Unlike almost every other jersey number discussed to this point in our countdown to kickoff, you can count the number of players to wear #31 on one hand. Literally. Only five men have worn #31, and all of them played their college ball prior to 1952. Of those five, you've only ever heard of one: Victor Felix "Vic" Janowicz, son of Polish immigrants living in Elyria, Ohio, and one of the best classic triple-threat players ever to play the game.
A tailback in Ohio State's single wing offense, Janowicz won the Heisman Trophy in 1950 (becoming just the third junior ever to do so), and was a consensus All-American the same season. Ohio State's MVP in both '50 and '51, he also took home numerous player of the year honors, including the Big Ten's coveted silver football (an honor afforded one Braxton Miller last fall). Woody Hayes, who as the newly-minted Buckeye head coach only coached Janowicz's senior year, said of him, "He was not only a great runner, but also passed, was a placekicker and punter, played safety on defense and was an outstanding blocker. Janowicz epitomized the 'triple-threat' football player."
In Hayes' first season - and Janowicz last - Ohio State compiled a middling 4–3–2 record, coming off of a decent 6-3 season in 1950. Janowicz' Heisman-trophy winning season was the final for coach Wes Fesler, who fell prey to the reality that at Ohio State, one game matters above all the rest. The season finale against Michigan was the infamous game later known as the Snow Bowl with the bitter archrivals punting the ball a combined FORTY. FIVE. TIMES.
His College Football Hall of Fame biography says this about Janowicz' junior exploits:
In the Rose Bowl, January 2, 1950, he intercepted two passes, ran one back 41 yards, and helped Ohio State beat California 17-14. In 1950 he played both offense and defense, averaging 50 minutes a game. Wes Fesler, one of the last coaches to use the single- wing formation, put Janowicz at tailback, where he ran, passed, punted, blocked, and place-kicked. Janowicz threw four touchdown passes in a 41-7 victory over Pittsburgh. He made a 90-yard punt in a 48-0 victory over Minnesota. When the Buckeyes beat Iowa 83-21, Janowicz was responsible for 46 points. He ran for two touchdowns (one a 61-yard punt return), passed for four touchdowns, and kicked 10 extra points.
Behind the Heisman standout, the Buckeyes outscored opponents 286-111 that season, but Fesler's record against Michigan fell to 0-3-1 despite a respectable 21-13-3 overall. In Hayes' newly-installed offense, #31 wasn't nearly as dominant and the Buckeyes' record reflected the difference (though Hayes would be vindicated a few years later, as his 1954 squad won the school's second national championship and his first of five). Janowicz did kick field goals that were the winning plays in victories over Northwestern 3-0 and Pittsburgh 16-14; he appeared in two post-season senior games, the East-West Shrine and the Hula Bowl, earning MVP honors in both.
Known primarily as a halfback, he was in fact a helluva kicker, and set quite a few school records with his boot during the 1950 Heisman campaign:
- Most Extra Points Made in a Game: 10 vs. Iowa
- Most Extra Points Attempted in a Game: 11 vs. Iowa
- Most Punt Attempts in a Game: 21 vs. Michigan
- Most Punt Yards in a Game: 685 vs. Michigan
Jim Tressel couldn't be prouder.
Despite finishing smack dab in the middle of the Big Ten standings at season's end (remember that there were only 9 teams involved at that point: Chicago had ceased playing Division I football and Penn State wouldn't join the conference for another four decades), the Buckeyes still fielded eight NFL draft picks the following spring. Perhaps because of his more limited exposure in '51, Janowicz was the second Buckeye drafted, and wasn't selected in fact until the seventh round, selected as the 79th overall pick by the Washington Redskins (linebacker Joe Campanella was chosen in the third round as the 36th overall pick, by the Cleveland Browns, and would play six seasons for the Browns and the Baltimore Colts, serving as the Colts' General Manager from 1966 until his death in 1967).
Despite being drafted by the Redskins, the naturally-gifted athlete opted to play professional baseball after a brief stint in the service, and played 81 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1953-1954. Interestingly, Janowicz was the first of only two Heisman winners to play both professional football and major league baseball, the other being 1985 winner Bo Jackson. A catcher, he was among the last players to sit behind the plate without the now-requisite facemask.
Compiling a .214 batting average over his two seasons on the bench, he returned to the gridiron, and was with the Washington Redskins in the National Football League from 1954-1955. In 1955, he led the NFL in scoring until the final day of the season, when Doak Walker beat him out for the honors. Sadly, however, injures sustained in a near-fatal auto accident ended his athletic career. Eventually overcoming the partial paralysis he suffered from the head trauma in the accident, Janowicz became a successful man about town in olde Columbus towne, becoming a broadcaster and public speaker. He would later work in manufacturing management and for the state auditor's office before cancer ended his days in 1996.
Because of his accomplishments, Janowicz was honored by the Columbus Downtown Quarterback Club in 1991 as "Ohio State's Greatest Athlete of the Last 50 Years," and later became the second football player in Ohio State history to have his number retired; #31 is immortalized alongside other Heisman Trophy winners in Ohio Stadium.
So with a salute to the incomparable Vic Janowicz, we'll call it square for today's installment of the countdown. If you've missed it so far, here is the archive of the series for your reading/viewing enjoyment: