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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. 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 in Chicago and received a basic academic tuition scholarship of $300 a year. To cover his other expenses, he worked part time for the University Engineer Department operating elevators and fixing toilets, cleaning the gymnasium, and waiting 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. At 6 feet and 195 pounds, Berwanger 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 1934 when Chicago played Purdue at Stagg Field in Chicago, the Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal designated the game "Berwanger and Dubuque Celebration." A special block of 250 tickets were ordered and sold through Fitzgerald's Sporting Goods Store.
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 has 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. (10) 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. (11)
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. 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. (12)
At the university, Berwanger served as president of the senior class and his fraternity, Psi Upsilon. (13) 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. (14) The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him and offered him $125 to $150 a game, a good salary in those days. (15) 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." (16) I thought I'd have a better future by using my education rather than my football skills. (17)WORLD WAR II, Berwanger enrolled in the Navy’s flight-training program and became a naval officer. In April 1942 he came to Dubuque to interview naval aviation candidates. (20)
In 1948 Berwanger established Jay Berwanger, Inc., a manufacturer of plastic and sponge-rubber strips for car doors, trunks and farm machinery, in Downers Grove, Illinois. (21) When he sold the company in 1992, it was grossing $30 million a year. (22)
In 1954, Berwanger was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1960 he was named to the Sports Illustrated Silver Anniversary All-American Team which honored players whose accomplishments extended beyond the football field. (23) 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.
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 and 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). (24)Brian E. Cooper.
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/
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
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. Northway, Martin
9. Greenberg, Jon.
10. Litsky, Frank.
12. "Jay Berwanger, First Winner..."
13. Litsky, Frank
18. Northway, Martin
19. "Jay Berwanger, First Winner..."
20. "Naval Aviation Candidates Sought," Telegraph Herald, April 13, 1942, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19420413&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
21. Greenberg, Jon.
22. Litzsky, Frank
23. "Jay Berwanger on 'Silver' Honor Team," Telegraph Herald, December 19, 1960, p. 10
24. Leitner, Jim,"Poetry in Motion," Telegraph Herald, Sept. 10, 2013, p. 1B