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USC quarterback Caleb Williams is chasing Archie Griffin’s Heisman Trophy record

Nearly 50 years later, the former Ohio State tailback is still the only two-time winner of the award

Nearly a half century ago, Archie Griffin drove east along Interstate 70 in southeast Ohio on his way to a banquet in St. Clairsville, the birthplace of Ohio’s first antislavery society.

But his appearance had to wait. 

Griffin, Ohio State’s All-American tailback, had been instructed to call the school’s sports information director before his speaking engagement. So, Griffin pulled his black 1973 Buick Regal off the freeway exit.

Griffin learned he’d won his second Heisman Trophy, becoming the only player to win back-to-back Heismans, on the other end of a gas station pay phone.

No dramatic televised announcement. No blasting out the news on social media. Not even a news conference.

“The sports information director at Ohio State told me that I won, but I couldn’t tell anybody until a formal announcement in New York the following day,” Griffin said. “I did tell my girlfriend, who was riding with me, but I went to the banquet and couldn’t say a word.”

Since 1975, Griffin remains the only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy, college football’s award for the best player in the nation. Since Griffin won, nearly a dozen players have come close to his achievement.

The favorite for 2023 is USC junior quarterback Caleb Williams, winner of the Heisman in 2022, in a season where he threw for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns.

“Caleb Williams should be the favorite [to win his second Heisman] but I’m not much of a gambler,” said SEC Network host Paul Finebaum. “I’d probably take the field just knowing something always seems to go wrong. Or just something unforeseen. For whatever reason, it just seems like something usually happens.”

Ohio State tailback Archie Griffin (center) in action, rushing vs. Michigan- in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 23, 1974.

Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

That has certainly been the case for many repeat finalists who won the Heisman and remained in school, starting with Oklahoma running back Billy Sims. He won the Heisman in 1978 as a junior, and in his senior year (college players were not eligible to turn pro early) he led the nation in rushing but still finished second in the voting behind winner Charles White of USC.

Injuries prevented several players from becoming two-time winners:

  • Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford (2008) hurt his shoulder the following season and played in only three games. 
  • Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram (2009) injured his knee early the following season and was knocked out of the Heisman running. 
  • Alabama sophomore quarterback Bryce Young (2021) was slowed by a shoulder injury and finished sixth in the Heisman voting last year.

And there were players who appeared as shoo-ins but fell short. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (2007) became the first sophomore to win the award. He had the most first-place votes the following year, but still placed third behind Colt McCoy and winner Bradford. A 13-1 record his senior year wasn’t enough as he finished fifth in the voting.

The only two freshmen to win the Heisman, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (2012) and Florida State’s Jameis Winston (2013), both quarterbacks, were left behind. Manziel threw for more yards and touchdown passes his sophomore year but his autograph signings, which were an NCAA no-no, most likely led to his fifth-place finish in 2013. Winston sank in his sophomore year with 18 interceptions. He was sixth in the Heisman voting.

Winning one Heisman Trophy is difficult enough, which means individual talent and even superior team support don’t guarantee the award, let alone two.

“It’s almost like it has to be the perfect storm,” said Sims, who won the Heisman in 1978 despite having 12 fewer first-place votes than runner-up Penn State quarterback Chuck Fusina. “Guys can come out of nowhere, like me. I was hurt during my sophomore year. I began my junior year without being nominated for anything. Our great team for Oklahoma enabled me to win it.”

Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (right) talks with coach Woody Hayes (left) during Ohio State’s spring game at Ohio Stadium on May 5, 1975, in Columbus, Ohio.

Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Not only does Griffin credit Ohio State’s legendary coach Woody Hayes with his first Heisman, he said that some helpful strategy may have led to the second one.

“No question about it,” Griffin said. “Woody protected me a bit. When I got 100 yards, he’d take me and some of the other starters out of the game, not to risk injury and so other guys could play.”

Impressing voters is paramount in winning the Heisman. There are 870 total media voters spread out among six regions. Fifty-seven former Heisman winners are also eligible to vote. Recently, the Heisman Trust has accepted one vote that represents a consensus of fan votes from an online sponsored survey.

Voters (other than the fan vote) must make three selections, ranking them in order: three points for first, two points for second and one point for third.

“The politics of it does affect it,” Finebaum said. “I just know a lot of guys who vote over the years really don’t have a clue. And when you’re on ESPN and other shows, you’re influencing people to a degree. There are a lot of folks who will watch TV, see which way the wind is blowing, and then decide how to vote by looking at one of these Heisman polls that some organization puts out.”

Griffin ran out enough yards (1,620 and 12 touchdowns) in 1974 to win his first Heisman, and he led Ohio State (10-1) to a No. 3 national ranking. Although no player had ever won the award twice, calls for Griffin to win a second Heisman had been circulated enough that Griffin felt the heat.

“That [expectation] kind of put a lot of pressure on me,” Griffin said. “I wanted to win it. I was also motivated by one of Woody’s sayings: ‘You’re either getting better or getting worse; you never stay the same.’ I thought the only way for me to get better was to win another Heisman, and that meant to be the best player I could be.”

Statistically, Griffin didn’t have a better season compared to the previous year (1,357 yards and seven touchdowns), but he led the Buckeyes (11-0) to a No. 1 ranking and a Big Ten title. He ran away with his second Heisman ahead of California running back Chuck Muncie (1,460 yards, 13 touchdowns), USC running back Ricky Bell (1,875 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Pitt running back Tony Dorsett (1,544 yards, 11 touchdowns). Griffin also finished his career with 100 or more yards in 31 consecutive games, still an FBS record.

“That streak resonated with the voters,” Griffin said. “They realized that’s not an easy chore when you’re a marked man. And winning a second Heisman had a lot to do with that . . . Winning the Heisman is not an individual effort. Everything’s got to be in place. You need a lot of help and I’ll be the first to admit that.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams with the Heisman Trophy during a news conference at the New York Marriott Marquis Astor Ballroom on Dec. 10, 2022, in New York City.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Williams could help himself in his attempt to duplicate Griffin’s long-standing feat. In USC’s season opener on Aug. 26, Williams picked up where he left off last season by completing 18 of 25 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-28 victory over San Jose State. Williams will have plenty of opportunities to shine on a national stage when USC plays at Notre Dame, at Oregon and against Utah.

Williams shared his thoughts about this year’s Heisman with Billy Sims during taping of Heisman House, a series of humorous Nissan commercials starring several former Heisman winners.

“[Williams] told me he was going to win it again,” Sims said. “It wasn’t hope. He was confident that he’d win a second Heisman. He has a loaded team, which gives him a pretty good chance of tying old ‘Double Deuce.’ I never call him Archie.”

As a voter, and a fan of the game, Griffin has his eyes on Williams, who he agrees is this year’s early favorite. Griffin is also surprised that he is still the only two-time winner nearly 50 years later.

But he also expects that to change.

“And you never know, someone might win three Heisman Trophies,” Griffin said. “It’s possible, there’s no question about that.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.