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BERWANGER, Jay

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Jay Berwanger
"Genius of the Gridiron," Jay Berwanger

BERWANGER, John Jacob "Jay." (Dubuque, IA, Mar. 19, 1914-Oak Brook, IL, June 26, 2002). 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 Berwanger 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.

The University of Chicago's reputation for fine education also attracted Berwanger. Excelling in wrestling and track (he became a decathlete as well), Berwanger was recruited by Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue—but Chicago had not even asked. (1)

But “times were tough then,” Berwanger said in 1986. “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.” He was accepted and received a basic academic tuition scholarship of $300 a year. To cover his other expenses he worked part time for the University Engineer running elevators and fixing toilets, cleaned the gymnasium, and waited tables at his fraternity, Psi Upsilon. (2)

Berwanger expected 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.

In an era before football teams were divided up into offensive and defensive squads, Berwanger was famous for his versatility. Berwanger at 6 feet and 195 pounds was on the field for every play his sophomore year during Chicago's five Big Ten games. Once, he made 14 tackles against Minnesota in one half. (3) 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. (4) In his twenty-four game career, he: (5)

               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

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, renamed the John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy, after the club’s athletic director, was presented to him on December 9, 1935. (6) It was been rumored that he was the model for the figure used on the trophy. "A lot of people think he inspired the pose of the trophy," said University of Chicago assistant athletic director Dave Hilbert. "He didn't. That's all they posed for pictures. But we let people believe it." (7)

Legendary sports broadcaster Red Barber called Berwanger simply “the greatest college player I ever saw.” The famous Red Grange said Berwanger had a “faraway look.” This allowed him to see downfield and rapidly adjust. Grange said Berwanger could hit a hole closing on him, drumming his feet lightly, freezing tacklers before slashing through. (8) 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." In that era without face guards he wore a helmet with spring steel bars to protect a broken nose that had failed to heal properly. (9)

In a game between Chicago and Michigan in 1934, Berwanger became the only Heisman recipient who was ever tackled by a future president of the United States–Gerald Ford. "When I tackled Jay in the second quarter, I ended up with a bloody cut and I still have the scar to prove it," 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." (10)

At the university, Berwanger served as president of the senior class and his fraternity, Psi Upsilon. (11) 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 became the first player selected in the first National League draft of college players. (12) He went to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him and offered him $125 to $150 a game, a good salary in those days. (13) They traded him to the Chicago Bears. Salary disputes with Bears owner, George Halas, prevented him from ever playing professional football. '"He asked me what I wanted, Berwanger said years later. I said $25,000 for two years and a no-cut contract. We shook hands, said goodbye, and he and I have been good friends ever since." (14) I thought I'd have a better future by using my education rather than my football skills. (15)

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. (16) In the 1936 football movie The Big Game,Berwanger had a small part playing himself. (17) 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. (18) When he sold the company in 1992, it was grossing $30 million a year. (19)

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. (20)

For years Berwanger treated the monumental twenty-five-pound trophy rather casually. After moving out of the fraternity, he placed it in the safekeeping of an aunt who sometimes used it as a doorstop. (21) Eventually Berwanger donated his Heisman Trophy -- and, later, a Heisman diamond ring, presented to him by the Downtown Athletic Club -- to the University of Chicago. A year after Berwanger died, the $51 million Gerald Ratner Athletic Center at the university was opened. His trophy is now in a secured, well-lit case in the center of the lobby, surrounded by memorabilia from the school's athletic glory days, including Berwanger's No. 99 football sweater. (22) In 1979 Berwanger donated a replica of his Heisman Trophy to Dubuque Senior High School.

For many years, Berwanger returned to New York for the Heisman Trophy award ceremonies. Officials reserved his front-row seat. 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). (23)

Jay.jpg
In 2013 Jay Berwanger was the subject of First Heisman: The Life of Jay Berwanger, a biography by Brian Cooper.

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Sources:

1. 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/

2. Ibid

3. Litsky Frank. "Jay Berwanger, 88, Winner Of the First Heisman Trophy," New York Times, June 28, 2002, Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/28/sports/jay-berwanger-88-winner-of-the-first-heisman-trophy.html

4. Tigges, John. They Came From Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1983, p. 2

5. Ibid.

6. "Jay Berwanger,First Winner of the Heisman Trophy, 1914-2002," University of Chicago. June 27, 2002. Online: http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/02/020627.berwanger.shtml

7. Greenberg, Jon. "Heisman: First is Last in Chicago," ESPN Chicago. Online: http://espn.go.com/chicago/ncf/story/_/page/heisman-chicago-week1/jay-berwanger

8. Litsky, Frank.

9. Ibid

10. "Jay Berwanger, First Winner..."

11. Litsky, Frank

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Northway, Martin

17. "Jay Berwanger, First Winner..."

18. Greenberg, Jon.

19. Litzsky, Frank

20. "Jay Berwanger, First Winner..."

21. Northway, Martin

22. Greenberg, Jon.

23. Leitner, Jim,"Poetry in Motion," Telegraph Herald, Sept. 10, 2013, p. 1B