BERWANGER, Jay. (Dubuque, IA, Mar. 19, 1914-Oak Brook, IL, June 26, 2002). First recipient of football's HEISMAN TROPHY. Berwanger attended MARSHALL ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, JEFFERSON JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL, and graduated from DUBUQUE SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL where he played football under Coach Wilbur DALZELL.
In 1931 he was named captain of the Des Moines Register and Tribune all-state team when Dubuque won the mythical state championship. Berwanger also qualified for state in wrestling and track. Although his fame came in football, he most enjoyed wrestling. While in high school, Berwanger received a summer job and encouragement from Ira DAVENPORT who advised him to attend the University of Chicago.
Berwanger followed this advice and enrolled at the University of Chicago expecting to play for the legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. When the university forced Stagg to retire after forty seasons, Berwanger played for Clark Shaughnessy, another future member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
At six feet and 190 pounds, Berwanger was one of the largest players on the field. Players had both defensive and offensive responsibilities due to the rules of the day preventing a substituted player from reentering in the same quarter. Berwanger was on the field for every play his sophomore year during Chicago's five Big Ten games. A giant among lesser players, Berwanger never enjoyed a winning season at Chicago. From 1933-1935, the Chicago Maroons won only eleven of twenty-four games, yet Berwanger was named to every all American team his senior year. (1) In his twenty-four game career, he: (2)
scored twenty-four touchdowns booted twenty conversions for a total of 152 points gained 1,839 yards in 439 carries completed 50% of 146 passes for 921 yards punted 223 times for a 37.3 yards average
He received Manhattan's Downtown Athletic Club Award (renamed the Heisman Trophy) on December 9, 1935. It was been rumored that he was the model for the figure used on the trophy. Berwanger disputed this saying that the sculptor used a professional model and a newspaper photo showing a running pose of Berwanger. (3)
Berwanger could call plays, run, pass, punt, block, tackle, kick off, kick extra points, and return punts and kickoffs. His nicknames included "Genius of the Gridiron," "the One-man Team," "the Flying Dutchman," and "the Man in the Iron Mask" because he wore a special face guard to protect his twice-broken nose. 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. Ford received a large cut on his face and reportedly quipped that every morning while shaving he thought of Berwanger's cleats.
Berwanger had ideas of competing in the Olympics. He was competitive in the sprints, hurdles and field events including shot put, javelin and discus. While still in high school he planned on competing in 1936, but dropped the goal with encouragement from university officials interested in seeing him graduate on time.
At the university, Berwanger ran unopposed to become president of the senior class. He was also president of his fraternity, Psi Upsilon. He was an All-American selection all three years of his varsity play, the Big Ten's athlete of the year twice, and in his senior year was chosen the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player in football.
In 1936 Berwanger, the first player selected in the first National League draft of college players, went to the Philadelphia Eagles. They traded him to the Chicago Bears. Salary disputes with Bears owner, George Halas, prevented him from ever playing professional football. Berwanger had demanded $25,000 for a two-year contract. (4)
In his spare time, Berwanger wrote a sports column for the Chicago Daily News, refereed college football games, and, from 1936 to 1939, coached football at Chicago. In the 1936 football movie The Big Game,Berwanger had a small part playing himself.
During WORLD WAR II, Berwanger enrolled in the Navy’s flight-training program and became a naval officer. In 1948 he established Jay Berwanger, Inc., a manufacturer of plastic and sponge-rubber strips for car doors, trunks and farm machinery, in Downers Grove, Illinois.
In 1954, Berwanger was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. A member of the Alumni Association Board of the University of Chicago, he was awarded an Alumni Service Medal in 1984. Berwanger served as a member of the College Visiting Committee, chair of the President's Fund in 1993, and chair of his 55th and 60th alumni reunion committees. In 1989, he was included by Sports Illustrated on its 25th anniversary All-America team, which honored players whose accomplishments extended beyond the football field.
For many years, Berwanger returned to New York for the Heisman Trophy award ceremonies. Officials reserved his front-row seat. In 1979 Berwanger donated a replica of his Heisman Trophy to Dubuque Senior High School.
After his death in 2002, the ceremonies were again held. That year, his chair was left empty out of respect.
In 2013 Vala Ola, an Arizona-based artist, completed work on a statue of Berwanger that was destined for display at Dalzell Field. The statue, 125% of real life, financed through private donations was planned as the focal point of the main entrance. Adjacent to the statue was to be a black granite wall on which two separate panels would celebrate the lives of Berwanger (remembered as Student, Athlete and Leader) and Wilbur Dalzell (Teacher, Coach and Mentor).
1. Tigges, John. They Came From Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1983, p. 2
4. Ibid., 3
Cooper, Brian, "The One-Man Gang," Telegraph Herald, Dec. 5, 2010
Heisman Trophy, http://www.heisman.com/winners/j-berwanger35.php
Leitner, Jim,"Poetry in Motion," Telegraph Herald, Sept. 10, 2013, p. 1B
Jay Berwanger Inc. http://www.jayberwangerinc.com
Northway, Martin, "The One-Man Gang: How Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago Became America’s first Heisman Trophy Winner," http://newcity.com/2010/10/19/the-one-man-gang-how-jay-berwanger-of-the-university-of-chicago-became-americas-first-heisman-trophy-winnner/
University of Chicago News Office, June 27, 2002
University of Chicago-Physical Education and Athletics http://athletics.uchicago.edu/history/history-berwanger.htm