Heisman was born October 23, 1869, in Cleveland, Ohio, just two weeks before Princeton played Rutgers in what is considered the first college football game. Heisman's father, a cooper, and his mother, a homemaker, were both immigrants from Germany. During the 1870s, the Heisman family moved from Cleveland to Titusville, Pennsylvania, following the oil boom in the region, and Heisman graduated from Titusville High School in 1887. During his high school years, Heisman was a motivated student and participated in baseball, football, and gymnastics. Despite his small stature, Heisman fell in love with the developing game of football. Having played soccer-style football in his youth, as a young man, he was particularly enthralled with the concept of being allowed to carry the ball, a new innovation that was spreading among East Coast colleges.
Although Heisman's father considered football to be a brutal and barbaric sport, which in the early days of the game was not far from the truth, his disapproval could not squelch his son's overflowing enthusiasm for the game. He matriculated at Brown University as a 17-year-old freshman in 1887, unfortunately the same year that the school discontinued its intercollegiate football program. Nonetheless Heisman, weighing just 144 pounds, played with unabated enthusiasm and intensity
in intramural games. After two years at Brown, Heisman, working toward a law degree, transferred to the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), perhaps influenced by both the school's strong football program and the national reputation of its law department. He stayed at Penn for four years, playing football and studying law.
Heisman quickly turned Oberlin's fledging program into a winning football team, and it was during these early days of coaching that he developed many of his innovative strategies. Approaching the game in an analytical and methodical manner, Heisman deduced from his own playing experience that if a lineman came out of his position to block on the outside, it would open a path for the running back. Thus, Heisman became one of the first to consistently and successfully move the ball by pulling a guard off the line to run lead blocks. He also built on the popular wedge, or V-style, offense by introducing a smaller, secondary wedge that also wrecked havoc on opponents' defenses. Creating another new offensive formation, Heisman developed the double pass play, the precursor to the reverse play, in which a tackle pulled out of the line and handed the ball to the halfback.
In 1893 he left Oberlin to accept his first paid position at Buchtel College (now the University of Akron), receiving an annual salary of $750. During the one year Heisman spent at Buchtel, he faced numerous challenges, the first being a male student enrollment that barely reached one hundred, which made even fielding a full team a difficult feat. He also encountered criticism from Buchtel's faculty who joined the growing protest against the violent nature of the game that commonly led to injuries. Heisman was well aware of the physical toll football could take on the body and continually sought offenses that would reduce the danger and impact on his players. As a result, Heisman erased the tradition of mirroring the offensive and defensive positions. Typically, if a player was a halfback on offense, he played halfback on defense. What Heisman reasonably felt was that this put some of his smaller players, such as his quarterback, right in the thick of the fray while some of his bigger players, such as the fullback, were often left out of the action. Thus, Heisman stopped matching offensive and defensive positions, instead placing his strongest players up front and his quicker, lighter men back in what became known as safety positions. While at Buchtel he also developed the center snap, a maneuver that quickly caught on at other schools and soon replaced the former method of rolling the ball to the quarterback.
Heisman's football team at Buchtel took five of seven games in 1893, outscoring their opponents for the season 276-82. Heisman also coached the baseball team to a state championship. However, the next year he returned to coach again at Oberlin. Although he could be hardnosed with his players, Heisman learned early in his career to carefully cultivate his public image and actively sought out relationships with the local media. His natural affinity for publicity resulted in high praise by the media, and he quickly built a reputation for his coaching abilities. In the process of developing its football program, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn University) caught wind of Heisman's success and offered him a coaching job. Twenty-five-year-old Heisman accepted.