Jay Berwanger, Heisman Winner.
To football aficionados, Jay Berwanger is well-known as the winner of the first Heisman Trophy and the first player chosen during the National Football League’s first draft. Less well-known is that he achieved his athletic successes at the University of Chicago, a school now more closely associated with Nobel prizes than big-time football. Berwanger, a halfback, played for the University of Chicago Maroons at a time when Chicago was a member of the Big Ten Conference–before Robert Hutchins, the University’s president, famously abolished varsity football in 1939.
Even in an era before football teams were divided up into offensive and defensive squads, Berwanger was renowned for his versatility.
In 23 varsity games in three seasons with the Maroons, he scored 22 touchdowns and kicked 20 extra points. He gained 1,839 yards on 439 rushes for a 4.2 average. As a sophomore, he played 60 minutes of every Big Ten conference game and was voted the team’s MVP. During his collegiate career he returned 54 kickoffs and punts for a 31.8-yard average, completed 50 of 146 passes for 921 yards and caught 12 passes himself for 189 yards. He averaged 38 yards on 233 punts and 46.3 yards on 34 kickoffs. He once recorded 14 tackles playing linebacker in one half.
In 1935, the Chicago Tribune awarded Berwanger the Silver Football for Most Valuable Player in the Big Ten. His coach, Clark Shaughnessy, called him “every football coach’s dream player. You can say anything superlative about him, and I’ll double it.” Of the 107 opposing team players he faced during his senior year, 104 said the six-foot, 195-pound Berwanger was the best halfback they had ever seen.
In November of 1935, Berwanger received a telegram from Manhattan’s Downtown Athletic Club, informing him that he had won a trophy for being the “most valuable football player east of the Mississippi,” as well as a trip for two to New York. “It wasn’t really a big deal when I got it,” Berwanger recalled in 1985. “No one at school said anything to me about winning it other than a few congratulations. I was more excited about the trip than the trophy because it was my first flight.” The prize was later renamed the John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy, after the club’s athletic director, the following year.
He was born John Jay Berwanger in 1914 in Dubuque, Iowa. In high school, he excelled at wrestling and track as well as football, winning renown as an all-state halfback. After graduation, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Purdue all tried to recruit him, but he opted for Chicago, which had offered only a basic tuition scholarship of $300 a year. To meet his expenses, Berwanger waited tables, cleaned the gymnasium, fixed leaky toilets, and operated elevators. “Times were tough then,” he said. “I wanted to attend a school that would give me a first-rate education in business, without special treatment, so that I would be prepared when opportunities were certain to return.”
During his freshman year, Berwanger was coached by the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg, who helped define the game of football as we see it today. Berwanger’s first year at Chicago was Stagg’s last. As well as captain of the football team, Berwanger was captain of the track team, senior class president, and head of his fraternity, Psi Upsilon.
Berwanger was the only Heisman recipient who was ever tackled by a future president of the United States–Gerald Ford, during a 1934 game between Chicago and Michigan. “When I tackled Jay in the second quarter, I ended up with a bloody cut and I still have the scar to prove it,” President Ford recalled. “Jay was most deserving of his Heisman Trophy. He could do it all. He was an outstanding runner as well a passer, he could kick, punt, and make field goals–and in those days the ball was round so it was much harder to throw. He and I had met several times in the years since that game and I remember him fondly as one of the greatest athletes I’ve known.”
Berwanger was also the first player chosen for the National Football League during its first-ever draft in 1936. After the Philadelphia Eagles signed him, Coach George Halas of the Chicago Bears acquired the signing rights. But when Berwanger asked for $25,000 over two years, Halas decided that was too much money, so Berwanger took a job as a foam-rubber salesman.
Jay Berwanger, Rubber Salesman and Lieutenant Commander
Shortly after starting his job as a rubber salesman, Berwanger enrolled in the Navy’s flight training program and became a Naval officer during World War II. He eventually earned the rank of lieutenant commander.
After the war, Jay Berwanger founded Jay Berwanger, Inc., a manufacturers’ sales agency specializing in rubber, plastic, urethane and other elastomeric materials for car doors, trunks, and farm machinery. His company established a guiding philosophy to create superior value for all customers and principals through dedicated service and by providing integrated solutions to customers’ applications. Jay sold his company in the early 1990’s when its annual revenue was $30 million.
Post-Heisman and Rubber
Berwanger was never sure what to do with his Heisman Trophy, which was too wide for a mantelpiece and too large for a coffee table. For years, his Aunt Gussie used it as a doorstop. Berwanger eventually gave the trophy to the University of Chicago where it is on display.
In 1954, Berwanger was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1989, he was included on Sports Illustrated’s 25-year anniversary All-America team, which honored players whose accomplishments extended beyond the football field.
Berwanger died in the summer of 2002 and is survived by three children, three step-children, 20 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren.
Information for this article was gathered from Sports Illustrated’s vault, the University of Chicago, and New York Times.
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