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Katherine Wright | | December 9, 2020

Jay Berwanger’s 1935 Heisman season, retold game by old-timey game

Chicago Athletics Jay Berwanger of Chicago, the first Heisman Trophy winner

There's a special glass case within the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. Showcased in lights, upon individual pedestals is Joe Montana's soup bowl, Red Grange's game-worn helmet and the 1935 helmet worn by the first Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger. It's nestled between the HBCU showroom and the interactive radio call booth. The Hall of Fame's curator Jeremy Swick claims the case gets overlooked the most. Berwanger probably wouldn't have had it any other way.

At the time of the inaugural Heisman Trophy presentation in 1935, Berwanger exemplified the demure nature of college football in the early-mid 20th century. Nicknamed “the One-man Team,”  Berwanger played nearly every football position with passion, technique and, most importantly, success — the true definition of a Heisman winner. Even the award was unassuming. Originally named the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, the 1935 Heisman Trophy was given to the "most valuable football player east of the Mississippi"; on Dec. 11, 1935, the Chicago Tribune referenced it as "a trophy at a luncheon."

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Thanks to the database, we know that media coverage of Berwanger's 88-years of life encapsulated his humility, post-football success and ultimate football immortality. Follow along for a game-by-game summary of each tilt Berwanger played in the 1935 season.

Led by head coach Clark Shaunghnessy, Chicago's 1935 team posted a 4-4 record, including 2-3 in the Big Ten.

Game 1 — Chicago at Nebraska, Sept. 28

Final score: 28-7, Nebraska
Berwanger’s highlights: Scored all 7 points for Chicago

A game normally played in November, Chicago opened the 1935 season at Nebraska. According to the Chicago Tribune, a record-setting crowd of 30,000 was projected to attend despite a more prominent event taking place in the Cornhusker State. About an hour north from Lincoln, president Franklin D. Roosevelt was making his first 1936 presidential campaign speech in Fremont.

It wasn't the first time Berwanger overstepped a president. In the 1934 game between Chicago and Michigan, Berwanger came toe-to-toe with future president Gerald Ford. The altercation left a lasting mark. “When I tackled Jay in the second quarter, I ended up with a bloody cut and I still have the scar to prove it,” Ford recalled years later. Berwanger remains the only Heisman winner to ever be tackled by a future president of the United States.

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Back to Nebraska in 1935. Down 7-0 in the second quarter, Chicago forced a punt-return fumble and recovered the ball on Nebraska's 22-yard line. Here's how Robert Kelly of The Oklahoma News described Berwanger's next move: “Berwanger took the ball from center and plowed through (the) tackle to the goal line, throwing off tackles as he waded through the secondary. He then added the extra point.”

That was the end of Chicago's line of scoring, with Berwanger throwing two interceptions in the final quarter.

Chicago Athletics Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner.Jay Berwanger, third from the left, is pictured at practice.

Game 2 — Chicago vs. Carroll, Oct. 5

Final score: 31-0, Chicago
Berwanger’s highlights: 33-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter

Earlier in the week on Oct. 1, Harry Grayson of Public Opinion told readers that in addition to being responsible for ball-carrying, passing, kicking, blocking and carrying the load on defense, Berwanger was asked to call the team’s plays during the 1935 season after halfback Rainwater Wells “got himself married and did not return to school."

Nothing was too much of an ask for Berwanger. The Associated Press reported Berwanger played less than half the game against Carroll due to the noncompetitive score. His 33-yard touchdown pass in the final quarter punctuated the stellar Chicago outing — or as the AP called it, “cannon-fodder” for Chicago. To bookend the performance, Berwanger ran the ball for 11 yards during the first touchdown drive, which took nine plays to complete.

Game 3 — Chicago vs. Western State, Oct. 12

Final score: 31-6, Chicago
Berwanger's highlights: Scored one touchdown, threw for two more through the first half; "handsome punting"

Newspapers across the country covered Berwanger's legendary 1935 season, and a common theme throughout is Berwanger's deliverance. In a preview of the Chicago-Western State game, The Times in Munster, Indiana, described the struggling Chicago program pre-Berwanger: “Before he arrived, the athletic department was continually in the red. He has made the game a paying proposition.” Berwanger was more than just a football player to Chicago; he kept them competitive within the Big Ten. He was the "lion of Chicago’s midway."

Here's some proof of it: 24,000 fans attended the Western State showdown and witnessed Berwanger single-handedly shut down the Hilltoppers in the first half. Chicago's second team took the field for the second half.

Aside from Berwanger's 29-yard run on a cutback play in the first quarter, Berwanger took full advantage of a blocked punt. He darted for 10 yards to the 2-yard line. Teammate Skoning scored the immediate touchdown.

On the next Maroon scoring drive, Berwanger returned the punt to the Chicago 43-yard line. Chicago kept inching toward the goal line, making way for Berwanger's punch through the right guard for 6 points. Below, the Sept. 10, 1935, publication of the Chicago Tribune featured this photo from the game.

The Chicago Tribune Jay Berwanger and Chicago facing Western State

Game 4 — Chicago vs. Purdue, Oct. 19

Final score: 19-0, Purdue
Berwanger's highlights: His constant battle to put points on the board; fourth quarter tackle in the secondary

Oct. 19 marked Chicago's first Big Ten game of the 1935 season and the 41st time Purdue and Chicago met on the gridiron. Much of the game from Chicago's perspective is unclear, but a few things are known, thanks to the UP. Berwanger tried to induce a comeback. It never came to fruition. After points mounted without much response, Berwanger took to the air. His efforts fell short — literally. An interception was soon returned to Chicago's 40-yard line.

Berwanger tackled Purdue's Decker at the 8-yard line, attempting to stop the bleeding, but the Boilermakers scored another touchdown. In the game recap, the Wisconsin State Journal showcased Berwanger in a subhead, subtly summarizing his Heisman-winning season: "Berwanger is brilliant for losing team."

With the win, Purdue extended the head-to-head winning streak to eight.

Game 5 — Chicago vs. Wisconsin, Oct. 26

Final score: 13-7, Chicago
Berwanger's highlights: Scored both Chicago touchdowns; 78-yard kick return

Berwanger's kickoff to begin the game was downed at the 5. The tone was set. Chicago was poised to beat Wisconsin for the first time since 1927. So how did they do it in front of 20,000 spectators?

Thanks to the AP's reporting, we know. In the second quarter, Chicago recovered Wisconsin's fumble at the Badger's 2-yard line. "Berwanger needed just one smash at the middle of the Badger line to convert the break into a touchdown.” His extra point was blocked, a testament to the tough battle ahead. 

Wisconsin returned from halftime with an itch; the Badgers soon recovered Berwanger's fumble and turned it into 7 points. The 7-6 score loomed for a while. Berwanger returned a kickoff for 78 yards to the Badger 22 but a turnover followed. The Swiss-army knife-type player made up for the mistakes by catching the decisive touchdown and kicking the extra point.

The circus of a game was well summarized by the AP's William Weekes: “Chicago fumbled five times, with Berwanger the offender on four occasions, and the Badgers recovered three of the misplays. Of the Badgers 19 passes, however, the Maroons intercepted six and allowed only four to make connections.”

Chicago Athletics Jay Berwanger and his wife.Jay Berwanger and his wife Philomela Baker, also a University of Chicago graduate.

Game 6 — Chicago vs. Ohio State, Nov. 9

Final score: 20-13, Ohio State
Berwanger's highlights: Carried the ball 13 times for 130 yards, averaging 10 yards per attempt; threw five passes for 60 yards; 85-yard touchdown run in third quarter

The Chicago Maroons knew when the Ohio State Buckeyes arrived. They came bearing a Buckeye tree, which was "planted with ceremony in Scammon gardens on the Midway campus," and the 120 piece Ohio State band. It was OSU's first appearance at Stagg Field since 1926.

Chicago entered halftime up 6-0. Berwanger added seven more points with an 85-yard touchdown run and clean extra point. Here's how Charles Dunkley of The AP described the play: "The great Chicago halfback raced 85-yards down the field through the whole Buckeye team, dodging and twisting in the snakiest gallop seen on Stagg Field since the famed Red Grange sped over the gridiron 10 years ago."

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It was all Maroons until the Buckeyes scored a touchdown just before the third quarter expired, 13-6. The Ohio State offense put its nose to the grindstone and quickly tied the game at 13. Berwanger attempted to hold the Buckeyes in their final scoring drive with a 6-yard tackle-for-loss of Jumping Joe Williams, but Williams then "slashed through left tackle for Ohio's third [and final] touchdown." 

According to Dunkley, the crowd of 15,000 "braved a drizzling rain and a chilling wind to witness the conflict,” as "Berwanger nearly upset Buckeyes."

Ohio State extended its head-to-head winning streak to 11.

Game 7 — Chicago vs. Indiana, Nov. 16

Final score: 24-0, Indiana
Berwanger's highlights: 16-yard run in an attempted late-game rally

Through the Chicago Tribune's Nov. 16 reporting, readers learned that Berwanger sustained an injury against Ohio State and was doubtful to start in what would be his final home game. Expectations grew larger when the UP published a piece the day before, calling Berwanger the greatest ever

“Ask any Big Ten coach who is the best all-around back in the country this year and they’ll give you the name: ‘Jay Berwanger.’ Clark Shaughnessy, the mild mannered, smiling coach who has directed Berwanger through three years of competition at the University of Chicago, will go even further: ‘Jay is the best all around back I’ve ever seen, anywhere, at any time.’ Shaughnessy said without a moment’s hesitation.”

Talk about hype to live up to. With 15,000 people attending his last game at Stagg Field, Berwanger threw an interception, which led to an Indiana touchdown in the second quarter.

“He stayed in there most of the time, but the effort to make a memorable occasion of the last home appearance of his collegiate career was just a swan song out of tune,” Irving Vaughan of the Chicago Tribune recalled in his game recap.

The Hoosiers outgained the Maroons 350-148. Berwanger's injuries restricted him to 10 carries for just 24 yards and four complete passes for 30 yards. The only Chicago rally of the day included a 16-yard run by Berwanger but a turnover stunted the drive.

Chicago Athletics Jay Berwanger and Chicago vs. IndianaJay Berwanger plows through the Indiana defensive front.

Game 8 — Chicago at Illinois, Nov. 23

Final score: 7-6, Chicago
Berwanger's highlights: 55-yard punt return, which led to his final career touchdown

The train to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York began sounding the final week of the season. Berwanger learned that he was an Unanimous Member of the first team All-Conference team, becoming the “only player to receive the unanimous vote of the coaches for a first team position.” 

Against Illinois, Berwanger needed to gain 33 yards from scrimmage to achieve one mile of gain in his career, according Winthrop Lyman of The Dayton Herald. He totaled 1,727 yards in 415 attempts from scrimmage for an average of 4.16 yards per carry.

Chicago Athletics Jay Berwanger, All-Conference team memeberJay Berwanger holds his All-Conference Trophy.

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Early in the game, in front of 12,000 "freezing" spectators, Berwanger validated the pregame praise. He returned a punt for 55 yards to Illinois’ 1-yard line, and on the ensuing third down, he crossed the goal line for the final touchdown of his football career. His extra point, the ultimate game-defining play, was good, validating his One-man Team nickname and his ultimate title as the first Heisman Trophy winner.

In total, Berwanger ran the ball 26 times for 106 yards and gained 39 yards returning punts.

“Berwanger had to make only 33 yards to achieve a mile of yardage during his galloping career with the Maroons but he did much more than that. Today he not only was the last word but the last echo when he bowed out after one of the most brilliant careers any Maroon player ever had,” the Springfield Leader and Press reported

Here's how Charles Dunkley of the AP illustrated Berwanger's final moments: "As the gun barked ending the game, the proud comrades of his team lifted him on their shoulders and triumphantly carried him off the field” that "Red Grange first galloped to fame ten years ago."

Next stop: New York City, for the inaugural Heisman Trophy presentation.

And for Berwanger's helmet, it remains alongside its Red Grange companion in Atlanta.

Jeremy Swick Jay Berwanger's 1935 game-worn helmetJay Berwanger's 1935 game-worn helmet at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.

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