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A bronze age for college football: Behind the culture that honors sports figures with statues

The statue of Billy Vessels in Heisman Park across from the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium has progressively bent forward and to the side and appears to be sinking, as seen June 11, 2015, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives]
The statue of Billy Vessels in Heisman Park across from the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium has progressively bent forward and to the side and appears to be sinking, as seen June 11, 2015, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives]

To be cast in bronze is the ultimate indicator of a sports icon.

Athletes, coaches, broadcasters and athletic directors are among those commemorated with life-size figures across the globe. The construction of statues to honor the esteemed used to be a rarity, but since the early 1990s has exploded into the preferred form of highest praise.

“There is a general theme, and it’s trying to create an identity, and brand an organization or a place for authenticity or nostalgia,” said Dr. Chris Stride of the University of Sheffield in England, a statistician and athletic statue expert of sorts.

Of the 84 Heisman winners (excluding the recent Joe Burrow of LSU), 30 either have had statues built or have plans in the works to do so by their respective colleges. That’s 35% of all Heisman winners.

It does not include the first Heisman, University of Chicago’s Jay Berwanger (1935), who has a statue at his high school, but not his college campus, nor Georgia’s Herschel Walker (1982), who was enshrined by an independent artist, but not the university. It does include a trio of mid-century Army players, who are commemorated with a joint statue.

Each school honors their heroes differently. You won’t find a statue of Andre Ware (1989) anywhere on Houston’s campus, but you will see the 11-yard line marked on its football field, a creative homage to the quarterback who wore No. 11.

Stride says that college football is unique because of how brief players’ careers are with a school. Professional soccer is the sport with the most statues globally, while professional baseball has the most in the United States. But unlike those two sports, it is the coaches in college football, rather than players, who are more likely to be enshrined because their tenures span decades rather than a couple of years.

Notre Dame has no statues on campus for any of its seven Heisman winners — of course, Paul Hornung does have one in his native Louisville — but it does have statues in honor of each of its five national championship coaches.

Ohio State has no statues for its seven Heisman recipients, not even the only dual winner in Archie Griffin (1974, 1975), but it does for legendary coach Woody Hayes.

UCLA has no statue built for its lone Heisman winner, Gary Beban (1967), but did erect one of legendary basketball coach John Wooden. Former UCLA athlete Jackie Robinson is also honored with statues outside both the school’s football and baseball fields. In fact, the iconic Robinson is the most oft-enshrined athlete in the United States; eight have been built in his image across North America, with two more in the works.

For those curious, Stride, who co-runs The Sporting Statues Project and has co-written dozens of academic papers, book chapters and magazine articles on the subject, says that soccer star Pelé has the most statues (about 13) built of him of any athlete across the world, narrowly edging out baseball's Roberto Clemente. Stride says it’s most common for statues to be built about 20 years after a player’s retirement.

In college football, some players have had to wait generations for their statue. A statue of LSU’s Billy Cannon (1959) was not unveiled until 2018, and at schools like Auburn and Florida, it seems recent winners spurred bronze construction of yesterday's heroes.

Three years after Tim Tebow (2007) won for Florida, the university announced plans to honor him, as well as Steve Spurrier (1966) and Danny Wuerffel (1996). That statue trio was unveiled in 2012.

Oklahoma has a Heisman Park, where all seven winners have or will be honored, including Baker Mayfield (2017) and Kyler Murray (2018). Other schools, like Southern California, Michigan and Nebraska, honor their multiple winners with plaques or framed jerseys and Heisman replicas, rather than statues.

Statues are built to honor legendary players, of course, but they’re also built for fans. Perhaps even more so.

“They don’t just remind fans of that player,” Stride says, “they remind fans of a moment, maybe attending the stadium with their dad or their granddad or with their mates.”

Lamar Jackson generated a list of signature moments as an unstoppable dual-threat quarterback during his three seasons at Louisville, including his sophomore year, in which he accounted for 51 touchdowns and became the youngest-ever Heisman winner.

His young NFL career has only helped his cause. The Baltimore Ravens quarterback could become only the third player in the past three decades to win both the Heisman and NFL MVP award, joining Newton and Barry Sanders (1988), who has a statue in Detroit, where he played with the Lions, but not at Oklahoma State.

It feels almost arbitrary what garners a statue and what doesn’t. Some schools, like Oklahoma, focus on particular standout athletes. Others, like USC, focus on coaches and mascots — its campus has a depiction of Tommy Trojan but not Matt Leinart (2004).

Dozens of schools have built statues of mascots rather than of an individual athlete.

In his research, Stride has encountered thousands of sporting statues and the various motivations for their construction.

As such, he likes to recite one truism: “Statues tell you a lot more about the people that put them up than the subject who is depicted.”

Related Photos
<strong>Billy Sims speaks beside a statue of him unveiled before OU’s game against North Texas on Sept. 1, 2017, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives]</strong>

Billy Sims speaks beside a statue of him unveiled before OU’s game against North Texas on Sept. 1, 2017, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c0c2597fa7ea13c8a00e8ee66671cca4.jpg" alt="Photo - Billy Sims speaks beside a statue of him unveiled before OU’s game against North Texas on Sept. 1, 2017, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives] " title=" Billy Sims speaks beside a statue of him unveiled before OU’s game against North Texas on Sept. 1, 2017, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives] "><figcaption> Billy Sims speaks beside a statue of him unveiled before OU’s game against North Texas on Sept. 1, 2017, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-2ec6573ebccfce4abed3801c8d09cdb9.jpg" alt="Photo - The statue of Billy Vessels in Heisman Park across from the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium has progressively bent forward and to the side and appears to be sinking, as seen June 11, 2015, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives] " title=" The statue of Billy Vessels in Heisman Park across from the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium has progressively bent forward and to the side and appears to be sinking, as seen June 11, 2015, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives] "><figcaption> The statue of Billy Vessels in Heisman Park across from the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium has progressively bent forward and to the side and appears to be sinking, as seen June 11, 2015, in Norman. [Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman archives] </figcaption></figure>
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