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Heisman Park’s heroic-sized statues honor
legendary Sooner players, attract fans of all ages
Two hours before kickoff against Nebraska and there is a small pocket of quiet reverence on the east side of Memorial Stadium. Being in the presence of greatness automatically instills softer voices and hushed tones.
Sooner fans of all generations pose for pictures amongst the four, larger-than-life statues featured in Heisman Park. At times, people have to wait for a turn to snap a photo. Others wander through, stopping to read the player biographies etched in the granite base supporting each statue.
Established in September 2005, the park is a joint project between the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Centennial Commission to commemorate OU’s four Heisman Trophy winners — Steve Owens, Billy Sims, Jason White and the late Billy Vessels.
Of course, plans are already underway to create a fifth statue to honor 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford. A completion date for Bradford’s likeness has not been determined yet, but could come as soon as next fall or at some point beyond, depending on what the star quarterback decides to do with his football future.
In preparation of the state centennial celebration in 2007, the Oklahoma Centennial Commission oversaw more than a dozen statues around the state featuring notable Oklahomans. It was an effort to honor great achievements while paying tribute to the people and events that have shaped the state’s history.
So, while some schools honor their Heisman winners with plaques and jerseys in display cases or by showing highlights of winning campaigns on plasma screen televisions — with five Heisman trophy winners from one university — why not celebrate them altogether and in a different way?
That was the thought Lee Allan Smith had when he originally proposed the park plan. The chairman of Centennial Projects and Events credits a lot of people for putting the concept together but ultimately, establishing the first-of-its-kind park was his idea. The driving force behind it was OU’s first Heisman recipient.
“Billy Vessels was the inspiration for this project,” said Smith. “I knew him in school. We were doing a number of statues around the state for the centennial and I thought it was unusual to have so many Heisman winners from one school. We wanted to make these statues heroic-sized because these are OU heroes.”
The office of OU President David Boren selected the spot for the park, just north of the athletic dorms near the corner of Lindsey and Jenkins. Of course, space is available for more statues.
Each of the current statues was sculpted by an Oklahoma artist and the granite for the base comes from Granite, Okla. The Centennial Commission paid for all of the Heisman statues with donations coming from friends and teammates of the winners.
With each bronze costing approximately $65,000, Smith said the real heroes of the project are those people who put up the money to make it happen.
“We realize the incredible tradition at OU, and we wanted to honor our Heisman winners in a special way, in the shadows of one of the great stadiums of college football,” offered Joe Castiglione, OU director of athletics.
The Vessels statue, sculpted by Edmond artist Shan Gray, was the first to be unveiled in the park. As the first Sooner to win college football’s most prestigious award, the running back led his team to a 26-4-1 record during his career.
Vessels played under Bud Wilkinson from 1950, the year the Sooners won their first national championship, through 1952, the year he won the Heisman Trophy. A native of Cleveland, Okla., he ran for 2,085 yards and scored 35 touchdowns during that span.
Vessels passed away in 2000 at age 70.
His widow Susie Vessels said, “Billy was always proud to have been a Sooner and would have loved seeing his statue at the university he called home.”
Incidentally, the original Vessels statue unveiled in September 2005 now resides in Vessels’ hometown. It was one-and-a-half times larger than the human Vessels, but later was dwarfed by the addition of the three other statues which were much bigger. Additional funds were raised to replace the original with one matching the size of the others.
The statue of 1969 Heisman winner, running back Steve Owens, was designed by the late Oklahoma artist Nick Calcagno, formerly of Owens’ hometown of Miami. It was unveiled in September 2006.
As a sophomore, Owens captured the attention of his coaches by rushing for 813 yards, scoring a dozen touchdowns and earning All-Big Eight Conference Honors. He emerged on the national scene his junior year when he rushed for 1,516 years with a record 357 carries.
In 1968 and 1969 he was named Big Eight Conference Player of the Year, was a consensus All-American and was elected team co-captain of the ’69 Sooners. Owens earned the Walter Camp and Heisman trophies that year. He still holds the record for most carries in a game at 55 and career with 958. Owens also is the school’s all-time leading scorer with 57.
“Although I graduated 29 years ago, OU is still a second home to me,” he said during the unveiling. “I am grateful for this honor and thank all of those who made this statue possible.”
The Billy Sims statue was unveiled in September 2007 during a raucous and memorable ceremony that included his coach, Barry Switzer, donning an enormous afro wig.
The record-setting running back was recruited by Switzer and won the Heisman Trophy in 1978. Sims set records for rushing that year with 1,896 yards on 256 carries and lead the Sooners to an Orange Bowl win. He was named College Player of the Year by both Associated Press and United Press International, as well as All-American.
In 1980, Sims was the first pick in the National Football League draft.
A week after the Sims ceremony, the last piece of sculpture was unveiled during an emotional ceremony honoring the 2003 winner Jason White.
Today, White said he remains in awe of the bronze depiction of himself.
“It is weird to drive by the stadium and see that statue, to see all of those statues” he said. “It is unbelievable to have it, especially at such a young age.”
When he was informed about the plans for the park, White said his initial reaction was that it would be neat for himself and the other winners to be part of such a tradition. He was a bit surprised at the size.
“They told me it would be larger than life and I did not know what to expect,” he said. “The statues are really big.”
White’s sculpture was designed by Jay O’Meilia of Tulsa and White had a hand in selecting the pose.
“I was asked to pick a pose and for a quarterback, I thought throwing the ball would be best because I was known for throwing,” he said. “They had me recreate that pose, with the pads and everything, for pictures. The pictures were used as a model for the statue.”
Four years after finishing his astonishing and well-chronicled career at OU, White said even now, what he accomplished has not totally set in.
“When you are going through it at the time, you can’t see really what is going on because you are so busy, going to school and playing football,” White explained. “But it is more special now, very special, because then I did not have the time to stop and realize that what was happening, and its importance.”
Now, he has a bronze statue as a permanent reminder.
And now, Mr. Bradford waits in the wings after finishing off one of the greatest single-season performances in not only OU annals, but in college football history.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the Limited Edition Heisman Trophy Issue soon to be released by Sooner Spectator. To purchase your copy, call toll free 1-877-841-8877 today)