For a guy who isn’t in the Hall of Fame, Jay Berwanger sure has a couple of pretty significant football “firsts” behind his name. He was named the winner of the first Heisman Trophy for his efforts at the University of Chicago in 1935. A couple of months later, the NFL held its first college draft and Berwanger was the top choice, taken by the lowly Philadelphia Eagles.
He never played a minute of pro ball.
The Eagles decided they couldn’t afford him and traded his rights to the Chicago Bears. Even the chance to continue playing in the same city where he’d spent his college years wasn’t enticing enough. Berwanger asked for a two-year $25,000 contract– a price George Halas apparently couldn’t–or wouldn’t–meet. The country’s top college player, a “one man team” as the paper called him, went to work for a rubber company, figuring he could make more money than he could on the still struggling pro football scene. Eventually, he founded his own very successful manufacturing firm and worked there until 1992.
There had been football cards in the fall of 1935 when National Chicle produced a small set of NFL stars but even if Berwanger had signed with the Bears for the following season, he likely wouldn’t have had a card during his playing days. It wasn’t until 1948 that Bowman began producing bubble gum cards of pro players.
Berwanger finally appeared in Topps’ first football card set, the 1955 All-American issue, which featured some of the top college football players of all-time. Today, it’s considered his “rookie card” but it’s far from expensive. Nice looking examples can be had for under $50, although high-grade Berwanger cards can run several hundred or more.
Berwanger lived to age 88, passing away in 2002, and gaining a pretty strong measure of fame among autograph collectors anxious to add the name of the first Heisman winner to their collection. Berwanger signed thousands of autographs on everything from those ’55 All-Americans to photos, footballs, mini helmets and other memorabilia, most of which today can be found online at very reasonable prices.
And here’s another “first” in the life and times of the NFL’s first-ever number one pick: he’s the only Heisman recipient who was ever tackled by a future president of the United States. Michigan star Gerald Ford, who zeroed in on Berwanger during a 1934 game between UC and Michigan.
“Jay was most deserving of his Heisman Trophy. He could do it all,” President Ford recalled. “He was an outstanding runner as well a passer and kicker. I remember him fondly as one of the greatest athletes I’ve known.”