Thursday, June 27, 2002 Updated: July 11, 5:00 PM ET
Berwanger won first Heisman, was first NFL pick
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
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.
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
"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
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
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 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
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
Berwanger eventually passed on pro football and took a job as a
He later wrote a sports column for the Chicago Daily News,
refereed college football games and coached his former team for
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
Berwanger is survived by two sons and a daughter.