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."