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On the morning of December 7, 1941, Bruce Smith was on an east-bound train on his way to New York City to formally accept his Heisman Trophy. The award, named for football pioneer and legendary Georgia Tech coach, John Heisman, had been in existence for just seven years, but already it had become recognized as the highest mark of gridiron excellence, the pinnacle of a college football players career. Bruce Smith had earned his Heisman by being the University of Minnesota’s star halfback, leading the Gophers to two consecutive undefeated seasons capped off with national championships in 1940 and 1941. In addition to his halfback duties, Smith was team captain and played safety and quarterback when needed, as well as their occasional kicker. Off the field he was a talented student whose side interests included drawing, ornithology and was a self-taught boogie-woogie piano player. He was also devastatingly handsome, with blue eyes and wavy blond hair and chiseled features that inspired one sportswriter to muse, “Bruce Smith even looks like an All-American when he is sitting on the bench.” His college career was marked with debilitating injuries, yet he unselfishly played through the pain time after time, gaining him the respect and awe of his fellow teammates. In what can only be called a made-for-Hollywood scenario, Smith was on crutches in the days leading up to national championship game. Discarding the crutches, Smith led the Gophers to a devastating 41-6 win over Wisconsin and ensuring his selection as that season’s Heisman winner.

Now, as he rode the train to New York, Bruce Smith learned of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In the hours leading up to his appearance at the banquet in his honor at the New York Athletic Club to claim his Heisman, Smith re-wrote his acceptance speech to reflect the current state of war that the country had been thrust into. Broadcast across the country on the night of December 9, 1941, the 21-year-old college star’s inspiring words would help inspire a nation unsure of wat lay ahead. 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.”

His inspirational address coupled with the dramatic story of his overcoming injury to the win final game and bring his school the championship led to Columbia Pictures signing the young star to play himself in a movie of his life story, called “Smith of Minnesota.” When the picture premiered in September of 1942, its namesake and star was a pilot in the united States Navy, preparing to go to war. After the defeat of Japan in 1945, Smith belatedly began his professional career, signing with the Green Bay Packers. However, just as they had in college, injuries dogged his pro career. A devastating kick to his back during a 1947 game against Chicago ruptured a kidney and he was given his last rites by a priest. He recovered, playing a few more seasons before retiring in 1948. Smith married and raised a family, settling not far from where he grew up in Minnesota. A quiet and humble man, Smith was never known to brag about the Heisman which singled him out as the greatest college football player of 1941. Yet he lived his life with the same heart and selflessness that made him the idol of his teammates back at Minnesota. When Bruce Smith was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 47, the Heisman winner spent his last months visiting the children’s cancer ward of the hospital he was confined to. Rev. William Cantwell, the Catholic priest who accompanied Smith as he brough cheer and hope to the sick children, had no idea that the dying man was a former star athlete and Heisman winner. This made the priest’s nomination of Smith for sainthood all the more extraordinary, and a bright ending to a most distinguished life. Posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1972, Bruce Smith’s 54 was the first number retired by the University of Minnesota, and to this day he is the only Gophers player to be awarded the Heisman.

His trophy, this trophy offered here, sat on his family’s hi-fi console for many years before moving to a wooden mantle in his lake house. The first thing one notices when looking at Smith’s Heisman is the missing pinkie of the statue’s iconic outstretched hand. The story of how it came to be missing is related by Smith’s son Chris in a Minnesota Star Tribune article: “One day, my mom was ironing Dad’s shirts. After she finished, she would hang them from the Heisman. Apparently, she pulled too hard and lopped off a pinkie. She was just mortified.” Though the finger has gone, Smith’s Heisman gained a great story that will follow it where ever it goes. This early Heisman, only the seventh ever awarded, was cast by Dieges and Clust from the original sculpted by Frank Eliscu. Standing 18” tall and weighing in at 25 pounds, the bronze iconic runner sits atop a painted wood base adorned with a brass plaque emblazoned with the logo of the New York Athletic Club and engraved with, "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.” Excepting the missing pinkie, Bruce Smith’s Heisman Trophy remains in excellent condition. Among the expected light wear present on this 80 year-old award is minor surface scuffing to the painted base and some scattered miniscule white paint flecks. It is always a notable occasion when an authentic Heisman is offered at auction – but it is an exceptional event when one this early and from such a historically significant awardee as Bruce Smith becomes attainable.






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