Howard “Hopalong” Cassady was Ohio State’s third Heisman Trophy winner, won an NFL championship and spent decades in the New York Yankees organization.
But his most enduring identity was simply as “Hop.” Unassuming, friendly “Hop.”
Cassady died early Friday morning in Tampa, Florida, at age 85.
“He was really a special person,” said Cassady’s wife, Barbara.
His son Craig, who was a Buckeyes defensive back from 1972-75, said he was a Heisman Trophy-caliber father, as well.
“I don’t know anybody that didn’t love my dad,” he said. “He had a great sense of humor. Very loving. He’d give the shirt off his back to you. He was always gracious with signing autographs and was always gracious with people.”
Cassady won the Heisman in 1955, his senior year. He ran for 958 yards and scored 14 touchdowns that year to become Ohio State’s third winner of college football’s most prestigious award, following Les Horvath in 1944 and Vic Janowicz in 1950.
Cassady also was named the Associated Press male athlete of the year that year, beating out such stars as Rocky Marciano, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
He started his OSU career by scoring three touchdowns in his freshman debut against Indiana. He went on to be a two-way player for the Buckeyes, with perhaps the biggest play of his career coming on defense. In 1954, against No. 2 Wisconsin, Cassady intercepted a pass and returned it 88 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in a 31-14 victory. Coach Woody Hayes had entered that season on the hot seat, but the victory over the Badgers helped propel the Buckeyes to the national championship.
“Years later, when Woody Hayes was on the banquet circuit, he referred to Cassady as ‘That guy who saved my job,’” Ohio State football historian Jack Park said.
Cassady left Ohio State as the school record-holder in rushing yardage (2,466), yards from scrimmage and points.
“Each of the (Ohio State) Heisman Trophy winners had something about them that distinguished them,” Park said, “and to me Cassady more than anybody could make the big play.”
Cassady became the third overall pick of the 1956 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. He had a eight-year career with the Lions, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. He was part of Detroit’s 1957 championship team.
Cassady was born in Columbus on March 2, 1934, grew up in Franklinton and was a three-sport star (football, basketball, baseball) at Central High School. He used to sneak into Ohio Stadium to watch OSU games. The only time in eight years that he missed a Buckeyes home game was in 1951, when he was on a recruiting trip to the University of Kentucky.
Cassady earned the Hopalong nickname in high school when Dispatch reporter Lou Berliner wrote that Cassady appeared to hop over defenders at the goal line for Central.
The nickname originally belonged to Hollywood cowboy William Boyd, who played Hopalong Cassidy in movies and on television. The two became friends, and Boyd never cared if Cassady used his name.
Football wasn’t Cassady’s first love. Baseball was. He also was a star shortstop for the Buckeyes, though Hayes wasn’t pleased that his standout halfback played another sport. Craig Cassady said that after his dad played baseball his freshman year, Hayes demoted him to fourth string when summer football practice began.
“It was to make a point,” he said. “Then my dad worked his way up.”
Cassady was known for his competitive nature. Even by mid-century standards of football, he was a bit undersized at 5 feet 10 inches and 170 pounds, but he was known to have a mean streak that drove his spirit.
Off the field, he was anything but mean.
“The best thing about Hop, amongst a lot of things, was that he never met a stranger,” said Mike Talis, Cassady’s business representative for more than 25 years. “In two minutes, he’d be sitting, joking, telling stories. He was just terrific like that.”
He and Barbara went on the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer several times.
“They would basically hold court,” Talis said. “It was like watching Forrest Gump on the bench. People would come and go, and Hop and Barb would still be sitting there telling stories, laughing, singing OSU songs, taking pictures. He just loved people.”
Cassady returned to his first sports love in 1973 when New York Yankees owner and close friend George Steinbrenner hired him.
The next year, Cassady and his wife moved to Tampa, where the Yankees had two minor-league teams and their spring-training complex. He was a scout, instructor and strength coach for the Yankees, and he spent 14 seasons working with the Columbus Clippers when the time was affiliated with the Yankees, including a 12-year run as their first-base coach that ended in 2003.
Longtime Clippers president and general manager Ken Schnacke described Cassady as “one of the best, most considerate people I have been around."
“He couldn’t do enough for people, even though his stature should have been that people should have always been taking care of him. He never forgot from where he came, he never forgot his friends, and he was as loyal and true as the day was long.”
Though Cassady never flaunted his celebrity status, his son said he reveled in his annual trips to New York for the Heisman ceremony and dinner. He and Archie Griffin, the award’s only two-time winner, became close friends.
Craig Cassady said he was heartened by phone calls he received Friday from prominent Buckeyes, including from Griffin and Cornelius Greene, who were Craig's teammates, as well as coach Ryan Day and athletic director Gene Smith.
“He loved Ohio State, and they were very good to him,” Craig Cassady said.
Besides Barbara, Cassady is survived by three children. In addition to Craig, who lives in Chautauqua Lake, New York, son David lives in Dublin and daughter Rayne lives in Columbus.
Ohio State said it plans to honor Cassady at its home football game Saturday against Miami University. The Buckeyes retired his No. 40 uniform in 2000.
Funeral arrangements are pending. The family will donate Cassady’s brain to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, which does ground-breaking work on football-related brain trauma. Cassady had memory loss late in his life.
“At the time they made that decision, he was 100 percent a part of that decision,” Talis said.
Cassady had been in declining health but had rebounded before.
“A couple years ago, hospice came in,” Craig Cassady said. “And he lived two more years. He was a tough cookie.”
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