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'Hopalong' Cassady, Ohio State Heisman Winner, Dies At 85

 A 1953 file photo showing Ohio State halfback Howard "Hopalong" Cassady.
Harold Valentine
Associated Press
A 1953 file photo showing Ohio State halfback Howard "Hopalong" Cassady.

Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, the 1955 Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State and running back for the Detroit Lions, died Friday. He was 85.

He died in Tampa, Florida, his longtime home, the university said.

"We've lost not only a legendary Buckeye, but also a wonderful person in Hop Cassady," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in a statement. "He was an all-time great Buckeye in every way."

Cassady also played baseball at Ohio State and was a longtime coach in the New York Yankees organization. It was the late owner and friend George Steinbrenner who was the first to tell Cassady he had won the Heisman.

"I had gotten word from my friends and told him not to get too big of a head but you're gonna win the Heisman," Steinbrenner was quoted as saying.

Cassady was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. When he left Ohio State he held school records for career rushing yards, all-purpose yards and scoring.

"In those days if I had 100 yards in the first half I wouldn't play in the second half," Cassady said during a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. "It wasn't until after Woody started to dominate that he tried to get his players recognition."

Cassady, whose No. 40 jersey number was retired by Ohio State in 2001, didn't need help getting recognized. He was nicknamed "Hopalong" by local sports writers in his first game when he scored three touchdowns in a 33-13 win over Indiana and "hopped all over the field like the performing cowboy." It was an ode to the movie actor Hopalong Cassidy, the cowboy star of the 1950s who would pose with the football star for a memorable photo at the 1955 Rose Bowl.

The Columbus native was a four-year starter and letter winner and a two-time consensus All-American for the Buckeyes. He rushed for 2,466 yards and scored 37 touchdowns in his 36 games at Ohio State. During his four years under coach Woody Hayes, he averaged almost 6 yards a run.

Steinbrenner also played a role in Cassady's stellar career in football at Ohio State.

"He was thinking of transferring from Ohio State because he wanted to play baseball and they wanted him at football practice," Steinbrenner said. "I gave him hell and told him he will be an All-American if he sticks with it."

Cassady was a skinny freshman running back for Hayes, who was under fire for finishing in a tie for fifth in the Big Ten his first season.

Cassady caught the attention of Hayes by consistently scoring on the varsity in practice. But it wasn't until the Thursday before OSU's opener against Indiana that Hayes told Cassady to get a uniform.

"That was a big deal because mom and dad got tickets if you dressed," said Cassady, who picked the number 40 because the only other number left was 13.

In the middle of the third quarter with Indiana up 14-0, Hayes told his coaches to "put the redhead in," and Cassady took his first punt return to Indiana's 45-yard line. He went on to score all three touchdowns as the Buckeyes won.

Cassady also caught 43 passes for 619 yards and four more scores during his career. He also starred on kickoff and punt returns. It was said that as a defensive back he never had a pass completed over him in four years of Big Ten competition.

As a junior, he rushed for 701 yards and eight touchdowns when the Buckeyes went 10-0 and won the national championship. He was third in the Heisman voting.

His senior year, Cassady carried 161 times for 958 yards (5.9 per attempt) and ran for 14 touchdowns. He was named "Athlete of the Year" by The Associated Press in 1954.

Cassady was the third of Ohio State's seven Heisman Trophy winners, at the time following Les Horvath (1944) and Vic Janowicz (1950).

His margin of 1,477 points over Jim Swink of TCU in the Heisman balloting is among the largest.

Cassady squeezed in baseball at college for four seasons, starting for three years at shortstop. In 1955, when Ohio State won the Big Ten championship, Cassady had more home runs than Frank Howard, who went on to play 16 years in the majors.

After graduation, however, Cassady passed on the chance to play professional baseball. "I could have signed for $10,000 with the Yankees, but I would have had to go through the minors," he said. "As the No. 1 draft choice I could start right away playing football."

The Detroit Lions offered him a signing bonus of $15,000 that matched his annual salary. Cassady played for eight seasons with the Lions, one with the Cleveland Browns and one with the Philadelphia Eagles before retiring in 1964.

Cassady ran a concrete pipe business, sold steel and later worked for Steinbrenner at American Shipbuilding in Tampa.

For almost 20 seasons, Cassady was a first-base coach for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, the top farm club of the Yankees. Steinbrenner and Cassady traced their friendship to the 1950s when Cassady received ROTC training at the former Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, where Steinbrenner coached the baseball team.

Cassady's son, Craig, was a three-time letter-winner at Ohio State, and shares the school record for interceptions in a game with three. His father was almost as proud of that record as any that he had set.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and three sons.