Genius of the gridiron

Eighty years ago, Jay Berwanger, AB’36, won the Heisman Trophy—before it was even called that.

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(University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-00641, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Jay Berwanger was a star halfback for the Maroons in the final years of UChicago’s Big Ten football era.

(University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-00642, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

In 1935 Berwanger was awarded the Downtown Athletic Club trophy for “most valuable football player east of the Mississippi.”

 (University of Chicago News Office)

The award “wasn't really a big deal when I got it,” Berwanger recalled decades later. It was renamed the Heisman Trophy in 1936.

(University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-00650, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Berwanger (right) was also the first pick in the first-ever NFL draft. But top players at the time were paid just $500 a game. Instead, he opened a manufacturing business, coaching and refereeing football in his spare time.

(University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-03000-057, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

In 1939 UChicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins famously abolished varsity football. As the story goes, Hutchins once quipped, “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.”

 (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-00647, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

For decades Berwanger’s aunt used his Heisman trophy as a doorstop. In 1978 he donated it to the University. It’s now displayed in Ratner Athletics Center, where it inspires varsity athletes and fitness-seekers alike.

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