All-Time Greatest – No. 3: Vic Janowicz

BuckeyeSports.com has been counting down the days until Ohio State's 2008 season opener against Youngstown State with its list of the 50 greatest Buckeyes of all-time. With just three days left until kickoff, the series continues today with No. 3: Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz.

There have been stars, superstars and megastars that have had outstanding careers in an Ohio State football uniform. But perhaps the one who possesses the most raw athletic talent ever was Vic Janowicz.

A professional athlete in two sports nearly 50 years before that feat became fashionable, Janowicz is also one of only six Buckeyes to win the Heisman Trophy.

Born Feb. 26, 1930, in Elryia, Ohio, Victor Felix Janowicz was the son of Polish immigrants who excelled at every sports he tried. He earned all-state honors in football and baseball and was also a star on Elyria High School's basketball and track teams. It was a natural progression for him to continue his athletic career on the college level.

"I was fortunate enough to be blessed with some God-given talents," Janowicz told Buckeye Sports Bulletin in a 1991 interview. "Had it not been for that, I doubt that I could have gone to college. I probably could have gotten a contract to play baseball, but the money they were making in those days wasn't very much. I would have had to go out and get a job just like everyone else."

Luckily for Ohio State football fans, that didn't have to happen. Football coach Wes Fesler and baseball coach Floyd Stahl eagerly welcomed Janowicz to their respective teams, and he was a star from the first time he pulled on a scarlet and gray jersey. He both on both squads as a freshman in 1948, then became a letter-winner in both as a sophomore.

On the gridiron, Janowicz was a backup halfback in Fesler's single-wing formation and got his feet wet with 112 yards rushing, 24 yards receiving and 50 yards passing. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes posted a 7-1-2 record that season with the two ties coming against No. 8 Southern Cal and No. 5 Michigan. Still, the team managed to win the Western Conference championship and earned only the second trip ever to the Rose Bowl for Ohio State.

In the game played on Jan. 1, 1950, the Buckeyes scored a hard-fought 17-14 victory over California, avenging a 28-0 loss to the Bears in OSU's first-ever trip to Pasadena 29 years before. Jimmy Hague kicked the winning field goal with less than two minutes left in the game to provide the margin of victory. Janowicz got only one carry in the contest for one yard, but it kicked off a 1950 calendar year that would prove to be spectacular.

With several of the key players from the 1949 team graduated, the Buckeyes reconvened for the 1950 season and it didn't take long for Fesler to designate Janowicz as his go-to guy. He was a triple threat on offense as a runner, passer and blocker, and played the all-important safety position on defense. Janowicz was also the team's kicking specialist, handling all of the punts and placements.

"Vic excelled in every phase of the game," Fesler told reporters years later. "He was one of the finest, most versatile athletes I have ever seen."

That was pretty high praise, indeed, from a guy who knew a thing or two about talent – Fesler is one of only seven three-time All-Americans at Ohio State.

Janowicz embarked on a season in 1950 that in unparalleled in school history. In the second game of the season, a 41-7 win over Pittsburgh, he completed 6 of 6 passes for 151 yards and four touchdowns.

Two weeks later, he was credited with a 90-yard punt against Minnesota. In the team's 83-21 pummeling of Iowa at the end of October, he became a national sports hero after running for two touchdowns, completing 5 of 6 passes for 128 yards and four more TDs and setting a conference record by kicking 10 PATs.

His reputation continued to grow with games against Northwestern (114 yards, 1 TD), Wisconsin (125 yards, 1 TD) and Illinois (149 yards, 1 TD). But Janowicz's stardom reached almost mythical proportions with his performance in the 1950 Michigan game, also known as the "Snow Bowl."

A bone-chilling winter cold front had enveloped Columbus on the morning before that game, sending temperatures below zero and whipping snow around in blizzard-like conditions.

Before game time, a tarpaulin covering the Ohio Stadium field was frozen to the surface with a glaze of ice and snow on top. Stadium workers tried unsuccessfully to cut away the tarp, leaving about half of it in place. Chief groundskeeper Ralph Guarasci later said, "I never saw anything like it, and I hope I never have to see anything like it again."

Fesler left the decision of whether or not to play the game up to his players.

"We definitely wanted to play," Janowicz said later. "We hadn't beaten them in quite some time and we knew we had a better team. We were ready to play and we wanted to play."

Team and school officials finally gave the go-ahead and what ensued was one of the most unusual and talked-about games in the history of Ohio State football.

Fearful of making mistakes, both Fesler and Michigan head coach Bennie Oosterbaan tried to put the ball in their opponents' possession as much as possible. For that reason, Janowicz and U-M's Chuck Ortmann combined for a conference record 45 punts, a single-game record that still stands.

Janowicz himself punted 21 times for 685 yards, averaging a remarkable 32.6 yards per attempt into the howling winds. But even more remarkable was a 27-yard field goal into the teeth of the blowing snow, a feat which has been described as one of the greatest individual accomplishments in OSU athletic history.

Unfortunately, the Buckeyes made a couple of crucial errors. One of Janowicz's punts was blocked out of the end zone for a safety and another was blocked late in the first half and recovered in the end zone by the Wolverines for a touchdown. Michigan went on to win the game, 9-3, without the benefit of ever having gained a single first down on offense.

Bitterly disappointed by the outcome, Janowicz thought he had let his teammates down. But each of them let their star teammate know that he was not to blame. In fact, after the season, they voted him the team's most valuable player after accounting for 875 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground and through the air and also led the Buckeyes in scoring with 65 points.

Additionally, he was one of the top safeties in the country on a defense that pitched two shutouts and prevented four of their nine opponents from scoring in double figures.

Janowicz earned first-team All-America honors following his junior season and was named the most valuable player of the Big Ten. Then, in December, he easily outpointed SMU senior halfback Kyle Rote to win the 1950 Heisman Trophy, becoming only the second Ohio State player in history to capture college football's highest individual honor.

Janowicz decided not to rejoin the OSU baseball team for his junior season to concentrate on football. He was the odds-on favorite to become the first two-time Heisman winner when he returned for his senior season, but things had changed drastically in the Ohio State football program.

Following the loss to Michigan – pushing his mark against the Wolverines to 0-3-1 – Fesler resigned as head coach and was replaced by a young disciplinarian from Miami (Ohio) named Wayne Woodrow Hayes.

Hayes junked Fesler's single-wing formation, the one in which Janowicz had flourished, and installed a more conventional option-style offense. Tony Curcillo, a junior, was installed at quarterback and Janowicz was one of the two halfbacks sharing the running duties. He still led the team in rushing, but his production amounted to only 376 yards and one touchdown on the ground and 74 yards and two TDs through the air.

Janowicz still starred on a defense that limited opponents to an average of just 11.6 points per game, but the offense struggled to find its identity in Hayes' new system and the Buckeyes finished 4-3-2 that included a 7-0 loss to Michigan, marking seven years in a row for the program without a win over the Wolverines.

His senior season resulted in no postseason awards. In fact, he didn't even finish in the top 10 of the '51 Heisman voting which was won by Princeton running back Dick Kazmaier.

The relative lack of production also cost him in the 1952 NFL draft as he fell all the way to the seventh round before the Washington Redskins finally selected him.

Pro football contracts in those days were minimal, especially for low-round draft choices, so Janowicz decided to weigh his options and spent the next year in military service.

The following year, he signed a $25,000 bonus contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a remarkable feat considering he hadn't played organized baseball in about four years. He became the first Heisman Trophy winner ever to play Major League Baseball and still one of only two men who can make that claim. The other is former Auburn running back Bo Jackson, who played with Kansas City, California and the Chicago White Sox from 1986-94.

Severely handicapped after four years away from the game, without minor league experience and the victim of a then rule that required any player signing a bonus contract to remain in the major leagues for two years, Janowicz saw little action in the 1953 and 1954 seasons. He was a catcher and third baseman for the Pirates and hit just .214 with two homers and 10 RBI in 83 total games.

Midway through the 1954 season, he decided to return to football, left the Pirates and signed with the Redskins. Playing halfback and handling the kicking chores in Washington, Janowicz flourished again. In two seasons, he carried the ball 99 times for 410 yards and four touchdowns, caught 12 receptions for 148 yards and three scores and kicked 10 field goals and 37 extra points.

During the 1955 season, he led the NFL in scoring for much of the season until Doak Walker of Pittsburgh edged him for the season title on the final day.

Janowicz was eagerly looking forward to the 1956 NFL season and had finished playing in a preseason game in Los Angeles when he was involved in an automobile accident. He was nearly killed and suffered a massive head injury that caused partial paralysis of the left side of his body over the next two years.

Through countless hours of painful rehabilitation, he worked diligently to regain his mobility over the next several years but his athletic career was over. He returned to Columbus where he became a businessman, broadcaster and public speaker before accepting a position as administrative assistant to the state auditor of Ohio.

In 1969, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame and was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977.

In 1992, Janowicz was honored at a university banquet and named "Ohio State's Greatest Athlete of the Last 50 Years." Later in life, his hometown of Elyria renamed the street where his old high school is located to Vic Janowicz Drive.

Diagnosed with cancer in the late 1980s and given only six months to live, Janowicz again beat the odds and lived another eight years, spending most of his time as a regular at OSU's Scarlet golf course or traveling around to local schools with his Heisman Trophy, allowing youngsters to see and touch a part of history.

Janowicz died Feb. 27, 1996, just one day after celebrating his 66th birthday. Ohio State honored him one last time in 2000 when it retired his No. 31 jersey.

Yesterday: No. 4 Hopalong Cassady

Tomorrow: No. 2


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