Remembering Rudy Riska: The Man Behind The Heisman

Rudy Riska, longtime executive director of the Heisman Trophy, died on September 12 at the age of 85.

Even the most avid college football fans may not be familiar with the name, but for those who were involved in the presentation of Heisman – especially the winners – Riska’s name has become synonymous with the annual ceremony.

The late Rudy Riska pictured with the Heisman Trophy. (Photo: Courtesy of Tim Henning)

Until her death, Riska had been a parishioner at Our Lady of Angels, Bay Ridge, for over 50 years. During that time, he held one of the most exciting – and important – jobs in college football.

“Rudy is the glue that kept the Heisman Trophy together,” said Roger Staubach, 1963 Heisman Trophy winner and legendary NFL quarterback. “He is the bond that unites all winners. He’s a great guy with immense respect for the Heisman Trophy and what it stands for.

As if his career was really meant to be, Riska was born in 1936 opposite the Downtown Athletic Club, the site of the Heisman Trophy presentation for many years. That same year, the man who gave his name to the trophy, John W. Heisman, passed away.

A talented high school athlete at Metropolitan HS, Riska pitched five seasons of minor baseball for the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles. However, an arm injury cut his career short and he later took a job as a sporting goods salesperson for Rawlings.

His boss informed him of an opening as a part-time athletic coach at the Downtown Athletic Club, and from there his career blossomed. The club’s board of directors wanted him to change the culture of the club from a dining establishment to a sports facility.

Inspired by an event where he met St. Louis Cardinals hitter Stan Musial, Riska began creating monthly events where fans could interact with their favorite sports heroes. It has hosted famous athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson and living members of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

During his tenure as the club’s athletic director, Riska transformed the Heisman ceremony. It went from being a mere two day affair to a full four day event including a TV special and Heisman dinner / dance.

Riska ensured that every detail of the ceremony – from the winner’s acceptance speech to his tuxedo rental – was taken into account. He also gave the winner some much needed advice ahead of the Heisman Marching Band Weekend.

Although his work has been mostly behind the scenes, the fruits of his labor paid off with a flawless ceremony in which the winner was able to fully enjoy the glory of college football’s highest honor without having to worry. of all the logistics that go with the prestigious award. .

A sports lover, Riska realized he had the best job in the world. He would often tell people how lucky he was to be able to have a lifelong career where he could pursue his passion.

“What made the job so good is that I have been playing sports my whole life,” said Riska, who retired in 2003 after more than 50 years with the club as executive director of Heisman Trophy Trust and the Heisman Foundation, which has raised over $ 1 million for various foundations and charities across the country.

Riska is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Lorraine; his two daughters, Elizabeth and Barbara; and four grandchildren, Brian, Emma, ​​Jessica and Kristin.

Tim Henning, associate director of the Heisman Trophy Trust and parishioner of St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor, shared a small office with Riska after the Downtown Athletic Club was damaged in the September 11 attacks. He said words cannot adequately express the impact Riska has had on the Heisman Trophy and the brotherhood of Heisman winners and friends.

“I learned more from him (Riska) during this time than any textbook or teacher could ever have taught me,” said Henning, also a member of the St. Francis de Sales parish council and committee. fundraising. “Rudy has always shown a keen interest in others. He was a righteous man. He cherished relationships and treated people equally with kindness and respect, regardless of their supposed status in society.

“The prestige that the Heisman Trophy currently garners is undoubtedly the direct result of Rudy who led it for more than five decades. The Heisman family is truly indebted to him.

Riska will surely be missed, but his legacy as one of the most influential people in college football will live on, especially when every new winner receives the Heisman.

Contact Jim Mancari by email at [email protected]

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