Rudy Riska, who as a boy first glimpsed the Heisman trophy on its pedestal at the Downtown Athletic Club in lower Manhattan, and who years later became the invaluable guide, counselor and mentor to the young men who won it, died on Sept 10. 12 at a Brooklyn hospital. He was 85.
His daughter Elizabeth Briody said the causes were dementia and pneumonia.
For over 40 years, the self-effacing Mr. Riska the organization of the club that the Heisman awarded to the outstanding footballer of the year. He oversaw the winners’ itinerary and encouraged them to think seriously about what to say in their acceptance speech. He bought tickets to Broadway shows for their families, made reservations at top restaurants, and hosted the annual Heisman dinner in Manhattan, which drew as many as 2,000 guests.
mr. Riska developed that job as the athletic director of the Downtown Athletic Club, the trophy’s longtime home. He had noticed that no one was overseeing the winner’s activities while he was in Manhattan for the awards ceremony.
“They were just school kids who had been plucked from their campus and suddenly flown to New York,” he told The New York Times in 2010. “These were often inexperienced children. Most had never played on national television. Many had never been on an airplane until they flew to New York. Their heads were spinning.”
“I got there and Rudy put his arm around me and the rest was like a magic carpet ride,” Eddie George, Ohio State Is Running Back who won the Heisman in 1995, The Times told The Times. “And that was what Rudy wanted. He wanted every winner to remember his weekend forever.”
Mr Riska worked completely behind the scenes – fans watching the annual ceremony on television probably wouldn’t have known his name or face – but the winners understood his importance.
“I realize how much power he had, but he never showcased it,” Desmond Howard, the 1991 Heisman winner, said by phone. “If everyone is procrastinating to you, you must have power, but he acted like someone who served you and took care of all your needs.”
Rudolph James Riska was born on August 22, 1936 in Manhattan to Rudolph and Elizabeth (Marecek) Riska. His mother cleaned offices. His family lived near the Downtown Athletic Club, in the Financial District, for a while, and when he was 11, his father took him to the Heisman.
“I stared at the names engraved on the trophy,” he told The Times. “How lucky can a man be to end up in a job where those names come to life and they become your friends?”
His athletic focus as a youngster was baseball, not football. He pitched a no-hitter for Metropolitan High School, which caught the interest of the Yankees, who signed him to a contract. He played on low-level minor league teams in the Yankee system from 1955 to 1958 and the Baltimore Orioles system in 1959. In Aberdeen, SD, an affiliate of the Orioles, his manager was Earl Weaver, the future Hall of Famer of the Orioles. . He compiled a 36-33 record, but chronic bursitis ended his career.
He started out as a salesman for the sporting goods company Rawlings, but after two years took a job with the Downtown Athletic Club. He was soon named athletic director, the position he held John Heisman, the namesake of the trophy, held there until his death in 1936.
As athletic director, Mr. Riska created fitness and sports programs for club members and created events in honor of famous athletes. But he was largely known as the executive director of the Heisman Trophy Trust and the Heisman Foundation.
“What I Think I Could Have Done”, he told The Bay Ridge Paper in 2003, “is to lead and protect the Heisman from people who try to make money the wrong way. I like to think of myself as the conscience of the Heisman.”
He retired in 2004, three years after the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath led to the club having to close permanently. The trophy, which is awarded by a vote of members of the sports media and past winners, was moved to different locations and is now held at the Heisman Trust’s Manhattan office.
In addition to his daughter Elizabeth, Mr. Riska is survived by his wife, Josephine (Karpoich) Riska, known as Lorraine; another daughter, Barbara Piersiak; and four grandchildren.
Over the weekend, 15 or 20 of the past Heisman winners who traveled to New York City for the newest winner’s annual anointing took time off to commemorate their achievements at a Blarney Stone bar near the club.
“People may have been looking for them, but I would let them go alone for a few hours,” Mr. Riska to The Times. “They let their hair down with their wives, shoulder to shoulder with these construction workers. It was a collection of some of the best college football players ever. But they just wanted to hang out with a captive audience.”