Jay Berwanger: NFL’s first draft pick said no to league 80 years ago and never looked back

By Erin Barney

Every wall in Cuyler Berwanger’s Oak Brook home is decorated.

Framed photos of 16 grandchildren crowd the foyer. A few steps’ descent into his office reveals more of the Berwanger clan —individual shots of his six children and their families.

“The oldest grandkid is off to college next year,” Cuyler said. “She’s got a 4.5 GPA. Can you believe that?”
The black-and-white tributes to his Heisman Trophy-winning father and previous owner of the house, Jay Berwanger, are almost an afterthought.

But that’s the way Berwanger preferred it.

Berwanger, who died in 2002, was the star running back from the University of Chicago, the first Heisman winner in 1935 and the first pick in the first NFL Draft in 1936. But on the 80th anniversary of the draft, which begins Thursday in Chicago, the family still holds his “father” title in higher regard than his other accolades.

“My dad always said, ‘Football is what I did, but it’s not who I am,’” Cuyler said.

Berwanger was drafted first overall by the Philadelphia Eagles, then traded to the Chicago Bears, but declined the NFL invitation. Instead, he used his business degree to found a rubber company in Downers Grove.

Berwanger, Heisman had socks appeal

Here are some of Cuyler Berwanger’s favorite stories about his father:

— Although NYU football player Ed Smith gets credited as the main model for the Heisman Trophy, Jay Berwanger’s mother always insisted the trophy was modeled after her son because of the rolled-down socks. That was her son’s signature touch. Berwanger won the first Heisman in 1935.

— After graduating and before enlisting for the war, Berwanger played rugby for two years — successfully, at that. He led his Chicago team to 19 straight wins, including a 24-9 victory over New York at Chicago’s Solider Field. He will be inducted into the Rugby Hall of Fame later this year.

— Berwanger was eager to serve his country in World War II, but the officers only wanted him for his name. They put him behind a desk to recruit for a year, hoping his athletic legacy would inspire and draw men to enlist.

— His real dream was to become a Navy pilot, so he paid for his own private lessons and even bought a plane. After he was licensed, he taught others the trade. Cuyler recalls his father saying those flights were far more terrifying than any in the actual war.

— Berwanger once met President Gerald Ford, who told him, “I think of you every morning when I shave.” Ford was a linebacker at the University of Michigan and had a scar on his face from the time he tackled Berwanger. He was the only Heisman winner to be brought down by a future U.S. president.

–Erin Barney

During the Great Depression, the business world promised the most financially secure future. Berwanger’s decision wasn’t an anomaly. All- Americans Eddie Erdelatz (St. Mary’s College) and Bill Shakespeare (Notre Dame) and future national championship coach Paul “Bear” Bryant (Alabama) also declined the NFL after the 1936 draft.
Try to imagine that happening today.

Kyle Dolan, director of football operations at Priority Sports and Entertainment, certainly can’t.

“The NFL isn’t something you just tiptoe into,” Dolan said. “We know going into the relationship (with a player) the NFL is his dream. We wouldn’t represent him if it wasn’t.”

Dolan coaches NFL hopefuls through every possible draft outcome, none of which include walking away from the game, barring unforeseen circumstances.

North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz, who might be the No. 1 overall pick 80 years after Berwanger, wasn’t talking about other options at the NFL Combine.

“I view every day as just an opportunity,” said Wentz. “I’m grateful, I’m excited as heck to keep playing ball for sure.”
But the journey there is stressful for players, regardless of their predraft predictions, Dolan said. And for those who fall out of the first few rounds, the draft can be “the most mentally agonizing days of their career.”

Today, that torment is broadcast to the world. In the book he co-authored, “On the Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft,” Ken Rappoport said the draft has transformed from a small gathering to a must-see spectacle. Every emotional moment is captured.
“The Green Room where the players wait is often laced with drama,” Rappoport said in an email to Medill Reports. “Sometimes the wait is far longer than projected to hear their names called.”

For Berwanger, on the other hand, the draft couldn’t have been more stress-free. According to Rappoport’s book, Berwanger said he wasn’t interested in playing pro ball for “something like $100 a game.” The Eagles couldn’t afford him, so they traded him to Chicago.

Berwanger asked Bears owner George Halas for a $25,000 two-year, no-cut contract during a brief encounter in a hotel lobby. Halas told him no, then the two posed for a photo and moved on with their lives, Cuyler said.

Jay Berwanger wasn’t about awards and public adoration. He let his aunt use his 40-pound Heisman Trophy as a doorstop, and it never even occurred to him to tell his family when he was selected to announce Earl Campbell as the 1977 Heisman winner on national television — the first year the event was televised.

“Me and my brother didn’t even know he was who he was until we were a bit older,” Cuyler said. “He was just so humble about it.”
His alma matter isn’t quite as subtle. The University of Chicago gave Berwanger’s Heisman Trophy a new home: front and center of the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center. Athletic director Erin McDermott said the school is honored to showcase someone so inspirational in and out of athletics.

“I believe the greatest lesson for today’s student-athletes is to make decisions based on what you believe is the best for you and what ‘calls’ to you the strongest, rather than based on what others may choose or guide you to do,” McDermott said.

Berwanger lived a full, diverse life after giving up football. He owned and flew his own planes, traveled the world and never missed a game of Sunday golf — without a single regret for declining the NFL, Cuyler said.

Berwanger even took a turn officiating, working the 1949 Rose Bowl between Northwestern and the University of California. The Wildcats won 20-14, helped by a questionable call made by Berwanger himself as the field judge. Northwestern’s Art Murakowski fumbled, but not before breaking the end-zone plane, Berwanger ruled. That gave Northwestern a 13-7 lead in the second quarter. Years later, he received a “Courageous Call” plaque from Northwestern, which now hangs in Cuyler’s dining room.

To Berwanger’s son, it was just one of many courageous calls made by his father.

“The best lessons I learned from my dad weren’t from football,” Cuyler said. “Just because you can hit a ball, catch a ball or throw a ball better than anyone else, doesn’t mean you’re a better person. It’s your character that makes you a better person.”

Photo at top: Jay Berwanger poses with the Heisman trophy in 1935 (Erin Barney/Medill)