Chicago Maroons halfback (1933-1935)
(March 19, 1914 – June 26, 2002)
- First and only winner of the DAC Trophy in 1935 which later became the Heisman Trophy
- First ever NFL Draft pick in 1936
- Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954
John Jacob “Jay” Berwanger holds a special place in the history of both college and professional football even though he never played a single down as a pro.
In 1935, Berwanger was the first recipient of the DAC Trophy presented by the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City to the ‘most valuable football player east of the Mississippi.’ A year later, the trophy would be renamed for the recently deceased John Heisman, the legendary college coach who had become the club’s athletic director. Now known as the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award – or simply the Heisman Trophy – it also expanded its reach to be given instead to the best player in the entire country.
Berwanger found out he had won the DAC Trophy through a telegram he received from the club. He was informed that he had also been awarded a trip for two to New York to pick up the prize. “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 significance of winning the trophy obviously increased in the years thereafter as the Heisman Trophy became the most coveted award in college football. Berwanger’s aunt, however, reportedly used the trophy for many years as a doorstop.
An even bigger deal at the time, however, may have come after the season when, in the spring of 1936, Berwanger became the answer to another sports trivia question as the first player to ever be selected in the NFL Draft which made its debut that year. Berwanger had played his college career for the University of Chicago Maroons, and after being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, his rights were then dealt to the Chicago Bears and owner George Halas.
To the hometown fans, it was a match made in heaven. The Eagles reportedly couldn’t meet Berwanger’s salary demands, and so his rights were then traded to the Bears who took their own chance at negotiating with Berwanger while trying to keep him in the Windy City. Some newspaper reports in the years thereafter indicate that Halas and Berwanger were only $1,500 apart from agreeing on an annual salary, but Berwanger’s official Heisman biography simply indicates that he asked for $25,000 over two years and that the frugal Bears’ owner passed.
There are also old newspaper reports indicating that a year later, Berwanger had second thoughts and approached Halas again through the media only to have the owner turn him down. Who knows for sure, but Berwanger’s quotes in later years indicated that he and Halas were on friendly terms and that he never had any regrets about not pursuing an NFL career.
Post career and death
Berwanger instead went to work at a foam-rubber company in Chicago and also worked part-time as a coach for his alma mater. He also worked briefly as a sportswriter and later moved on to manufacturing plastic car parts eventually founding his own company, Jay Berwanger Inc.
After a lengthy battle with lung cancer, Berwanger passed away at his home in Oak Brook, Illinois, on June 26, 2002. He was 88 years old.
Where’s the trophy?
Berwanger’s Heisman was later bequeathed to the University of Chicago Athletic Hall of Fame and is currently on display in the Ratner Athletics Center on campus.
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