When Jay Berwanger received a telegram at his fraternity house atthe University of Chicago in 1935, he became part of American footballhistory, although he didn’t know it at the time.
“It really had no significance for me,” he recalls of hisnotification as the first winner of the Heisman Trophy. “I got awire at my frat house and tickets to go to New York. I looked forwardmore to that than to the award.” Things have changed since then, of course.
Winners of the HeismanTrophy have become members of an exclusive club–in O. J. Simpson’swords, “the most coveted [award] in sports. Once you’re apart of it, you become a part of the history of the sport.
You become apart of the game’s lore. I knew that if the game endured, my namewould endure, too.” So it is that one of the most venerable of individual awards inAmerican sports will have its 49th anniversary this December in NewYork, when the Downtown Athletic Club presents its prestigious prize tothe college football player voted the best in the country.
Barring injury, this year’s likely candidates includequarterbacks–Doug Flutie of Boston College, Chuck Long of Iowa andBernie Kosar of Miami–and a group of running backs headed by KeithByars of Ohio State, Grey Allen of Florida State and Allen Pinkett ofNotre Dame. Bo Jackson of Auburn and Napoleon McCallum of Navy, twoother top runners, were knocked out of Heisman consideration byearly-season injuries. Despite abundant talent at other positions, such as the Pittoffensive tackle Bill Fralic, the Southern Cal linebacker Jack Del Rio and the Texas safety Jerry Gray, it is assumed that the winner of thisyear’s award will be a player who touches the ball. Sinceberwanger was first given the Heisman Trophy in 1935 by a vote ofselected media representatives across the co aDame, is one of the twopass-catching rd D aends to get the award. “For a lineman rd Dato win it, he’d have to play both offense rd D aand defense. Asit is now, it’s rd D aonly exposure for half a game. But, rd Darealistically, he just doesn’t have the rd D aoverall exposurethe running backs rd D aand quarterbacks get.
Now they just rd Dalook at the stats.” rd D a Running backs especially have rd Dahad a strong grip on the Heisman in recent times. They have won theaward for the past 12 years, following the Auburn quarterback PatSullivan’s selection in 1971. As for players at other positions,only two interior offensive linemen (players who spend most of theirtime blocking) have finished in the top five in the Heisman voting–DaveRimington of Nebraska wound up fifth in 1982 and John Hicks of OhioState, who probably came closest to winning it, finished second to thePenn State running back John Cappelletti in 1973. The Pitt defensiveend Hugh Green was another Heisman rarity, finishing second to GeorgeRogers, a running back from South Carolina, in 1980. When Berwanger won the award, it was so new it wasn’t evencalled the Heisman Trophy.
At that time it was just the “DowntownA.C. Trophy,” and he recalls, “There was no anticipation asthere is today.” He does remember, however, that they “had agreat affair and I was treated royally. I stayed at the DowntownAthletic Club, and out of my window I could see the statue of Liberty.That was thrilling.
” A wide-eyed youngster, Berwanger was taken on a sightseeing tour ofNew York and trip members the highlight of the trip for him was”the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and lunch at the Club21.” In addition to being the first winner of the Heisman Trophy,berwanger has the distinction of being the first player drafted by theNational Football League. A nifty halfback for the University ofChicago, Berwanger was made the No.
1 pick by the Philadephia Eagleswhen the NFL held its first draft of college players in 1936, but hesays, “I really wasn’t interested in pro ball. Theyweren’t paying any money, something like $100 a game. Youcouldn’t blame them. This was following the Depression and nobodyhad any money.” George Halas, the longtime owner of the Chicago Bears, was a friendof Berwanger’s and obtained the rights to his contract from theEagles. That was all he got, the rights. “We didn’t have any real serious talks,” Berwangerremembers.
“I told him $25,000 for two years, no cut. I was beingslightly facetious. He said, ‘Good night, it was nice talking toyou.
Have a good time.’ There was no bitterness.” Actually, the first Three Heisman Trophy winners (Berwanger andLarry Kelley and Clint Frank, both of Yale) did not play pro football.When the quarterback Davey O’Brien of Texas Christian University signed the first contract for a Heisman winner (with the PhiladelphiaEages in 1939), he received a $12,000 bonus for a two-year contract.O’Brien played two years and left pro football for a career withthe FBI.
For a while, Berwanger earned a living as a nespaper columnist inChicago, a coach on the University of Chicago team and a speechmaker.”I made speeches for $100 to $150, so it came out all rightfinancially for me.” Eventually he became a successful rubber andplastics manufacturer. He says that although his Heisman Trophyhasn’t opened any doors for his business, “it makesconversation with the customers.” The same might be said for Angelo Bertelli, another of NotreDame’s record six winners. Bertelli, who won the Heisman as aquarterback for the Fighting Irish in 1943, now runs a retail liquorbusiness in New Jersey and says, “A day doesn’t go by whensomebody doesn’t mention it when they’re introducing me.” Bertelli’s award was “strictly a Notre Damesituation,” he says. “Creighton Miller finished fourth [andJim White ninth].
We were national champions. It was the second yearof the T-formation. Frank Leahy had put it all together.
I had finishedsecond as a sophomore and fourth as a junior, so really, they werethanking me for three years.” Bertelli’s situation was unique, for he won the Heisman Trophywihtout actually finishing out the season. He was taken into theservice of the Marine Corps during the height of the Second World Warafter playing most of his senior year at Notre Dame. When told he hadwon the Heisman, he was on a Marine base. “We were in the recreation hall listening to the NotreDame-Great Lakes game,” he remembers. “Norte Dame lost at theend, and we were all sa.
I walked out of the recreation hall crying.But a guy came up to me and handed me a telegram telling me I had wonthe Heisman. All of a sudden, I became happy.
I was tickled pink. Iwas happy not only for winning the Heisman, but because I was going toget out of boot camp for a while and see my family.” Bertelli described himself as “a forward passer, not a runner.I did a lot of faking and counter plays. I was also a defensivehalfback.” At Notre Dame, he became the main instrument of Leahy’sT-formation genius under disruptive circumstances. “There was alot of controversy then,” he says, “because Leahy had brokenfrom the traditional Notre Dame shift by [Knute] Rockne to go with thenew T-formation.
” Hart, a rugged end who played both offense and defense, also hadthe good name of Notre Dame to help him in the Heisman voting in 1949.The Notre Dame quarterback Bob Williams finished fifth and theirfullback, Emil Sitko, eighth that year. The Fighting Irish werenational champions for the third time in four years that season and whatlittle television exposure there was, Notre Dame received it. At the time, Hart was unaware of the Heisman’s significance,as were the rest of the players on the Notre Dame team. “Itwasn’t pushed, even then,” Hart says. “Nobody thoughtabout it.
My coach, John Drew, said, ‘Leon, you won the HeismanTrophy.’ I was really pleased, but then it hit me. I asked,’Hey, what’s the Heisman Trophy?'” Now, Hart realizes it is “a badge that you wear for the restof your life” and would be hesitant to put a value on his 25-poundbronze statuette that rests these days on the Notre Dame campus. “the Freedom Train [in 1976] wanted to put the trophy ondisplay, and I told them the University of Notre Dame now owned it.They asked me what I would insure it for.
I said, ‘How do youinsure something that’s irreplaceable?'” For trivia buffs, Hart became an important part of the Heismanscheme, as the last lineman to win the trophy. (The first was the Yaleend Larry Kelley, in 1936.) Hart, now an auto-supplies manufacturer,went on to a successful pro career with the Detroit Lions of theNational Football League and also became a trivia subject there: thelast NFL player to be named All-Pro on both offense and defense (in1951). Hart, by the way, is one of the players to escape the so-called”Heisman Jinx” that has haunted innumerable winners throughthe years. For the most part, Heisman winners have not had successfulcareers in professional football. A notable disappointment was runningback Archie Griffin of Ohio State, the only two-time Heisman winner(1974 and 1975). “O.
K., it’s true,” says Griffin. “Heismanwinners don’t necessarily become great pro players. But you haveto look at that statement closely.
I used to get the ball 30 times agame at Ohio State. I got it about 8 times a game in the pros. It wassomething to get used to. I used to think I wasn’t deservingbecause I didn’t make the yards. But, obviously, I couldn’tdo with 8 carries what I used to do with 30.” Of all the award winners, probably the one who gave the mostdramatic speech at the Heisman ceremonies was John Cappelletti, whodedicated the prize to his leukemia-stricken younger brother, Joey, in atearful speech in 1973.
The story of their relationship was so powerfulthat it was made into a movie for TV. As the 1,000-odd Heisman Trophy voters, made up of sportswritersand sportscasters as well as former winners, cast their ballots for thisyear’s winner, it is obvious that the trophy has come a long waysince even Cappelleti’s day and certainly since Berwanger won in1935. The former University of Chicago star, who says he was born tooearly to capitalize on the Heisman glory, no doubt would have settledfor a contract equaling just the money being spent by schools oncandidates these days. The Heisman is generally assumed to beeventually worth a million dollars to the winner.
This past summer, sports-publicity departments at various schoolsmapped battle plans to sell their candidates. The pitches includedelaborate schemes such as the one at Navy, where McCallum was hauleddown to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and photographed in an18th-century naval uniform, a sword in one hand and football in theother, in front of the frigate U.S.
S. Constellation. The photoappeared on a poster bearing the legend I HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO RUN,with apologies to another Navy hero, John Paul Jones. Boston College, meanwhile, went the route of a packet about Flutie,who is depicted on the red-bordered front cover about to unleash a pass.On the back of the jacket are pertinent comments from coaches about theEagles’ top player. Still, Flutie knows he has to win it on the field as well as winthe public-relations campaign.
“As far as I’m concerned, the only way to judge it is byvictories,” he says. “If we were losing ball games, I couldbe throwing the ball from beginning to end and have all kinds of statsand records that I could break. But the bottom line is winning orlosing ball games.
Who cares if I throw for 400 yards and lose 41-20?It’s a matter of winning.” And now. . .the envelope, please.