Artist 'Tackled' College Football's Heismen
September 26, 1999
Heisman Trophy Winners art portrait series earns
Hall of Fame spot for small-town Kansan, Ted Watts
OSWEGO, Kans. -- "I don't think Ted Watts can run a 40-yard dash the way he used to and probably can't catch a football as well, but he is a champion - a champion with the brush."
So said KOAM-TV's Jay Radzavicz in July 1996 while introducing a video "sneak preview" of the Oswego artist's latest art project - a 62-painting series of each of college football's Heisman Trophy winners.
"Oswego sports artist Ted Watts has accomplished what no other man has ever done," Radzavicz said. "He's tackled every Heisman Trophy winner. To win a Heisman Trophy, it takes artistic skills like speed, agility, strength and finesse. Watts used his own artistic skills to capture all of them on canvas."
No, he's not some ageless wonder boy who has tackled the likes of Chicago's Jay Berwanger, Army's "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside" ('Doc' Blanchard & Glenn Davis), Southern Cal's O.J. Simpson, and the incomparable Texas running back Ricky Williams.
But he is the only man alive who has painted a portrait of each winner for public display in the most appropriate forum for the subject. His stunning portraits are on display at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana.
Nearly 100,000 annual visitors to the Hall of Fame have the opportunity to view one of America's most unique sports art collections.
"Ted Watts' Heisman Trophy Winners Art Gallery is one of the most popular exhibits at the Hall of Fame," executive director Bernie Kish says. "Visitors tell us that it is the most beautiful and inspiring collection of football art they have ever witnessed."
Here is some background information.
In the summer of 1991, Watts began his "dream" art project--preparing art portraits of all of the winners of college football's most prestigious award--the Heisman Trophy.
At one point, he thought it was a "nightmare"--and, in the end, after five years, he had painted his way into national prominence and (with help from friends) into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Of course, he was already a nationally renowned sports artist famed for over 5,000 pieces of work in a 25-plus year art career.
And, yes, over half of his creations were devoted to college football. His works were already exhibited in all of the major sports' Halls of Fame.
His client list was prodigious; including over 150 colleges and universities nationwide. The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the United States Olympic Committee were listed among his patrons.
But, there was a gap in his portfolio, according to the artist. He had never done the art project that was closest to his heart.
According to the artist, his "dream" art project was to prepare display paintings of each of the recipients of the Heisman Memorial Trophy in a special combination format.
His plan was to arrange a college game action view of each Heisman winner during their trophy winning year overlapping a candid collegiate portrait to complete the painting as a 'composite' graphic.
Why did Watts want to undertake such a daunting task?
"Basically, I'm just a college football and history nut," Watts said. "The Heisman is the best of the best. Nobody had ever done a serious artistic anthology of these guys.
"I feel like I'm at the proper place in my art career to prepare classic graphics of America's sports icons, and, to tell you the truth, I'm not sure anyone else would want to try it."
For the uninitiated, the Heisman Memorial Trophy is an award honoring the "Outstanding College Football Player in the United States", and has been presented annually by the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City since 1935.
In sports circles, the Heisman Trophy, college football's 'Oscar', is the most coveted individual award an athlete can receive.
Over the years, Watts' research revealed that no art portrait series of the Heisman winners existed. In addition, the only completely up-to-date collection of all the award winners was a series of oil color retouched photographic mug shots that are on exhibit at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City.
The DAC of NYC is not exactly considered a standard tourist "go-to" place.
The idea for the series was born innocently enough on Monday, June 24, 1991, on a Kansas golf course.
Eldon Danenhauer, one of the original Denver Broncos, and Watts were playing in a celebrity charity golf tournament near Pittsburg, Kansas. Both are Pittsburg State University graduates and were talking sports, football, art and life.
Danenhauer queried Watts about his "dream" art project, and the conversation evolved into Watts' plan to bring the Heisman art into existence.
Eventually, a Danenhauer-inspired plan for a limited partnership group and parent corporation was established, primarily to finance, develop and complete the Heisman Trophy Winners art series' original art. It was named Champion Creations.
During his art career, Watts had painted a number of Heisman winners for a wide variety of clients.
"However, there was no consistency to the images," Watts explained. "Each of my clients had a specific goal for their own Heisman winner art, and they seldom matched in format or art treatment.
"Of course, nobody asked for graphics of all of the winners. Eldon's questions struck at both my heart and my mind. I thought, 'Why not'?"
"I didn't really think it would be easy--but, I didn't know how tough it would be to hold true to the concept that I had in mind.
"Arranging the financing, collecting the correct reference photos and materials for every winner; stockpiling the volume of art materials needed to complete what ended up being 62 paintings--it had all become a 'nightmare' after a while."
"For me, the art part was easy. The other parts were not. Frankly, it was not like any art project that I'd ever done before."
In the fall of 1991, the artist formed a corporation and limited partnership to finance the ambitious project.
Today, the art series and reproduction rights are owned by Champion Creations Limited Partners. Watts remains an active limited partner for CCLP.
Several important sports personalities--including one Heisman winner--proved to be crucial to the eventual success of the project.
Watts and the 1969 Heisman Trophy Winner Steve Owens of Oklahoma were boyhood friends (both were Miami, OK High School graduates). The artist sought the advice and counsel of Owens, and the combination was magic.
"Steve couldn't have been nicer," Watts admits. "He helped me with so many details with his advice and suggestions. All that he asked of me in return was that I make him 'look good'--which, of course, I didn't! I made him look like he looked."
For his part the personable Owens zings the artist right back. "Ted is the best sports artist there is--in southeast Kansas."
Owens first introduced Watts to Rudy Riska, the executive director of the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City, the sponsor of the Heisman MemorialTrophy award.
Together, Riska and Owens offered the artist valuable tips, contacts, and short cuts for gathering the massive volume of reference photographs and research materials that he would require for graphic painting accuracy.
Riska was helpful in other ways, too.
"Rudy shared with me the background of Heisman-related creative projects, especially books, and a number of technical and legal aspects to consider.
"He has always been very cordial and thorough and still keeps me updated on new developments. I am forever grateful for his help," Watts said.
Upon his first viewing of the finished series, Riska called it a "wonderful tribute--in keeping with the history and great tradition of the Heisman Memorial Trophy award."
Before Watts had even begun the first sketches for the series, he received the answer to a critical question, "Where do we display 60-plus paintings?"
In February 1992, Robert Casciola, then the newly-named executive director of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, Inc., contacted Watts about sports art displays for their soon-to-be relocated Hall of Fame facility.
Over the next four years, the two worked up an exhibit plan which brought a wide variety of Watts' college football related graphics into the Hall.
The showcase display, of course, is the Heisman Trophy Winners series. An exhibit loan agreement between NFF&CHF and Champion Creations Limited Partners, the art owners, eventually brought the entire group of original art portraits to the Hall.
"They are superb--the finest football art series I've ever seen," Casciola said. "We display them with great pride."
Watts' paintings were unveiled August 18, 1996, at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana. The Heisman Gallery is on display on the Hall's mezzanine level in an area called the 'Press Box'.
"It's the only way I could get into the Hall of Fame--other than as a visitor," Watts chuckles as he recalls that August event.
"My personal football skills were marginal, but I had fun.
I'm both pleased and proud that my pencils and brushes have reflected enough of the character and spirit of college football to earn a spot for my paintings on these hallowed walls."
According to Bernie Kish, the College Football Hall of Fame's executive director, the Hall is the ideal forum for display of the unique art series.
"More college football fans have the opportunity to view the Ted Watts' collection at the Hall of Fame than they would have at any other facility in America," Kish states.
Since opening in August 1995, the South Bend site hosts nearly 100,000 visitors annually.
"The goal of all of our exhibits at the Hall is to bring the essence and spirit of the college football game to everyone who loves this sport. Ted's Heisman Trophy Winners art series not only meets this goal, it exceeds it," Kish said.
Kent Stephens, collections manager at the Hall of Fame, added, "Ted's work is a great addition. We were searching for a centerpiece for the 'Press Box' and this is exactly what we sought.
"This is so good, I wish we could have had the collection when we designed the exhibit hall."
When the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City announces the latest winner of the Heisman Memorial Trophy on the second Saturday in December, you can count on the fact that there will be an artist in Oswego, Kansas who will be jumping for his pencils and brushes to add an artistic touch to college football's top award recipient.
And, when the painting is done, you can be equally certain that Bernie Kish and Kent Stephens in South Bend, Indiana will have the perfect spot reserved for its display on the walls of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Some dreams do come true.