March, 20 2023
In an era of leather helmets and thin padding, 5’7”, 150-pound Davey O’Brien displayed toughness during a career that is immortalized with a trophy named after him. The Dallas native had the unenviable task of following the legendary Sammy Baugh as quarterback at Texas Christian University. The undersized O’Brien did not shrink from the challenge.
Referred to as “Little Davey O’Brien” and “half-pint,” O’Brien proved a worthy successor to the two-time All-American Baugh. In addition to quarterback, he played in the defensive secondary and placekicked, earning another nickname: “Ironman.” His field goal in the 1937 season finale against Southern Methodist proved the difference in a tough 3-0 victory.
The 1938 season was magical for O’Brien and TCU. O’Brien scored 22 total touchdowns (19 passing) in leading the Horned Frogs to an 11-0 record and the national championship. Sportswriters in the East took notice when he threw three touchdowns passes and intercepted two on defense in a 28-6 victory over Pop Warner’s Temple Owls in Philadelphia. “It was the greatest aerial massacre since the war,” quipped the Philadelphia Inquirer. “[O’Brien] tossed passes in all directions: short ones, long ones, flat ones, and high ones.”
The touchdowns and wins kept coming. O’Brien scored three touchdowns against Texas A&M and three more against Baylor, pacing the Frogs to a Southwest Conference title and a place in the Sugar Bowl. He was awarded the Heisman Trophy, the first non-Easterner to win. O’Brien also won the Maxwell Trophy and was voted unanimous first team All-America. He capped off the remarkable season by throwing for 225 yards and intercepting a pass in a 15-6 victory over Carnegie Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
O’Brien led the NFL in passing as a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1939 but abruptly retired to become a special agent in the FBI. Following his death in 1977, the Davey O’Brien Memorial Trophy was awarded to the most outstanding player in the Southwest. The trophy name was changed to the Davey O’Brien Award in 1981 and is awarded annually to the best NCAA quarterback as voted on by the Davey O’Brien Foundation.