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 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. His ability kept a weak program barely functioning, and in 1939 the university dropped varsity football.
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.
Despite dismal football seasons, Berwanger's football talents received their recognition. He received Manhattan's Downtown Athletic Club Award (renamed the Heisman Trophy) on December 9, 1935. Although the Chicago Maroons of the University of Chicago won only eleven of twenty-four games from 1933 through 1935, Berwanger was chosen for the All-American team his senior year. His amazing statistics included 1,839 yards gained in 439 carries, completing fifty percent of 146 passes for 921 yards, and punting 223 times for a 37.3 yard average.
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 he shaved he thought of Berwanger's cleats.
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.
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. After his death in 2002, the ceremonies were again held. That year, his seat chair was left empty out of respect.
Cooper, Brian, "The One-Man Gang," Telegraph Herald, Dec. 5, 2010
Heisman Trophy, http://www.heisman.com/winners/j-berwanger35.php
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