Monday, December 26, 2011

6 myths about Jay Berwanger

Each December, before and after the Heisman Trophy is presented, the name Jay Berwanger, the first recipient of the trophy, shows up in newspaper articles and blogs.

Those articles and blogs perpetuate many of the same inaccuracies. As Berwanger's biographer-to-be, here are the Top Six myths concerning Berwanger:

1. It is Berwanger’s likeness on the Heisman Trophy. Though publicity photos captured Berwanger in a stiff-arm pose similar to that found on the trophy, sculptor Frank Eliscu’s model was actually New York University’s Ed Smith.

2. Berwanger did not play in the National Football League due to a salary dispute with Chicago Bears owner George Halas. Whether this is a "myth" depends on one's definition of a "dispute."

When Berwanger and Halas bumped into each other on the way to separate social occasions, Papa Bear asked the college star what it would take to have him join the Bears. Berwanger’s reply -- $25,000 for two seasons and a no-cut contract – was Berwanger’s way of saying that he was not interested in the NFL, where the going rate was 10 times less than his “demand.”

Halas and Berwanger never "negotiated" again.

Berwanger noted he could make as much money as an NFL player just by giving speeches – and that didn’t involve getting hit.

3. Berwanger was a Big Ten champion in the 100 yard dash.

His highest finish in a conference meet was second in the 220-yard low hurdles in 1934, his sophomore season.

4. Berwanger was a lock to make the 1936 U.S. Olympic team in the decathlon.

From the time he entered the University of Chicago in 1932, Berwanger had a goal to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He was considered a contender, having placed fourth as a sophomore (1934) and third as a senior (1936) in the Kansas Relays decathlon, but his place on the team far from certainty.

He considered temporarily dropping out of college in 1936 to concentrate on preparation for the Olympic Trials, but university officials discouraged that course of action by its Senior Class president and most famous athlete. Nonetheless, Berwanger was still expected to try out for the U.S. team. However, Berwanger did not report for the Trials. Instead, he started his first full-time job as a management trainee for a sponge rubber manufacturer.

5. Berwanger’s Heisman Trophy weighed 60 pounds.

UPDATE: The Heisman folks advise that the earliest trophies had a heavier base than contemporary models, which weigh about 45 pounds. So that 60-pound figure might be accurate. Not a myth. My bad.
Though it might have felt that heavy to Berwanger after lugging it around New York and taking it back to Chicago in December 1935, the trophy actually weighed 25 pounds. It is 14 inches long and 13½ inches high.
6. Berwanger’s coach at the University of Chicago was the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Berwanger was a member of Chicago’s freshman squad, and ineligible for varsity competition, in 1932, Stagg’s final season before his forced retirement. Stagg moved on, and Berwanger played his entire varsity career for Clark Shaughnessy, a Hall of Fame coach in his own right.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Trick question

National Public Radio's Mike Pesca on Friday had a nice report on the late Larry Kelley, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1936.

Apparently to add something to his story, however, he referred to Kelley (pictured) as the winner of the "first Heisman Trophy." He gives a passing nod to Jay Berwanger, the subject of my current biography project, who received the honor from New York's Downtown Athletic Club the previous year. But Pesca attributes Berwanger's recognition as a technicality because the DAC renamed the award to honor its athletic director, John W. Heisman, who died between the ceremonies honoring Berwanger and Kelley.

Following Pesca's rationale for calling Kelley the first winner, we'd have to honor the Kansas City Chiefs of the winner of the "first Super Bowl." After all, the first two times the title game all Americans know as the Super Bowl was actually known as the AFL-NFL World Championship.

So, the New York Jets in 1968-69 won the "first Super Bowl"? That would fly with football fans as well as Larry Kelley winning the "first Heisman."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Action shots

Experimenting here with a brief clip of game films of Jay Berwanger in action. How many would-be tacklers do you count in the near-touchdown?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Who is this with Jay Berwanger?

Three weeks ago, I met again with one of Jay Berwanger's sons, Cuyler, to update him on my biography project. He was good enough to loan me a plastic storage box full of his father's papers, documents and photos.

Three things I've learned, thanks to the box:

The Heisman Trophy Committee annually reimbursed Berwanger's travel expenses to attend the trophy ceremony. In 1954, Berwanger's tab was $173.06. His hotel room in New York City was all of $11 a night.

As a Big Ten football referee, Berwanger was paid $100 a game during the 1951 season.

Berwanger officiated in two bowl games during the 1948-49 football season. One was the Rose Bowl, where he was involved in a controversial goal-line decision. A month earlier, he was the referee of the Refrigerator Bowl in Evansville, Ind. He headed the Refrigerator Bowl crew the next year, too. (Thanks to the Evansville Courier & Press for the research assistance.)

The box also contained the photo above, taken by a Richmond (Va.) newspaper photographer in April 1962. Unfortunately, the man at the right is not identified, and the occasion for this posed photo was not noted. I've sent an inquiry to the Richmond Times-Dispatch in hopes of solving the mystery.

The man with Berwanger somehow looks familiar -- it seems as if I should recognize him -- but I am stumped. Anyone have any idea who he is?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The penalty Berwanger didn't call

For a couple of years, I saved a particular article located while researching Jay Berwanger (pictured) for my biography. It came from the College Football Historical Society newsletter of May 2002.

I planned to use an anecdote in the article when I finally wrote about Berwanger's career as a college football referee in the late 1940s to mid-1950s.

Here is what I typed into my manuscript:

Berwanger was working the Minnesota-Purdue game in 1948 when he encountered a never-seen-that-before situation. After a Minnesota touchdown late in the first half, the Gophers lined up for the ensuing kickoff. Billy Bye was the holder and Gordy Soltau the kicker. Game film shows Soltau running up and extending through a full kick. The Gophers raced down to make a tackle and the Boilermakers prepared to block. After a moment or two, nearly all the players were glancing about in apparent confusion. Where was the ball? It was soon located under a prostrate Bye. Soltau never kicked the ball. Bye pulled it away, a la Lucy and Charlie Brown. That was a new one on Berwanger, who conferred with the rest of his officiating crew before calling a penalty on Minnesota for delay of game.

It's a fun little story. Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems.

I decided to look up newspaper accounts of the game to see how sportswriters described the odd play. The Chicago Tribune and Associated Press accounts didn't mention it at all.

Further, looking in the fine print, I don't see Berwanger listed as a member of the officiating crew. (Coincidentally, the referee in Minneapolis was someone else with Dubuque ties -- William Blake, a graduate of Loras College.)

If Berwanger wasn't on that crew, did he work another game? In scanning the boxscores of major college games, I finally located him. Berwanger was not in Minneapolis that afternoon but in Madison, serving as referee of Northwestern at Wisconsin.

So, with some reluctance -- it's a fun little anecdote -- the false-start kickoff won't be in my Berwanger biography.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Birthday observance -- March 19, 1914

Saturday, March 19, would have been Jay Berwanger's 97th birthday. The winner of the first Heisman Trophy was born in Dubuque, Iowa, on March 19, 1914. He died in June 2002.

The photo above right shows Berwanger as a senior at Dubuque Senior High, 1931-32.

Monday, February 7, 2011

75 years ago: First NFL draft

Trivia question: Which state had two of its natives picked in the first four selections of the first National Football League draft?

Answer: With this being a blog about Jay Berwanger, a native of Iowa, you shouldn't be surprised that the answer is Iowa. Berwanger was a native of Dubuque. The other draft pick? Read on.

The National Football League draft was the brainchild of Bert Bell, owner of the lowly Philadelphia Eagles.

Bell had a tough time getting his peers to go along. It took some arm-twisting by George Halas of the Chicago Bears on Tom Mara of the New York Giants for the draft to the owners’ approval in May 1935, effective with the 1936 season. Fatigue and alcohol also might have influenced the decision. League meetings were loosely run nocturnal affairs, where drink was plentiful and sleep was scarce, and that played into the hands of Bell, a sober “nighttime” person.

After establishment of a draft, Bell’s 1935 Philadelphia Eagles finished 2-9, edging the Boston Redskins (2-8-1) for worst record in the league. That dubious honor gave Bell the first pick in the first draft.

The rule called for teams to enter the names of players eligible for the NFL for the first time on a board posted in the meeting room. Then, the team with the worst record in 1935 received the first selection. The selections continued with teams picking, worst to first, until all the names on the board were selected or rejected.

League owners convened the weekend of February 8-9, 1936, at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. The hotel was owned by Bell’s father, Cromwell, and Bert had served as its manager in addition to playing and coaching football.

1 Philadelphia Eagles: Jay Berwanger B Chicago
2 Boston Redskins: Riley Smith B Alabama
3 Pittsburgh Pirates: Bill Shakespeare B Notre Dame
4 Brooklyn Dodgers: Dick Crayne B Iowa
5 Chicago Cardinals: Jim Lawrence B TCU
6 Chicago Bears: Joe Stydahar T West Virginia
7 Green Bay Packers: Russ Letlow G San Francisco
8 Detroit Lions: Sid Wagner G Michigan State
9 New York Giants: Art Lewis T Ohio U.

Philadelphia almost immediately traded the rights to Berwanger to the Chicago Bears, but Halas failed to convince him to join the professional ranks.

Trivia answer: Crayne, who was a native of Fairfield, Iowa. When he and Berwanger were high school seniors (Class of 1932), University of Iowa boosters hoped that both Crayne and Berwanger would play for the Hawkeyes. However, they chose different schools.