by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He didn’t have room for the trophy at his fraternity house. So he gave it to his Aunt Gussie. She used it as a doorstop.

“It worked really well,” recalls Jay Berwanger, 74, the first Heisman Trophy winner. “Later on, she used it as a hat rack. You know, with the arm sticking out, you could just hang your hat right on it.”

The year was 1935. Nobody knew what a Heisman was. Nobody cared. People were more excited about a job. Or a 25-cent movie. An airplane ride? That was big. So when Berwanger, a halfback and linebacker at the University of Chicago, received the telegram saying he had been chosen by something called the Downtown Athletic Club as the best college football player east of the Rocky Mountains — well, it was the plane trip to New York that got him most excited.

“I had never been on an airplane. All the guys at the frat were asking about it. What was it like? How fast? They didn’t give a hoot about the award.”

The flight from Chicago took five hours, two stops. In the Big Apple, Berwanger and his coach were taken to the Empire State Building. To Radio City. Even lunch at the 21 Club. Two years later, he would try to get back into that restaurant.

“I was with a date. She said, ‘We need reservations.’ I said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. Last time I was here, they treated me royally.’ “

“So I introduced myself to the doorman, said I was Jay Berwanger, and I had won the Heisman Trophy, remember? He said, ‘The what? Jay who?’ “

He laughs.

“Never saw the girl again, either.”

On Saturday, they will give out the 54th Heisman Trophy. The winner — if it is, as most people suspect, Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State — will be playing a game in Tokyo. They plan to interview him via satellite. Fly him home. He’ll be in line for fame, glory, maybe millions in salary and endorsements.

“How much did it get you?” Berwanger is asked.

“Oh, no money or anything. I think the Chicago Tribune ran a small story in the sports section. Inside. It wasn’t front-page material.” Timing is everything

Things change. The statue is still cast in bronze, still a football player carrying the ball in his left hand, his right arm outstretched, perfect for a hat. But in the 53 years since Berwanger collected it, the significance of the Heisman has grown to almost comical proportions. Schools now plan PR campaigns a year in advance. Posters, records, buttons, bumper stickers. The best college football player in the nation? You would think we were electing a president.

And Jay Berwanger just laughs. His trophy — which was taken back from Aunt Gussie — now sits in a glass case in a University of Chicago gym. You ask yourself, “Jay Berwanger? Why didn’t I ever hear of him?” Because he never played professionally. Here is how much football has changed since 1935: Berwanger turned down chances with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chicago Bears because the money was better . . . as a sports writer.


“I worked for the old Chicago Daily News covering football. Paid $100 a week. Ball players barely made that. I once ran into George Halas, the owner of the Bears. I was with a date, going to a dance. He said, ‘What would it take to sign you?’ I made a joke: ‘25,000 for two years.’ Halas said, ‘Nice meeting you. Have a good time at the dance.’ “

Berwanger, who still lives outside Chicago, doesn’t complain. He’s made a nice living in sales (journalism was short-lived.) He has 16 grandchildren and two great- grandchildren. He goes to New York for the Heisman ceremonies whenever he can. And when Doug Flutie won the 50th award a few years back, Berwanger made a speech. Flutie, he notes, is the same size as the guys he played with.

“What do you think when you see how much money Heisman winners make now?” he is asked.

“I think,” he says, “I had lousy timing.” Hats off to Berwanger’s trophy

Things change. Today, the University of Chicago is hardly a football powerhouse. And the stadium where Berwanger played is gone — destroyed because it was radioactive. In 1942, scientists working on the Manhattan Project created a fission chain-reaction under the west stands of Stagg Field.
“Near the squash courts,” notes Berwanger.

Not everyone can say that about his alma mater.

But then, not everyone has a Heisman Trophy. It is funny to think how much that little statue has evolved, how overblown it has become. Considering it was once a doorstop.

“Someone once asked me what the difference was between when I won it and today,” says Berwanger. “I told him, ‘About $1 million.’ Today, I’d say $10 million.”

But no matter. He has the first, and they can’t take that away. It has not made him wealthy, it has not made him famous. But it has given him something, as he says, “to hang my hat on.”

Aunt Gussie can vouch for that.

Mitch Albom’s new sports-talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” can be heard Sunday nights from 9 to 11 on WLLZ (98.7- FM). This week’s guests include Michigan basketball coach Bill Frieder and hockey analyst Don Cherry.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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