Jay Berwanger : The First Pick, the First Heisman

     Just a few blocks away from the site of this year's draft is the prestigious University of Chicago, better known for it's education and it's Nobel Prize winners than it is for football and its team, the Chicago Maroons. While its football history may not be vast, it bares some great significance for both college football and the NFL. In November of 1935, the Maroon's most celebrated player, halfback Jay Berwanger received a telegram from Manhattan's Downtown Athletic Club informing him that he had won a trophy for being the "most valuable player east of the Mississippi" as well as a trip for two to New York. It was the first time the trophy had been awarded and was then known as the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, it was renamed the following year as the John R. Heisman Memorial Trophy, after the club's athletic director.


     A few months later in February of 1936, the NFL held it's inaugural player selection draft in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Eagles held the first overall pick and with it Jay Berwanger became the first player to ever be selected in the draft. It is reported that Jay's contract demands were as much as $1,000 per game in a time when most player were only getting $50. The Eagles decided to trade his rights away to the Chicago Bears and it's famous coach George "Papa Bear" Halas.  Berwanger reportedly asked Halas for $25,000 guaranteed for two seasons and Halas said no. Berwanger's bravado in his demands bares a strong resemblance to requests made to the New York Jets some 30 years later by the much celebrated "Broadway" Joe Namath. It is believed though that Jay already had other career goals in mind.


     Berwanger appeared to hold all the cards, as the valuable business education he attained at the University of Chicago gave him the confidence that there were great things coming his way with or without football.  According to Julia Morse's story on the University of Chicago website, Jay took a job as a foam rubber salesman and in his spare time wrote a sports column for the Chicago Daily News, refereed college football games and from 1936 to 1939 was the head coach of the University of Chicago's football team. During the war he enrolled in the Navy and became a Naval officer and a flight instructor. After the war he set up Jay Berwanger Inc., a manufacturer of plastic sponge-rubber strips for car doors, trunks and farm machinery. According to the Chicago Tribune, he sold the company in 1992 when it was grossing $30 million annually. Jay never played a down in the pros but obviously lived quite a full life.


     Jay Berwanger passed away June 26, 2002, he was 88 years old. The Chicago Tribune reports the original Heisman Trophy was donated to Jay's high school in Dubuque, Iowa, but the Heisman committee created a duplicate for him and he donated it to the University of Chicago in 1950 where it still resides today in the Ratner Rotunda Athletics Center.





Article By: JPN

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