Jay Berwanger, the most celebrated athlete in University of Chicago history, passed away on Wednesday night at his Oak Brook home. He was 88 years old.
Berwanger, a native of Dubuque, IA, will be remembered as a great athlete as well as one of Chicago's most devoted alumni. In 1935, Berwanger was the first winner of the Heisman Trophy, awarded by New York City's Downtown Athletic Club to the nation's most outstanding collegiate football player, as voted by a panel of sportswriters.
University President Don Randel commented on Berwanger's passing, saying "Jay Berwanger's extraordinary athletic prowess was left on the playing fields of the University of Chicago more than a half century ago. But in the sixty-plus years since then, he has meant much more than athletic achievement to thousands of students and fellow alumni. He was an old-fashioned gentleman, whose modesty was never corrupted by his fame. He was extraordinarily generous towards generations of students. 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. His connections to so many young people over the years have been a gift to them, and an inspiration to the rest of us."
Although Berwanger graduated from the University in 1936, he played an active role in alumni affairs for more than 60 years. He was a member of the Alumni Association Board, served on the College Visiting Committee, and chaired the President's Fund for a time, in addition to chairing alumni reunion committees for his class.
Berwanger was the first draft pick in National Football League, tabbed by the Philadelphia Eagles in the inaugural 1936 draft. Berwanger's signing rights were traded to the Chicago Bears, but Berwanger never played in the NFL. He had come to Chicago as a student first and an athlete second. Growing up in the thick of the Great Depression, Berwanger was more interested in business than football. "Times were tough then," Berwanger said, "I wanted to attend a school that would give me a first-rate education in business, without special treatment, so that I would be prepared when opportunities were certain to return." His post-collegiate plans were interrupted by the Second World War, in which he served as a U.S. Navy flight instructor. After the war, Berwanger returned to Illinois and opening a sponge rubber manufacturing company in Downers Grove, in addition to serving as a referee for Big Ten football for 14 seasons.
Berwanger was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, and is remembered by sports historians as one of the greatest footballers of the first half of the century. Berwanger was the most famous product of Chicago's vaunted football program, at a time when the University of Chicago was known more for splitting defenses than atoms. He played his first season at Chicago under Amos Alonzo Stagg, the inventor of the forward pass, and a key figure in the development of football.
At Chicago, Berwanger was the walking definition of a big man on campusthe halfback captained the football squad and the track team. He was the Big Ten's 100-yard dash champion, although later in his career Berwanger was overshadowed by Ohio State's Jesse Owens. In what little spare time Berwanger had, he was president of his senior class and president of the Psi Upsilon fraternity, in addition to paying his way by waiting tables, operating elevators, cleaning the gym, and working in a boiler factory.
The 6'1", 195 pound Berwanger was known as a "one-man gang" on the football field, Even in the ironman era of two-way football, Berwanger was remarkably versatile. In addition to running for over 1,800 yards in 23 games for Chicago, Berwanger took punts, kicked extra points, kicked off, returned kick-offs and punts, and roamed the middle as a linebacker. He scored 22 career touchdowns and kicked 20 conversions for a career total of 152 points. In addition to his Heisman Trophy, Berwanger was a two-time All-America and All-Big Ten pick, as well as the Big Ten Conference Most Valuable Player in 1935
When Berwanger received college football's highest honor, the trophy was not yet known as the Heisman. At the time, the award was officially known as "The Downtown Athletic Club's Trophy to the Outstanding College Football Player East of the Mississippi." Berwanger finished first in the award voting, receiving 84 points from voters. Finishing second was Army halfback Monk Meyer, followed by William Shakespeare of Notre Dame. Berwanger recalled getting the news about his award: "I got a telegram at the fraternity house, saying I'd won, and they were sending me two tickets to fly to New York; one for me, one for my coach. My biggest thrill was it was gonna be my first airplane ride." Berwanger eventually donated his Heisman Trophy to the University, where it was displayed in Bartlett. The trophy is now in storage awaiting the completion of the new Ratner Athletics Center. Tom Weingartner, the University Chair of Physical Education and Athletics, said this of Berwanger: "He was one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. And he was also one of the greatest college football players ever."
Berwanger was survived by three children, three stepchildren, and more than thirty grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The funeral is being handled by the Elliston Funeral Home in Hinsdale, IL. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the University of Chicago Hall of Fame in honor of Jay Berwanger. Donations should be sent to Ann Ebrenstrom, 1116 E. 59th St, HM 856, Chicago, IL, 60637.