Born March 2, 1934, in Columbus, Howard Albert Cassady was a scrawny, red-haired kid who weighed about 150 pounds soaking wet. But he excelled at baseball, football and basketball at Central High School.
During his prep years, he admired the play of Ohio State's Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz and used to sneak into Ohio Stadium on Saturday afternoons to win him play. He decided he wanted to play for the Buckeyes as well.
Head coach Woody Hayes was just completing his first season, a rather pedestrian 4-2-2 campaign in 1951, and was still tinkering with his offensive schemes. He had devised a "Split T" formation that spread his offensive linemen out a little more to create better blocking angles and looked for speed from his halfbacks to exploit the new offense.
Nicknamed "Hopalong" after the movie cowboy hero of the same name, Cassady couldn't have come along at a better time.
Freshmen were allowed to play on the varsity team for a few years because of the Korean War and Cassady was a backup halfback as the Buckeyes kicked off the 1952 season against Indiana. Bulked up to robust 168 pounds, Cassady was quickly inserted into the game by Hayes and the freshman responded with one of the most electrifying debuts in school history.
With the Hoosiers leading 7-6 near the end of the first quarter, halfback Fred Bruney heaved a pass toward the end zone where Cassady made a sensation leaping catch for a 27-yard touchdown. Then, in the fourth quarter with the score tied 13-13, the freshman scored two more touchdowns on short runs as the Buckeyes rolled to a 33-13 victory.
It avenged the team's 32-10 loss to Indiana the previous season. The remainder of the season featured some ups and downs as the Buckeyes finished with a 6-3 record overall and third place in the Big Ten standings.
But there were notable highlights including a 23-14 upset of No. 1-ranked Wisconsin and a season-ending 27-7 victory over Michigan, OSU's first victory over their archrivals since the 1944 season.
Cassady finished his rookie campaign with 293 yards and four touchdowns rushing and 13 receptions for 192 yards and another three TDs through the air.
He continued to get better as a sophomore, totaling a combined 787 yards and eight touchdowns rushing and receiving. The Buckeyes again finished 6-3, but that record was more disappointing than the one a year before. OSU had dropped two of its last three games, including a 20-0 shutout at Michigan.
In 1954, Hayes redoubled his efforts to get better. He brought back defensive line coach Lyal Clark, who had served in the same capacity under Wes Fesler, and the move paid off handsomely. The Buckeyes allowed only 75 points that season in 10 games and limited seven of those opponents to seven points or less.
As good as the Buckeyes were on defense, OSU was even better on offense. Hayes switched his offensive scheme again, this time to an option style, and quarterback Dave Leggett immediately took to the plan. With a backfield featuring Leggett, fullback Hubert Bobo and speedy halfbacks Bobby Watkins and Cassady, the Buckeyes rolled past every opponent on their way to an undefeated national championship season.
Cassady led the Buckeyes in rushing with 701 yards and six touchdowns, but also starred on defense. In fact, a play he made during the 1954 Wisconsin game remains one of the most talked-about defensive plays in school history.
With the Buckeyes trailing 7-3 late in the first half, Badgers quarterback Jim Miller was driving his team deep in OSU territory. He went back for a pass on a second-and-four play at the Ohio State 20 and thought he saw an open receiver in the flat.
Jumping in front of the would-be receiver, Cassady picked off the pass at the 12-yard line and electrified the crowd with his open field running. Eighty-eight yards later, the OSU star was standing in the end zone and the Buckeyes were owners of a 10-7 lead. The play completely demoralized the Badgers and Ohio State went on to win the game by a 31-14 score.
The Buckeyes topped off their season with a 21-7 win over Michigan and a 20-7 win over Southern Cal in a rain-soaked Rose Bowl. Led by Cassady's 92 yards, OSU piled up 304 yards on the ground against the Trojans and secured the school's first undisputed national championship in 12 years.
Following the season, Cassady earned All-America honors and set the stage for his senior campaign. He started quickly with 170 yards and three touchdowns in 1955 season opener against Nebraska, a 28-20 victory for OSU.
But with the loss of seven key players to graduation, the Buckeyes dropped two of their next three games – six-point losses at Stanford and a home to No. 11 Duke. Then they found themselves during a game at Wisconsin and never looked back. Cassady ran for 100 yards and a touchdown in a 26-16 win over the Badgers and the Buckeyes reeled off five straight victories to finish off the season.
In those five wins, Cassady was almost a one-man wrecking crew, piling up 616 yards and nine touchdowns as the Buckeyes sailed through the Big Ten season undefeated to notch their second consecutive outright championship. Included was a 17-0 shutout at Michigan marked the team's first victory in Ann Arbor since a 21-0 whitewash in 1937.
In those days, however, the Big Ten had a "no-repeat" rule for its champions as far as the Rose Bowl was concerned. But Cassady finished his career in style, running for 146 yards and a touchdown against the Wolverines. He finished the '55 season with 958 yards rushing, a new single-season mark for the Buckeyes that would stand for 13 years.
After the season, he earned his second straight All-America honor, was voted the Ohio State MVP by his teammates for the second year in a row and captured the conference most valuable player award.
In late November when the votes were tabulated for the 1955 Heisman Trophy, it wasn't even close. Cassady became the first player ever to amass 2,000 points in the Heisman scoring system and bested runner-up Jim Swink of Texas Christian by a whopping 1,477 points, the largest margin of victory to that time.
The following month, the Associated Press named Cassady "Athlete of the Year for 1955," beating out such other notables as heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano and Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham.
He established new career marks for Ohio State with 2,466 yards rushing and 37 touchdowns while playing sterling defense. It was said that in his four years in the Buckeye secondary, Cassady never had a pass completed behind him.
And his stardom wasn't only limited to the football field. He was also a three-year letterman for the Ohio State baseball team and earned a Big Ten baseball championship in 1954 to go along with his national title in football.
The Detroit Lions made Cassady their first-round selection in the 1956 NFL draft and was a starter for the Lions for six seasons. He was later traded to Cleveland for the 1962 season and also played for Philadelphia that year, then returned to Detroit for the 1963 season.
He retired after eight NFL seasons and finished with 1,229 yards and six touchdowns rushing and 111 receptions for 1,601 yards and 18 TDs. He also returned 43 punts for a 7.9-yard career average and ran back 77 kickoffs, averaging 20.7 yards per return.
Following his retirement for football, Cassady translated his gridiron success into business success. He formed his own company, which manufactured concrete pipe, and sold it in 1968 when he moved into selling steel with Hopalong Cassady Associates.
Cassady later worked for American Shipbuilding in Tampa, Fla., where he struck up a friendship with the company's owner George Steinbrenner. Cassady became a scout and coach for the New York Yankees and spent several seasons as first base coach for the Columbus Clippers, which was then the Yankees' Triple-A farm club.
Now retired, Cassady and his wife, Barbara, are full-time residents of Tampa, Fla., but they often return to Columbus in the fall to attend Ohio State football games.
In 1979, Cassady was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and in 2000 he received the ultimate honor when Ohio State retired his No. 40 jersey.
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