Friday, December 10, 2010

It was 75 years ago today

Seventy-five years ago today -- Dec. 10, 1935 -- Jay Berwanger, son of a Dubuque blacksmith, received the first Downtown Athletic Club Trophy. By the next year, it was renamed the Heisman Trophy. Berwanger was flown to New York to receive the trophy.

The photo caption noted that Berwanger, of the University of Chicago, was the only player to be named to all of the various All-America teams in 1935.

Image © Bettmann/CORBIS

Thursday, December 9, 2010

To the airwaves

My Dec. 5 article in the Telegraph Herald about Jay Berwanger was on the Web, and it resulted in several nice comments -- and a request to be part of a sports radio program.

The station is KIIC, based in the southeastern Iowa community of Albia. From 1982 to 1986, we lived in Ottumwa, just east of Albia.

I should be on the air about 9:30 am Saturday with Mark Felderman, who has Bellevue ties. The interview should last 10-15 minutes.

The station has live streaming, so if you are having a boring Saturday morning, click this link and listen in.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Teammate's son recalls Berwanger's modesty

Time and again, I hear about the late Jay Berwanger's modesty.

My latest example came in an e-mail from Gerry Skoning, whose father, Warren "Duke" Skoning, was a backfield teammate of Berwanger's.

Gerry recalled being introduced to Berwanger: "His response to the introduction was typically gracious. 'Skoning? Duke's son? Why, I never would have gained a yard if it hadn't been for your dad's top notch blocking.' Of course, it was a total lie, but a gracious comment by the very modest star Heisman Trophy winner."

Duke Skoning played an outstanding game in Berwanger's final appearance for the University of Chicago, gaining 78 yards in 28 carries. Berwanger gained 101 yards in 26 rushes, scored the game-tying touchdown and kicked the game-winning extra point in a 7-6 win at Illinois. It was perhaps Berwanger's best all-around game of his career.

After leaving the University of Chicago, Duke Skoning entered the business world. He was vice president of real estate and construction for Sears Roebuck when the famous Sears Tower was built and completed in 1974.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Psi Upsilon honors Berwanger

On Saturday, the Omega chapter of Psi Upsilon, of which Jay Berwanger was a brother, commemorated the 75th anniversary of Berwanger's selection for the first Heisman Trophy.

The fraternity was kind enough to invite me to the brunch and ceremony, which was attended by about 20 members of the Berwanger family, including two of his three children. The alumni members marked the occasion by presenting a plaque for display in the fraternity house that Berwanger called home for three years.

It was at the fraternity house that a telegram arrived for Berwanger. It was early December 1935. The message was from the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City inviting Berwanger to New York, all expenses paid, to receive the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, honoring him as the best college football player east of the Mississippi.

The award was renamed the John Heisman Memorial Trophy the next year, and the sponsors eventually dropped the geographic limits on nominees.

The Heisman did not always enjoy the status it does today. Berwanger's biggest thrill in winning the award involved taking his first-ever airplane ride. He didn't have a place for the trophy, and for years it resided in the home of an aunt, who used what is today the most recognized of U.S. sports awards as a doorstop.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Quoted in article about Berwanger

University of Chicago alum Martin Northway had an article about Jay Berwanger, subject of my next book, published in the latest Newcity Magazine.

Northway was nice enough to contact me for an e-mail "interview" for the article. As it turned out, I got the last word.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Berwanger name crops up amid Reggie Bush controversy

Gordon White, writing in The Pilot, of Southern Pines, N.C., tells some Berwanger history in light of the current Reggie Bush controversy.

It's largely accurate, though the "coward" reference is a bit out of context. Berwanger was usually the most hard-nosed player on the field.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Truth and fiction of NFL's first pick

With the National Football League draft going prime time, sportswriters and bloggers are reflecting on the history of the draft.

If they go all the way back to the first draft, in 1936, they invariably mention Jay Berwanger, the subject of my next biography.

Berwanger was the first pick in the first NFL draft, selected by the Philadelphia Eagles, who immediately traded their rights to the University of Chicago star to the Chicago Bears. The legend is that Berwanger demanded $1,000 a game (actually, $20,000 for two years of service with a guaranteed contract) – roughly 10 times the going rate at the time – and that Bears owner George Halas refused. Embroiled in a contract dispute, Berwanger never played a down of professional football.

Reality is that Berwanger stated a salary figure that he knew was astronomical, especially during the Depression, not as a demand as much as a statement that he was not interested in playing pro football. The only “negotiation” in which Berwanger and Halas engaged was a brief exchange when they bumped into each other in a hotel lobby. There was no dispute, no holdout -- and no contract.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Birthday observance

Friday marked what would have been the 96th birthday of Jay Berwanger (1914-2002).

John Jacob Berwanger was born in Dubuque, Iowa. His mother Pauline was born in Germany and his father, John, the son of German immigrants, was born in Dubuque just a few weeks after his parents' arrival in the U.S.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Archie Griffin interview highlights day

It has been a long week -- and it's only Wednesday morning -- but the highlight of my Tuesday was my brief telephone interview with Archie Griffin, the only two-time winner of college football's Heisman Trophy.

Griffin and I talked for about 10 minutes about the subject of my next book, Dubuque native Jay Berwanger, recipient of the first Heisman. Though their playing days were generations apart, the men enjoyed each other's company at annual Heisman events.

Griffin, who won the Heisman in 1974 and 1975 as an Ohio State running back, is president and CEO of The Ohio State University Alumni Association, Inc. He won a truckload of honors during his collegiate career, including The Sporting News Man of the Year award in 1975.

Berwanger, who won the Heisman in 1935, died in 2002. Griffin remembers the former University of Chicago star as "classy. That’s how I looked at Berwanger. A classy man. Well-respected.”

Thanks, Archie.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Berwanger's link to Northwestern history

Much was made of Northwestern's bid today to win its first football bowl game in more than 60 years. Despite a remarkable comeback (helped incredibly by a series of Auburn penalties), the Wildcats lost in overtime.

The close call extended the Wildcats' decades-long streak without a bowl victory. Their last win was a 20-14 victory over California came in the 1949 Rose Bowl -- a game marked by controversy.

On a play from the Cal 1 yard line, Northwestern running back Art Murakowski fumbled at the goal line. California's Will Lotter fell on the ball. The question became whether the ball crossed the plane of the goal line before Murakowski lost control.

The side judge made the signal -- touchdown. His decision brought lots of criticism for the official, especially from West Coast sportswriters.

Today, the officials would have used video review of the play to confirm the result. That was not possible 61 years ago, and the call stood.

The official's name: Jay Berwanger.

Berwanger, the winner of the first Heisman Trophy, who had officiated the college game several seasons, simply said he called it "as I saw it."

Eventually, the controversy passed, especially with the public support of the Big Ten supervisor of officials.

Berwanger started officiating in 1941, took time off while he was in the military, then resumed through the 1952 season. The 1949 Rose Bowl was his only bowl assignment.