As Robert Griffin III sat in the front row at the Downtown Athletic Club eight years ago, he could sense the room going silent and his heart pounding through his chest when the master of ceremonies announced: “And the winner of the 2011 Heisman Trophy is …”
There is so much from that night that Griffin remembers: the camaraderie with the four other finalists, the celebrations his winning the award set off at Baylor University, the humility of joining a select fraternity of top college football players.
But there is one detail he did not recall about that whirlwind weekend in Manhattan: signing an agreement that would prohibit him from selling the trophy.
“Most kids in that moment — because we’re young adults — we’re not even thinking about that,” Griffin said on Wednesday in a phone interview. “We’re not thinking about selling the Heisman for money or when we’re 50, 60 or 70 years old trying to cash in on it and pass it down to our kids.”
What also makes Williams’ trophy notable is that it is the last one awarded by the now-defunct Downtown Athletic Club and its successor, the Heisman Trust, that its winner is allowed to sell. In the 20 years since, carrying through Saturday night’s winner — which is likely to be Louisiana State quarterback Joe Burrow — the player walking off with the award will be prevented from turning it into cash.
Rob Whalen, the executive director of the Heisman Trust, declined to answer any questions about the prohibition, including why it was instituted. Whalen, sitting on Friday afternoon in a temporary office at a midtown hotel where former Heisman winners filed in to autograph dozens of footballs, said the Heisman Trust’s lawyers instructed him not to comment.
Tim Brown, the former Notre Dame star, believes all Heisman winners, whether they have been required to sign a waiver or not, should be allowed to do as they please with the trophy. The 1987 Heisman Trophy he won was sold at auction last year — unwillingly, he said, though he declined to elaborate.
“When I own it and it’s mine, I can do whatever I want with it,” said Brown, who wants to get his trophy back soon. “If the Heisman Trust wants to sue me for doing whatever, then sue me. I don’t think anybody’s going to worry about that.”
The Heisman Trophy, given to the top player in college football, has been awarded annually since 1935, with one given to the player and another to his school. But much has changed in those 84 years.
For one, the first winner was Jay Berwanger, a halfback from the University of Chicago, which three years later dropped football because it interfered with the school’s academic mission. (The school later revived football at the nonscholarship Division III level.) Also, there is so much money in professional football now that recent Heisman Trophy winners probably won’t need to cash out, even if N.C.A.A. rules about amateurism mean they can’t earn money as college athletes. But while last year’s winner, quarterback Kyler Murray of Oklahoma, signed a contract that guarantees him $23.5 million with the Arizona Cardinals, not all winners have lucrative pro football careers. Eric Crouch (2001) and Jason White (2003) did not play in the N.F.L.
At least 11 Heismans have been sold in the last 20 years — including three at auction last year: Brown’s trophy went for $435,763; Clint Frank’s 1937 trophy brought in $312,000; and Rashaan Salaam’s 1994 award netted $399,000 after he died by suicide three years ago. And they have been sold for different reasons: Paul Hornung’s helped fund scholarships at Notre Dame, and Charles White’s went to pay taxes.
“Some of them didn’t make huge money in their careers, so to have a $300,000-plus trophy sitting on their shelf doesn’t make sense,” said Mike Heffner, the president of Lelands Auctions, which has sold five Heisman trophies. “A lot of them say they have the memories; the mental pictures in their mind is enough.”
The first Heisman believed to have been sold was the one belonging to O.J. Simpson, which was seized by police and auctioned off in 1999 with his other belongings to help settle a wrongful-death verdict against him. Simpson’s trophy, which he won while starring at Southern California in 1968, sold for $230,000. Later that year, Larry Kelley — who won the second award, in 1936 at Yale — sold his for $328,100 because he was in ill health and wanted to distribute the proceeds to his 18 nieces and nephews.
After the two sales in 1999, the Downtown Athletic Club began prohibiting its Heisman winners from selling the trophy.
If the sales spurred the change, the club likely considered the longstanding policy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has the right of first refusal on the sale of any Oscar won since 1951. It can buy the gold statuette back from Academy Award recipients — or their heirs — for $1. (Michael Jackson in 1999 paid $1.54 million for the 1940 Best Picture Oscar for “Gone with the Wind.”)
The Heisman has a similarly powerful name in the sports world. There are other iconic trophies, such as hockey’s Stanley Cup, but they are not often for sale. And while Heffner, the auctioneer, believes the trophy Bo Jackson won in 1985 at Auburn might be worth $1 million because of his cross-generational appeal, the trophies of even relatively anonymous winners are worth close to half that.
“There’s only one every year — and it’s a work of art,” Heffner said. “There’s a lot of glory attached to it.”
That’s something Griffin is reminded of frequently. He is now with the Baltimore Ravens, where he backs up Lamar Jackson, who won the 2016 award at Louisville. One of the Ravens running backs is Mark Ingram, who won the 2009 Heisman at Alabama. The Ravens, in position for the top playoff seed in the A.F.C., have run plays where all three are in the backfield. The team dubs it The Heisman Package.
Griffin said the trophy is at his parents’ home and he will take it back when after his playing career — which has already brought him millions of dollars — and he settles down. One day, he imagines, it will end up with one of his children.
“When I’m ever able to look at it, see it, old teammates come over and we hang out, it starts the stories,” Griffin said. “It’s a symbol of all the great times we had. It embodies a lot for me, so I don’t plan on selling it whether or not I had to sign that agreement.”