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Janie Harris | | December 10, 2016

Chicago's Jay Berwanger was the first Heisman winner

On Monday, football fans across the country discovered who the Heisman Trophy electorate selected as the finalists for the 2016 Heisman Memorial Trophy. Now, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook will make their way to New York to attend the announcement and awards ceremony.

The Heisman Trophy is awarded each year to an outstanding college football player. It was named for John W. Heisman, a successful college football coach and the inventor of the forward pass and center snap. And, in 1935, the trophy was awarded for the first time: to Chicago running back Jay Berwanger.

Now, in preparation for the announcement of who will receive the 82nd award, we throwback to Berwanger and his Heisman-worthy senior season with the Maroons.

Born in 1914, Berwanger grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, where he participated in a number of sports—from wrestling to track and field, to of course, football. He excelled in all, which led to recruiting efforts from Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue. However, Berwanger chose to attend Chicago, according to the Heisman Trophy Trust.

The Trust also reported that throughout his time with the Maroons, Berwanger changed positions often, proving to be an extremely versatile player.

Maybe more noteworthy is the fact that Berwanger is the only Heisman recipient to be tackled by a future president of the United States — Michigan's Gerald Ford.

"Jay was most deserving of his Heisman Trophy. He could do it all," Ford said to the University of Chicago. "He was an outstanding runner as well a passer and kicker. I remember him fondly as one of the greatest athletes I've known.”

  Berwanger was known for being an extremely versatile player.
In 1935, Berwanger entered his senior season as the captain of the football team, the captain of the track team, the senior class president and the head of his fraternity, Psi Upsilon.

Even with so much on his plate, he still managed to produce a solid season with Chicago. While many of the game-by-game stats for Berwanger at Chicago are missing, according to the Trust his career statistics are 1,839 rushing yards on 439 carries for 22 touchdowns, 20 extra points kicked, 921 passing yards on 50 of 146 passes as well as averages of 46.3 yards on 34 kickoffs and 38 yards on 233 punts.

However, Chicago Athletics report that during his senior season, Berwanger rushed for 577 yards, passed for 405, accumulated 359 yards on kickoff returns, scored six touchdowns and added five PATs for 41 total points.

In November of his senior season, Berwanger received a telegram from Manhattan’s Downtown Athletic Club, where John W. Heisman served as athletic director. The telegram reported that Berwanger would be awarded the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy for being the “most valuable football player East of the Mississippi.”  

After John W. Heisman died in 1936, the Club, according to Penn University, elected to change the name of the trophy to the “Heisman Memorial Trophy.”

Per the Trust, Berwanger went on to be chosen first in the NFL’s first-ever draft in 1936 by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles traded his signing rights to the Chicago Bears, but he turned down the opportunity to play professionally.

  Berwanger's Heisman Trophy now sits on display in Ratner Athletics Center.
Instead, he went on to work a variety of jobs — at times as a salesman, Chicago’s football coach for a few years, a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, and a referee in a few college football games. Berwanger also served in the Navy for a time as an officer during World War II.

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

At the age of 88, Berwanger died on June 26, 2002, leaving behind an exemplary football legacy.

He began the string of amazing college football players in 1935 who are all connected by two commonalities: playing college football exceptionally well and being named a Heisman Trophy winner.

So, who will be the next in line to continue the line? 

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