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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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1930 photo of Berwanger as a sophomore from the "Echo," the Dubuque Senior High School yearbook.
"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 the newly created Mississippi Valley Conference was to name a football champion. Dubuque Senior's Berwanger did not appear among the Des Moines Register and Tribunes's top five all-state football squad's in 1930 and only appeared in the honorable mention list. Sportscasters were unprepared for the Berwanger's appearance. During the summer of 1931 Berwanger turned plowing into a challenge against the animals by tugging against their strength. This in addition to his other physical labor resulted in football captain unusually fit and confident. In the season opener against LaSalle-Peru of Illinois, Berwanter rushed for 124 of the team's 136 yards, rushed 80-yards for a touchdown in the first half, and intercepted a pass on his own goal line. Despite his efforts LaSalle, which outscored its 1931 opponents by 287-31, won the game. Dubuque Senior, however, did not lose again that season. Following the last game on November 21st, 700 students with prior approval from the business management, staged a snake dance through the AVON THEATER, GRAND THEATRE, and the SPENSLEY THEATER. (1) 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. (2)

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. (3)

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. (4) 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. (5) In his twenty-four game career, he: (6)

               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 named for the club's athletic director 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." On December 9, 1935 he received the first John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy, a name soon shortened to the now famed HEISMAN TROPHY. (7) 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 the way they all posed for pictures. But we let people believe it." (8)

This November 15, 1936 advertisement marks the motion picture debut of Berwanger. Photo courtesy: Paul Hemmer and Telegraph Herald
"The Big Game." Photo courtesy: Paul Hemmer and Telegraph Herald

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. (9) 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. Berwanger's 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. (10) In 1979 Berwanger donated a replica of his Heisman Trophy to Dubuque Senior High School.

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. (11) 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 the era without face guards he wore a helmet with spring steel bars to protect a broken nose that had failed to heal properly. (12)

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. (13)

At the university, Berwanger served as president of the senior class and his fraternity, Psi Upsilon. (14) 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. (15) The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him and offered him $125 to $150 a game, a good salary in those days. (16) 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." (17) I thought I'd have a better future by using my education rather than my football skills. (18)

Berwanger interviewing candidates for naval aviation. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

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. (19) In the 1936 football movie The Big Game,Berwanger had a small part playing himself. (20) During 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. (21)

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. (22) When he sold the company in 1992, it was grossing $30 million a year. (23)

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. (24) 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.

At the Dalzell Plaza dedication in September, 2013 a great-granddaughter of Jay Berwanger was photographed reaching up to touch the statue of her famous ancester. Photograph courtesy: Brian Cooper

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). (25)


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



1. Cooper, Brian, "Senior's Magical Run," Telegraph Herald, November 19, 2021, p. 1B

2. 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. Ibid

4. 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

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

6. Ibid.

7. "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

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

9. Northway, Martin

10. Greenberg, Jon.

11. Litsky, Frank.

12. Ibid

13. "Jay Berwanger, First Winner..."

14. Litsky, Frank

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Northway, Martin

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

21. "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

22. Greenberg, Jon.

23. Litzsky, Frank

24. "Jay Berwanger on 'Silver' Honor Team," Telegraph Herald, December 19, 1960, p. 10

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