RHINELANDER (AP) — If University of Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne wins the Heisman Trophy as college football's top player of the year, he will revive a connection to this northern Wisconsin town of lakes and timber last seen nearly five decades ago.
The trophy's namesake, John Heisman, is buried in a modest plot in a city-owned cemetery, and Alan Ameche was the only other Wisconsin football player to win the award when he took it in 1954.
There's nothing "really too special" about Heisman's grave, Randy Knuth of the city Public Works Department said Thursday. "It is small grave maker flush with the ground on the family plot."
Dayne's rise as the top candidate to win the Heisman Trophy — one of the most coveted awards in sports — has generated more interest in the grave as Saturday's award ceremony draws near, said Richard Winquist, the cemetery's caretaker.
"Without Ron Dayne, it would just be a normal Heisman Trophy year," Winquist said. "I always get some people this time of year looking, but this year it has been extremely busy."
Several weeks ago, a lone, artificial red rose was stuck into the ground behind the simple marker, which reads "John William Heisman 1869-1936."
"My dad always said he is the one claim to fame for our little cemetery," said Winquist, who has worked at Forest Home Cemetery for 27 years, 10 years while his dad was sexton and 17 years in that job himself.
The grave is far from a tourist attraction, even in an era when sports figures achieve so much celebrity, Winquist said. Visitors can't tell Heisman's grave from any of the other 12,000 in the 33-acre wooded burial grounds on the east side of this town of 8,000 people 225 miles northwest of Milwaukee.
"But people who are interested in football and stuff like that, they hear he is buried out here and they ask me to locate it for them so they can see it and take a picture," said Winquist as he readied for his fifth television interview regarding the grave in recent days.
Winquist said he has cleared snow from around the grave marker in winter so its picture could be taken. He has also guided a newly married couple honeymooning in Rhinelander to the grave so the groom could take a picture of the tombstone.
"The lady on her honeymoon wasn't too impressed," the caretaker recalled.
The 65th Heisman Trophy will be presented Saturday at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York.
Dayne, who ran for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns and broke Ricky Williams' Division I-A career rushing record, is the favorite among four other finalists, all quarterbacks: Virginia Tech's Michael Vick, Georgia Tech's Joe Hamilton, Purdue's Drew Brees and Marshall's Chad Pennington.
Dane was in Orlando, Fla., Thursday for the college football awards show and unavailable for comment, said Brian Lucas, a spokesman for the Badgers in Madison.
John Heisman coached Georgia Tech to the 1917 national championship. During his career, he coached at nine colleges, winning 185 games, losing 70 and tying 17. When he retired from coaching in 1927, he became the first athletic director of the Downtown Athletic Club, which named its college player of the year trophy after him in 1936.
Heisman's strong connection to Wisconsin came only after his death that year.
He never lived in Wisconsin, but he occasionally visited Rhinelander with his wife, Edith, a Wisconsin native whose sister lived in the city, said Kris Gilbertson, longtime editor and reporter for The Rhinelander Daily News.
"Edith wanted him buried here because she intended to be buried here herself," said Gilbertson, 88. "Three days after he died, he was brought here by train."
His grave is in the Donaldson family plot. Edith's sister was married to C.H. Donaldson, a wealthy lumberman, Gilbertson said.
As far as Winquist knows, no Heisman Trophy winner has ever visited the grave of its namesake.
As late as 1984, most people in Rhinelander probably didn't even know Heisman was buried in the cemetery, Winquist said.
One spring day that year, Winquist spotted a glass fruit jar glued to Heisman's tombstone. Inside the sealed glass were four unused tickets to the Nov. 5, 1983, Big Ten football game between Minnesota and Illinois.
"Whoever put it out there wrote an anonymous letter to the Daily News, saying he left the tickets and wondered why Rhinelander hadn't done anything to let people know Heisman was buried here," Winquist said.
The community responded, Gilbertson said. "There is a bust of Heisman that was carved by a local artist that is on display in the airport terminal building."