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Thursday, June 27, 2002
Updated: July 11, 5:00 PM ET
Berwanger won first Heisman, was first NFL pick

Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Jay Berwanger, who won the first Heisman Trophy and became the first player ever drafted by the NFL, died of lung cancer after a long illness. He was 88.

Berwanger died June 26 at his home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, University of Chicago spokesman Seth Sanders said Thursday.

Berwanger was a halfback for the University of Chicago Maroons when the team was a powerhouse in the Big Ten -- and before the school's president abolished varsity football in 1939.
Jay Berwanger
In 1999, Jay Berwanger posed in his old U. of Chicago uniform for ESPN The Magazine.
In the days before platoon football, Berwanger had to pass, punt, block, tackle, kick off, kick extra points and return punts and kickoffs.

"We didn't know any better,'' he said in 1999. "I loved playing defense as much as offense. Today's platoon system lets more players play, so it's good for the game and good for colleges.''

By modern standards, the six-foot, 195-pound Berwanger did not have outstanding statistics the year he won the Downtown Athletic Club award, as the Heisman was called in 1935. He had 577 rushing yards, 406 passing yards, 359 yards on kickoff returns and six touchdowns.

The following year, the club award was renamed the John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy, to honor the club's athletic director.

Word that he won the honor was telegraphed to Berwanger's fraternity house. It congratulated him for being named the nation's top player and advising that two tickets to New York were coming in the mail.

"The biggest thrill was that it was going to be my first airplane trip,'' Berwanger said.

Berwanger gave the trophy to his aunt to keep, and for years she reportedly used it as a doorstop. He eventually gave the trophy to the University of Chicago, where it is in storage while a new athletic center is being built.

"He was extraordinarily generous toward generations of students,'' university president Don Michael Randel said Thursday. "He returned every year to Homecoming, and the grace he showed to the many who idolized him was a sure sign of his genuine humanity.''

Born John Jay Berwanger in Dubuque, Iowa, he was a high school wrestling and track star and won all-state honors as a halfback. Recruited by Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue, he said he opted for Chicago, even though it offered a mere $300 scholarship, because of its reputation in business education.

He was coached in his first year by Amos Alonzo Stagg and went on to become the football team's captain, captain of the track team and senior class president before graduating in 1936.

Berwanger was the first player ever selected in the NFL draft. Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas acquired Berwanger's signing rights from the Philadelphia Eagles. But the notoriously frugal Halas balked at meeting Berwanger's demand for $25,000 over two years.

Berwanger eventually passed on pro football and took a job as a foam-rubber salesman.

He later wrote a sports column for the Chicago Daily News, refereed college football games and coached his former team for three years.

Berwanger was a naval aviator during World War II, and later founded Jay Berwanger Inc., a manufacturer of plastic and sponge-rubber strips for cars doors and farm machinery.

In 1954, Berwanger was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Berwanger is survived by two sons and a daughter.