Published Sept. 22, 2019

He was the Hollywood handsome college football star when such a distinction ranked way up there in American folklore—when being the BMOC (Big Man on Campus) at a university such as the one in Columbus, Ohio meant having good, clean clout.

In the 1950s, football was America’s number one sport, but it was the college game, not the pros, that quickened the blood of sports fans in our country. Saturday afternoons ruled, far more than Sundays. Newsstands were rife with weekly and monthly publications touting college football and its stars.

Some players still wore helmets without facemasks in those days, so their mugs were even more noted.

Frank Gifford arguably gained far more notoriety from his years as a Trojan at Southern Cal, than for anything he did in the NFL—-and Frank played pro ball in New York City. With the Giants, Gifford was just one of many high-profile professional football players. At USC, he was almost mythical.

We lost one of those larger than life types on Friday, though it didn’t get much virtual ink.

Howard “Hopalong” Cassady is gone. He died at age 85 in Tampa, Florida, where he had taken up residence decades ago. Cassady, like so many of his brethren in the ’50s, was a two-way player, though he made his name more for his exploits as a running back than that as a defensive back.

Plenty of hardware for Hoppy

Cassady’s trophy case was well-stocked. He was the Heisman Trophy winner out of Ohio State in 1955 (958 rushing yards, 15 TD), where his Buckeyes were national champions the year prior. He won the Maxwell Award in 1955 as well, which is similar to the Heisman but is awarded to the best all-around player in college—not just on offense. Cassady was also named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in ’55.

It is said that in Cassady’s four years at OSU, not a single pass was completed against him when he played in the secondary. That was before the over-used term, “lock down cornerback,” was being tossed around.

Columbus-born Cassady was drafted by the Lions in 1956 with the third overall pick, back when the franchise wasn’t an oft-repeated NFL joke. His death means that the living Lions from the 1957 championship team is a small group indeed.

But in college, young men wanted to be Hopalong Cassady and young women wanted to be with him. Television was coming of age when Cassady was setting records in college football, which meant that a growing number of football enthusiasts were able to see for themselves what all the magazines were crowing about. They weren’t disappointed.

Image result for howard cassady

Cassady scored 37 touchdowns in 36 games with the Buckeyes, playing at 5’10” and 170 pounds. That was on the scrawny side, even in those days.

Movie cowboy helped spawn a nickname

So why the Hopalong moniker?

Columbus sportswriters likened Cassady’s playing style to that of a performing cowboy who “hopped all over the field.” It didn’t hurt that a fictional character was still fresh on people’s minds in those days: movie cowboy Hopalong Cassidy.

Like so many college stars, Cassady’s brilliance didn’t translate 100 percent to the NFL, but in the Lions’ 59-14 win over the Browns in the 1957 championship game, Cassady rushed eight times for 48 yards (6.0 avg) and caught two passes for 22 yards, including a touchdown.

In the NFL, Cassady didn’t play defense but he was the Lions’ all-purpose back, equally adept at catching passes out of the backfield as in running the football.

Two-sport star at OSU

Cassady’s imprint on Buckeye football lasted for decades after he graduated. His running and all-purpose yards records weren’t broken until 1969 and 1974, respectively.The AP named Cassady their Male Athlete of the Year in 1955 because as much as he excelled on the gridiron, Hopalong was also a helluva baseball player (shortstop), leading the Bucks in HR in 1955 and stolen bases the following year.

Cassady’s association with baseball continued into the 1970s, when he served as a scout for the Yankees and first base coach for their Triple-A affiliate in, where else, Columbus. Cassady worked for more than 40 years in the Yankees organization, many of those for George Steinbrenner. Hopalong deserves an award for that, too.

Cassady was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. The Buckeyes wore special decals on their helmets on Saturday, depicting Cassady’s no. 40 and a buckeye leaf.

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

Cassady’s son, Craig, told OSU that Hopalong “was a Heisman Trophy dad as well.”

There will only ever be one golden age of college football. Howard Cassady was knee deep in it, thrilling fans every Saturday in Columbus. He was handsome, clean cut and in a way he represented what it was like to be the quintessential young man in what was a mostly happy-go-lucky decade in American history.

Way to go, Hoppy.