Heisman Shaken To Its Foundation

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For a college kid from Nebraska, it was like waltzing into nirvana.

A five-star hotel and a classy athletic club rolled into one.

The walls in the lobby and function rooms were adorned with oil paintings of former Heisman Trophy winners. The guest rooms were brimming with luxury, and the restaurant was serving the finest food he ever experienced. Other floors featured a basketball court, exercise rooms, squash courts and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

It was 30 years ago when Johnny Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy, presented at the Downtown Athletic Club. It was his first foray into a world he has gone back to again and again.

"The nicest place I had ever been to," Rodgers said from his Omaha, Neb., office. "It was just fantastic. It was like a place for the rich, the elite and the famous. It was something."

That's the opinion of most Heisman winners, who consider the DAC the home of their fraternity. Each year, they return for the Heisman ceremony in December and revel in their private society.

These days, however, the Heisman winners are without a home.

Plagued by financial hardship as membership plummeted, the DAC filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and was forced to sell the upper half of its lower Manhattan high-rise to a New York developer. But until a year ago Wednesday, it was still an active health club with nearly 700 members.

Three blocks from the DAC's West Street address, two planes hit the World Trade Center and forever changed lower Manhattan. The DAC acted as a makeshift triage in the hours following the terrorist attacks, but the building eventually was evacuated because of a gas leak.

The 71-year-old building was later closed because of damage to an elevator. That forced the Heisman Trophy ceremony to be moved to a midtown hotel and required the club to shut down and lay off nearly its entire staff.

A year later, it still hasn't reopened and the prospect for a revival is bleak.

The club is now eerily quiet, and the skeleton staff has been left to handle the work of the Heisman Trophy. The rest of the club is empty. Exercise equipment is untouched and furniture is collecting dust in historic banquet rooms. Near unlit squash courts, a stack of the August 2001 club newsletter sits against a wall.

The DAC lost an estimated 15 members at Ground Zero, and the club's hierarchy is still trying to track the status of its membership. There's also the issue of many lower Manhattan companies relocating after Sept. 11, leaving the club with little business since the club's clientele was mostly employees of nearby businesses.

After the club closed because of minor structural damage, there was no rush to reopen because there has been no demand.

"It was going to happen, even without 9/11," said DAC executive director Rudy Riska. "That sort of pushed us over the edge."

On Aug. 30, the club failed to make an $8.3 million balloon mortgage payment. A developer that owns the upper floors of the building - the DAC sold the building in 1999 and bought back the lower half - is expected to make a claim on the rest of the structure in hopes of turning the building into condominiums.

This year's Heisman Trophy ceremony will be Dec. 14 at New York's Yale Club. When the ceremony was moved last year, it ended the DAC's 67-year run as host of the Heisman announcement.

"We're not worried about the Heisman," DAC president Jim Corcoran said. "That's in good hands. But we are doing what we can to save the club. We're trying to keep the club open. The goal is to save it."

Corcoran says he is optimistic, but Riska isn't so sure. With membership waning, the club has evolved into little more than a health club - far different from the popular social club it was through much of its history.

Home For The Greats

Before selling the top 19 floors of the building, the DAC ran a 135-room hotel. Sports luminaries and celebrities (Heisman Trophy winners, Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bob Hope) were guests when they attended functions at the club.

"Whenever I was in New York for anything, I stayed at the club," Rodgers said. "It was home. They made us feel so welcome."

When Rodgers was visiting the club in 1997, he planned to get married in New York. The staff of the club offered to host the wedding, so Rodgers became the only Heisman winner to be married at the Downtown Athletic Club.

"This place has had a positive and powerful influence on my life," Rodgers said.

There are still hints of the club's rich history in the decaying building. Pictures of Heisman winners hang on the walls in the lobby and restaurant. The walls of the fitness club are lined with posters promoting various sports dinners from years past.

"This is a very historic place," Riska said. "We've had so many people come through here. ... It's a shame what's happened."

Riska, who grew up across the street from the 19 West Street building and began working at the club in 1960, has played a big role in that history. A one-time minor leaguer for the Yankees, Riska joined the club as a basketball coach and later became athletic director - a position held by John Heisman when the club opened in 1930.

When Riska was hired, the club had 4,500 members and was a hub of business activity for Wall Street types. The shipping industry was also still thriving, and companies were eager to buy memberships.

"That was an expense account business," Riska said. "People came here to socialize, make deals. Back then it was 90 percent people doing business and 10 percent an athletic facility. It was really a businessman's club."

But lower Manhattan began changing by the early 1970s. The construction of the World Trade Center and later Battery Park City cut the region off from the port and led to the departure of the shipping industry. By the end of the '70s, the club was catering to Wall Street employees more interested in working out than making deals. Riska, though, noticed an interesting phenomenon as high-powered executives mingled with the occasional sports celebrity.

"They acted like kids," he said. "They were so awed."

Name Recognition

Riska began planning dinners and functions that featured the biggest names in sports. One of his first dinners honored the 1969 Jets and the 1969 Mets.

Tables sold quickly, and the functions became a staple for the club. On any given night, the club might honor basketball greats such as Bill Walton, Bob Cousy and Dean Smith. Another night might be dedicated to hockey with Mike Bossy and Denis Potvin at the head table.

And as the names got bigger, it became easier to lure sports figures to the club: Mantle, DiMaggio, Ali, Julius Erving, Joe Frazier, Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, Bill Bradley, Thurman Munson, Jim Brown and more.

After women were admitted as members in 1976, the events included the likes of Billie Jean King, Nancy Lieberman and Mary Lou Retton.

"People realized there was some substance behind it," Riska said. "Our reputation grew. As the names got bigger, it was easier to get people to come. It really became what we were known for. Remember, back then the Heisman [ceremony] was really just another event. It's only the last 10 or 15 years that it has become a year-round thing."

The popularity of the Heisman was also Riska's doing. Club executives hatched the idea for the award in 1935 and named it after their athletic director, the venerable John W. Heisman.

Heisman, who coached at Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Penn, Washington and Jefferson, and Oberlin College, resisted the idea of having the award named after him. It wasn't until his death in 1936 that the award was named in his honor.

While the award was the pre-eminent college football honor for decades, the ceremony became popular when it began to be televised in the 1970s. And Riska cultivated the lore of the award by gathering past winners for golf tournaments and functions.

"It really became special," Riska said. "Every year there's only one Heisman Trophy winner. It became an event. Plus, college football became bigger and bigger. There was so much more focus."

Said Rodgers: "They've created a fraternity. Once you're in, you're in for life. They really made it special, and the interest grew."

Yet the club failed to turn the popularity of the event into a financial windfall. The Heisman ceremony became a perennial TV event, but the backdrop of the wood-paneled Heisman Room was as much the star as the players.

Forgotten Home

Beyond the revered room, though, the club was being ignored. Membership, as high as 4,000 in the mid-1980s, was fewer than 1,000 by end of the '90s. Club executives ignored plumbing and electrical problems while failing to modernize the building.

"Nobody looked to the future," Riska said.

These days, the 12th-floor swimming pool that was an architectural landmark when it was built in 1929 sits empty. The Heisman room is littered and jumbled, and the restaurant and bar that was the scene of so much schmoozing is dark and dreary.

"So much history in there," said Corcoran, an executive at Morgan Stanley. "It's sad to see it like this."

Of course, the dire financial predicament isn't uncommon for a club built during the stock market crash in 1929. The club struggled in its early years and was saved when it began attracting celebrity members such as Jack Dempsey and Grantland Rice.

It may need the same level of luminaries to bail it out this time. Corcoran said he is working to raise money, hoping the club can compile enough to match a government grant. The matching grant was offered earlier in the year, but the club initially was unable to find the matching funds.

Corcoran had a deal with a management firm that would run the club, renovate it and increase membership, but that fell apart after Sept. 11.

"We still have a couple of deals on the table," Corcoran said. "Interest is building to keep the club there. I'm optimistic, but I'd say it's 50-50. We should know one way or another in the next 30 to 60 days."

Corcoran envisions the club playing a role in the redevelopment of lower Manhattan. If companies begin moving back to the area, the DAC will be there to welcome a new generation of members.

Of course, time may run out.

It could be years before the neighborhood undergoes a revival, and the club doesn't have the cash flow to be patient. Riska says he hopes his staff can remain in the building until the 2002 Heisman Trophy is awarded, then he'll grudgingly relocate for the 2003 award ceremony.

When that happens, the "Home of the Heisman Trophy" plaques will be removed from outside the building. The oil paintings of past winners, from Pete Dawkins to Eddie George, will come down from the lobby walls. All of the Heisman artifacts and sports relics will be moved to another location or perhaps auctioned.

When the Heisman ceremony was held at the Marriott Marquis last year, ESPN went to great lengths to duplicate the look of the DAC's Heisman Room in the generic hotel function room. That will probably be the case in the future, so TV audiences will get a taste of the DAC each year.

Rodgers says the Heisman winners he has spoken to are sad about the fate of the building, but there is a sense the Heisman will find a home.

"I moved out of my first house, the house I grew up in," Rodgers said. "But I moved on. Family still stays the same, no matter where the home is. The house does not make a home. Family does. We have a family."

Corcoran continues to hope the West Street building will be modernized, rebuilt and remain home to the Heisman family.

He understands Riska's doubt, but he is not ready to watch an era end.

"I'll fight to the bitter end," Corcoran said. "To me, this place is worth fighting for."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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