Work in Sports
Berwanger Was The First
The telegram from the Downtown Athletic Club arrived at Jay Berwanger's University of Chicago fraternity house 65 years ago. It summoned the Maroons star to New York to receive the inaugural DAC trophy as the best college player east of the Mississippi. And how did he react? "My biggest thrill at the moment was, this is going to be my first airplane ride," he says.
Football's highest flyer -- a 6-foot, 195-pound halfback -- was more at home on the ground. During his 23-game career at Chicago, then a member of the Big Ten, he rushed for 1,839 yards, scored 22 touchdowns and averaged 31.8 yards on returns. The Maroons' one-man gang also kicked 20 extra points, completed 50 passes and averaged 37.3 yards a punt. On defense, he was a fierce linebacker.
"Running was my greatest forte, but I passed, punted and loved defense," says Berwanger, an active 86-year-old who lives in Oak Brook, Ill., west of Chicago. "They picked on me when I carried the ball, so I was glad to get a chance to retaliate."
Also a track star, he was the Big Ten's 100-yard dash champion. He might have won other conference titles had he not come across Ohio State's Jesse Owens. "I ate his cinders for three years," he says wistfully.
This accomplished athlete virtually fell into Chicago coach Clark Shaughnessy's lap. National powers pursued Berwanger as a high school star in Dubuque, Iowa, but he was interested in a business career and attended Chicago on an academic scholarship. The school's high standards, he says, "attracted me more than anything else." To pay his room and board, he earned up to 50 cents an hour waiting tables at his frat house, cleaning a gym, operating elevators and toiling in a boiler factory.
Shaughnessy called him "every football coach's dream" and gave him number 99 because, as Berwanger says, "that was as close to perfection as I could get." Though the Maroons were just 11-11-2 during his tenure, Berwanger's free-form rushing style terrified stronger opponents-and made him famous. Following Chicago's loss to Ohio State his senior year, the New York Sun described Berwanger's electrifying 85-yard touchdown run: "He reversed his field three times ... eluded 10 men, just missed going out of bounds on either sideline, stopped dead twice so that his interference could form, and finally picked up a blocking envoy. It was a typical Berwanger climax run, revealing every trick of the ballcarrier's trade."
Following the 1935 season, 104 of 107 players Berwanger faced named him the country's best halfback. At the trophy ceremony, Chicago's senior class president revealed to reporters his preference for business over pro football. Although he was the first pick in the inaugural NFL draft in 1936, he joined a sponge-rubber products company and coached the Maroons' freshman team. Five years later, he began a 14-year stint as a Big Ten referee, interrupted only by World War II, when he served as a Navy flight instructor.
After the war, he founded Jay Berwanger Inc., a sales rep firm for rubber and plastic products that made him a wealthy man. He retired years ago but still has a desk at the Downers Grove, Ill., company, from which he responds to the dozen or so autograph requests he still receives every week. "I fulfill them all," he says proudly. He has lived alone since his second wife died two years ago, but two of his three kids are in the Chicago area. "They have the ring through my nose," he says with a laugh.
Berwanger golfs three times a week, breaking 100 on good days, and attends the annual Heisman ceremony and other outings. He loves the camaraderie, almost as much as he cherishes being the first recipient of a venerated college football award (which was renamed the Heisman in 1936 for the DAC's late athletic director). His hardware is displayed in the Jay Berwanger Trophy Room at his alma mater, and his legend continues to grow. "That's the nice thing about getting older," he says, "you get better every year."
-- Ed McGregor