Throwback Thursday: The Heisman tradition began with a University of Chicago halfback

WGN News Now

CHICAGO – On Saturday, as it is every year, there will be one of the thousands of Division I football players who is named the best in the game in 2021.

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young are all up for this year’s Heisman Trophy award. Given by the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, it’s considered one of the greatest individual honors in all of sports.

It’s a December tradition for players and fans of college football, with the debate about the trophy continuing through the year and even after it has been awarded.

But as a new member of this group of football immortals is inducted this weekend, people have to remember the first person to ever receive this coveted award. The “Windy City” can take some pride in that, since it was a player from here that got the first honor.

Jay Berwanger, a halfback for the University of Chicago, was named the first Heisman Trophy 86 years ago on Thursday – December 9, 1935. He was a versatile player who not only was productive on offense but was also the team’s kicker, punter, and even played defense.

Berwanger was the best player on the Maroons when they were still a member of the Big Ten, and that season he also won the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football Award for conference MVP. He was also named a consensus first-team All-American and then eventually won the national award that was originally named the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy for “the most valuable college football player east of the Mississippi”

Following the death of DAC director and former coach John Heisman, the name of the trophy was changed to the one we now know today.

Berwanger would end up being the first pick of the first NFL Draft on February 8, 1936 by the Philadelphia Eagles. His rights were traded to the Chicago Bears, but the halfback and team owner/head coach George Halas couldn’t agree on terms, so Berwanger became a foam-rubber salesman.

In 1949, he would go on to found Jay Berwanger Inc., a company that specialized in “manufacturing sales agency that specializes in rubber, plastic, and other elastomeric materials.” He would remain a resident of the Chicago area until his death on June 26, 2002.

Larry Hawley has more on Berwanger on Throwback Thursday on WGN News Now, which you can watch in the video above.

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