Send to a friend
Jay Berwanger
AP Photo

It Grew In Prestige

1935 Heisman winner Jay Berwanger

The Original can be found in the lobby of a gym at a school that hasn't played Division I football since 1939. It sits in the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center at the University of Chicago, where the Maroons played no organized football at all from 1940 to 1962, and now play on the Division III level. There, in all its squatty, 25-pound glory, is the first Heisman Trophy. That wasn't even its name when first awarded on Dec. 9, 1935. That first year it was called the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, and the winner of the original didn't consider it much of a big deal. No, the Chicago Maroons running back was more excited about receiving the Chicago Tribune Silver Football, which the paper awarded annually to the best player in the Big Ten Conference. But what once was a nice little honor steadily grew into the most prestigious individual award in sports. And as it grew, so did the name and fame of the George Washington of Heisman history, Jay Berwanger. The son of a blacksmith in Dubuque, Iowa, Berwanger was the first member of his family to go to college. He was one tough dude: He lived until 2002, outliving the nine Heisman winners who followed him. But as good as Berwanger was on the football field, he was in college for the education. "Football was a means to an end to him," said his son, John Berwanger, an attorney in Winnetka, Ill. Berwanger was drafted by Philadelphia, but his rights were traded to the Chicago Bears. Berwanger informed legendary coach George Halas that he wanted a two-year, $20,000, no-cut contract. "Halas showed him the door," John Berwanger said. "And he was fine with that." Berwanger went into sales in Chicago. John Berwanger says it's true that his aunt Dorothy once used it as a doorstop, but eventually Jay bestowed it as a gift to his alma mater. Years later he asked the Downtown Athletic Club for a replica, which he donated to his high school in Dubuque. He asked one more time for another replica and was told no. "Jay," they said, "you'll just give it away." Berwanger may have given away his Heisman Trophy, but there is one thing that can never be taken away from him. He was the original winner of the most prestigious trophy in sports.
-- Pat Forde


Intro 1935-391940-491950-591960-691970-79
1980-891990-992000-2008