On Dec. 11, 1935, The New York Times reported that New York City's Downtown Athletic Club had awarded a trophy to the University of Chicago's All-America halfback, Jay Berwanger, for being the "most valuable football player east of the Mississippi." The award was new, a project of several members whose aim in establishing it was to give recognition to each season's top collegiate gridiron star in the East. One of the trophy's supporters was the club's athletic director, John W. Heisman—but within a year of that first award, Heisman was dead, felled by bronchial pneumonia. The club decided to name the trophy after him and to make players from both sides of the Mississippi eligible. Awarded each year in December, the Heisman has become college football's greatest honor.
The first man to win it is now a successful businessman active in his community of Oak Brook, a suburb of Chicago. Fifty years ago, however, the nation's sportswriters called Berwanger "the genius of the gridiron" and "the one-man team." Grantland Rice called him "the ablest all-around back of the entire crop" and, like almost everyone else, picked the 6-foot, 195-pound Berwanger for his 1935 All-America team. To his coach, Clark Shaughnessy, he was "every football coach's dream player."
What did Berwanger do to earn such plaudits? In 23 varsity games in three seasons with the Maroons he scored 22 touchdowns and kicked 20 extra points. He gained 1,839 yards on 439 rushes for a 4.2 average. As a sophomore, he played 60 minutes of every Big Ten conference game and was voted the team's MVP. During his collegiate career he returned 54 kickoffs and punts for a 31.8-yard average, completed 50 of 146 passes for 921 yards and caught 12 passes himself for 189 yards. He averaged 38 yards on 233 punts and 46.3 yards on 34 kickoffs.
By today's standards, Berwanger's stats are not overwhelming, but college football in the mid-'30s was very different from today's game. The season was shorter—Big Ten and other top national teams played only an eight-game schedule. In those days there were no offensive and defensive teams; everyone played both ways. Berwanger was a 60-minute man, and his defensive game was outstanding, too. In several games he led the Maroon team in tackles and assists.
The game Berwanger remembers best was his final one, a 7-6 triumph over archrival Illinois. With the Maroons trailing 6-0 late in the third period, Berwanger received an Illini punt at midfield and, shaking off five players, streaked to the one-yard line before being dropped. After calling two plays to his fullback that were stopped for no gain, Berwanger took the ball himself and catapulted into the end zone. Then he dropped back to place-kick what proved to be the winning extra point. It was heroics like this, along with his statistics, that got Berwanger his trophy in New York.
John Jacob (Jay) Berwanger grew up in the Mississippi River town of Dubuque, Iowa, one of five children of a blacksmith-turned-farmer. As a schoolboy athlete he starred in wrestling and track and especially as a widely publicized all-state football running back. At Chicago, he majored in business and, to meet his expenses, waited on tables, cleaned the gym and ran elevators.
After graduating in 1936, Berwanger got a job with a sponge-rubber company in Chicago—and his bronze trophy became a doorstop in his aunt's house. A Navy pilot during World War II, Berwanger later returned to Chicago to form Jay Berwanger, Inc., a manufacturers' rep for molded rubber and plastic products. Now 71 and prosperous, Berwanger is hardly ready for retirement: "The older you get the better you get," he says.
He still loves football and enjoys reminiscing about the "swell bunch of fellows" who were his teammates. The historic trophy that Berwanger received 50 years ago this month no longer serves as a doorstop. Since 1978, when he presented it to the University of Chicago, it has had pride of place in the Jay Berwanger Trophy Room of his alma mater.
Sheldon S. Cohen teaches American colonial history at Loyola of Chicago.