939 that it has been subsequently “vacated,” as the NCAA officially puts it.

In descending order, here’s the rundown of Heisman Trophy winners who have played for the Lions over the years:

Reggie Bush (2005 USC)
With Reggie Bush, who won the trophy as a junior at Southern Cal, the descriptive labeling gets a little tricky. Former Heisman winner? Disgraced Heisman winner? Bush forfeited the trophy in 2010 after an NCAA investigation revealed that he and his family had received $290,000 in gifts while he was enrolled as a student-athlete. As a result of Bush’s improprieties, USC’s program was heavily sanctioned. Drafted second overall by New Orleans, Bush spent five years with the Saints before moving on to Miami, where he was a 1,000-yard rusher.

Now in his eighth NFL season, Bush is the Lions’ top ground gainer and one of the league leaders in total yards from scrimmage. Barring injury, he figures to remain a key force in the Lions’ offense throughout the remainder of his four-year contract.

Desmond Howard (1991 Michigan)
If Desmond Howard never did anything else in his life except strike his Heisman pose upon returning a punt for a touchdown during the 1991 Michigan-Ohio State game, his fame would be guaranteed. But Howard, of course, did go on to do a few other things with a football in the crook of his arm, most notably being named MVP of Super Bowl XXXI. Roger Staubach, Jim Plunkett, and Marcus Allen are the only other players to win both coveted trophies.
The perpetually smiling Howard was drafted 4th overall by Washington in 1992. He was an average receiver during his first four seasons with the Redskins and Jacksonville before shining for Green Bay as a return specialist. In 1996, his first year with the Pack, Howard returned three punts for touchdowns and set a league record with 875 punt return yards. He returned another punt for a score against San Francisco in the playoffs and then broke New England’s back in the Super Bowl with a 99-yard kickoff return that sealed the Packers’ 35-21 victory. His 244 all-purpose yards tied a Super Bowl record and made him the easy choice for the game’s MVP. He moved on to Oakland as a free agent, then back to Green Bay, before being traded to the Lions during the 2002 season. In his first game for Detroit, he scored on a 95-yard punt return at New Orleans. Howard retired after the 2002 season and works today as an analyst for ESPN.
Andre Ware (1989 Houston)
As a junior pulling the levers of Houston’s run-and-shoot offense, Andre Ware set 26 NCAA records on his way to becoming the first black quarterback to win the Heisman as well as the Davey O’Brien Award, given to the nation’s top QB. As the 7th overall pick of the Lions, however, Ware was reduced to sit-and-wait, as coach Wayne Fontes preferred Erik Kramer and Rodney Peet as his starters.  Ware got into only 14 games during his four seasons (1990-93) in Detroit, attempting just 161 passes with five touchdown tosses. Ware was cut by the L.A. Raiders in 1994 and Jacksonville in 1995 before going on to play a few seasons in Canada (where he won a Grey Cup with Toronto in 1997) and Europe. Today he is part of the Houston Texans’ radio team.

Barry Sanders (1988 Oklahoma State)
Short, speedy, and shifty, Barry Sanders set 34 NCAA records his junior year at Oklahoma State, including a season-record 2,628 yards rushing. The Lions drafted him third overall, passing over another heralded Sanders – Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders. Barry was named the NFL’s top rookie in 1989 and he was picked for the Pro Bowl in each of his 10 seasons. A quiet, low-key individual who shunned the spotlight, Sanders won four NFL rushing titles and set still-standing marks of 14 consecutive 100-yard games, 25 games of 150+ rushing yards, and 15 scoring runs of more than 50 yards. In 1997, he became only the third NFL back to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season. He shared the MVP award that season with Green Bay’s Brett Favre.

Despite his personal success, Sanders grew weary of losing with Wayne Fontes’ Lions. Although he was on the cusp of breaking Walter Payton’s all-time career rushing record, he retired in 1998 at age 30, having gained 15,269 yards and scored 109 touchdowns in 10 seasons. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Sanders, who had three sons with WDIV news anchor Lauren Campbell Sanders before their 2012 divorce, has another son, Barry J. Sanders, playing for Stanford.

Billy Sims (1978 Oklahoma)
After winning the Heisman his junior year, Billy Sims returned to the Sooners for his senior season in 1979, leading the nation in rushing and finishing runner-up to USC running back Charles White in his bid to win a second straight Heisman. The Lions made Sims the first overall pick in the 1980 draft, and the Sooner broke in with a bang, becoming the first player to score three touchdowns in his first NFL game during a 41-20 win over the Los Angeles Rams. Sims finished his rookie season with 1,303 yards rushing, 51 receptions, and a league-high 16 touchdowns. The following year, 1981, he ran for a personal-best 1,407 yards and hit paydirt 15 times.

Sims was a three-time Pro Bowler and helped lead the Lions into the playoffs twice, where the team lost in the first round each time. Overall, the popular back rushed for 5,106 yards and scored 47 TD’s in 60 games. In 1984, a catastrophic knee injury suffered against Minnesota derailed his career after just four and a half seasons. Sims’ life after football included several failed businesses, bankruptcy, and a divorce, but he has since rebounded to become a pitchman for marketing firms and Billy Sims BBQ.

Steve Owens (1969 Oklahoma)
Steve Owens was the classic locomotive-type fullback that helped make the Oklahoma program so successful back in the day. In 1969, the 6-2, 220-pound workhorse scored 23 touchdowns for the Sooners and in one game lugged the ball an astounding 55 times. The Lions drafted Owens in the first round (19th pick overall) of the 1970 draft, and he spent most of his first NFL season backing up starter Mel Farr. When Farr went down the following season, Owens more than took up the slack, muscling his way to the first 1,000-yard rushing season in club history. Owens finished the year with 1,035 yards on the ground, 32 receptions, and 10 touchdowns.

Owens played five seasons in Detroit. His output was gathered in bruising 3- and 4-yard chunks. In fact, until his final play as a pro—a stretch of 634 carries spread out over 53 games—he never had a run from scrimmage longer than 23 yards (though the only two TD receptions of his career went for 26 and 74 yards). In the 1974 Thanksgiving Day game against Denver, the Lions’ last appearance at Tiger Stadium before moving to the Pontiac Silverdome, Owens shook loose on the longest run of his career—27 yards. Ironically, the uncharacteristically long jaunt turned out to the final carry of his NFL career, as he re-injured his chronically hurt knees on the play. He retired and went into the insurance business. He continues to devote a good chunk of his free time to a variety of charitable causes.

Howard Cassady (1955 Ohio State)
Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, the third overall pick in the 1956 draft, was the third Heisman winner to play for the Lions in the 1950s. His selection, which came after pressure from team directors enamored with Cassady’s star quality, miffed Lions coach Buddy Parker, who was looking to draft a quality fullback instead. Cassady had a hard time blending in with the close-knit Lions, and there were many on the team – particularly quarterback Bobby Layne – who considered the slightly built halfback a bit of a prima donna. Nonetheless, Cassady was an integral part of the 1957 championship squad, catching two Layne passes for touchdowns in the final minutes of a wild comeback win over Baltimore at Briggs Stadium that ranks as one of the Lions’ greatest games. He also scored the final touchdown of the 1957 title game rout of the Cleveland Browns.

Cassady played from 1956 through 1961 with Detroit. Never an every-down kind of back, he was more productive catching the ball than running it. He split the ’62 season between Cleveland and Philadelphia, then returned for a couple games with the Lions in ’63 before retiring and starting a successful manufacturing firm. Cassady, who had starred in baseball at Ohio State, was a scout for the New York Yankees and a coach in their farm system.

Leon Hart (1949 Notre Dame)
Leon Hart, a two-way end for the Fighting Irish, is the last lineman to win the Heisman and the only Heisman winner to play for Detroit who wasn’t a running back. More impressive is that he is the only man ever to play on three championship teams in college (with Frank Leahy’s Notre Dame squads in 1946, ’47, and ’49) and the NFL (with the Lions in 1952, ’53, and ’57). At 6-5 and 257 pounds, Hart was a giant in his era. The Lions made him the number-one pick in the 1950 draft and he stayed eight seasons, occasionally taking a turn at fullback when injuries depleted the roster. His best season was 1951, when he scored 12 of his 32 career touchdowns. He died in 2002 and is buried in South Bend, Indiana.

Doak Walker (1948 SMU)
How good was Doak Walker? So good that, despite playing only six NFL seasons, he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So good that Dennis Quaid’s character in the film Everybody’s All-American was based on him. So good was he that “The Doaker” was literally the face of football after World War II, appearing on the cover of 34 national magazines during his storied career at Southern Methodist. The lithe but lethal back won the Heisman his junior year. Following his senior season, the Lions made him the third overall pick of the draft.

In Detroit, Walker teamed up with his high school teammate, Bobby Layne, to win back-to-back NFL titles in 1952-53. He did everything: run, pass, catch, throw, placekick, and punt. He returned kicks and occasionally played in the secondary. He captured the scoring title in his first (1950) and last (1955) seasons and was named to the Pro Bowl in five of his six seasons. The Doaker retired when he was only 28 and in his prime. There was nothing left for him to accomplish, he explained, and he wanted to get out while he was still healthy. He made a nice living in the oil and construction businesses and took up a new love, skiing. His second wife was Olympic skier Skeeter Werner. In 1998, the 71-year-old Walker died in a skiing accident in Colorado.

In 1990, the Doak Walker Award was established to recognize the country’s top collegiate running back. Ironically, one of the winners was USC’s Reggie Bush, who so far hasn’t been asked to return it.