When Jay Berwanger received a telegram at his fraternity house at
the University of Chicago in 1935, he became part of American football
history, although he didn’t know it at the time.
“It really had no significance for me,” he recalls of his
notification as the first winner of the Heisman Trophy. “I got a
wire at my frat house and tickets to go to New York. I looked forward
more to that than to the award.”
Things have changed since then, of course. Winners of the Heisman
Trophy have become members of an exclusive club–in O. J. Simpson’s
words, “the most coveted [award] in sports. Once you’re a
part of it, you become a part of the history of the sport. You become a
part of the game’s lore. I knew that if the game endured, my name
would endure, too.”
So it is that one of the most venerable of individual awards in
American sports will have its 49th anniversary this December in New
York, when the Downtown Athletic Club presents its prestigious prize to
the college football player voted the best in the country.
Barring injury, this year’s likely candidates include
quarterbacks–Doug Flutie of Boston College, Chuck Long of Iowa and
Bernie Kosar of Miami–and a group of running backs headed by Keith
Byars of Ohio State, Grey Allen of Florida State and Allen Pinkett of
Notre Dame. Bo Jackson of Auburn and Napoleon McCallum of Navy, two
other top runners, were knocked out of Heisman consideration by
Despite abundant talent at other positions, such as the Pitt
offensive tackle Bill Fralic, the Southern Cal linebacker Jack Del Rio and the Texas safety Jerry Gray, it is assumed that the winner of this
year’s award will be a player who touches the ball. Since
berwanger was first given the Heisman Trophy in 1935 by a vote of
selected media representatives across the co aDame, is one of the two
pass-catching rd D aends to get the award. “For a lineman rd D
ato win it, he’d have to play both offense rd D aand defense. As
it is now, it’s rd D aonly exposure for half a game. But, rd D
arealistically, he just doesn’t have the rd D aoverall exposure
the running backs rd D aand quarterbacks get. Now they just rd D
alook at the stats.” rd D a Running backs especially have rd D
ahad a strong grip on the Heisman in recent times. They have won the
award for the past 12 years, following the Auburn quarterback Pat
Sullivan’s selection in 1971. As for players at other positions,
only two interior offensive linemen (players who spend most of their
time blocking) have finished in the top five in the Heisman voting–Dave
Rimington of Nebraska wound up fifth in 1982 and John Hicks of Ohio
State, who probably came closest to winning it, finished second to the
Penn State running back John Cappelletti in 1973. The Pitt defensive
end Hugh Green was another Heisman rarity, finishing second to George
Rogers, a running back from South Carolina, in 1980.
When Berwanger won the award, it was so new it wasn’t even
called the Heisman Trophy. At that time it was just the “Downtown
A.C. Trophy,” and he recalls, “There was no anticipation as
there is today.” He does remember, however, that they “had a
great affair and I was treated royally. I stayed at the Downtown
Athletic 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 of
New York and trip members the highlight of the trip for him was
“the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and lunch at the Club
In addition to being the first winner of the Heisman Trophy,
berwanger has the distinction of being the first player drafted by the
National Football League. A nifty halfback for the University of
Chicago, Berwanger was made the No. 1 pick by the Philadephia Eagles
when the NFL held its first draft of college players in 1936, but he
says, “I really wasn’t interested in pro ball. They
weren’t paying any money, something like $100 a game. You
couldn’t blame them. This was following the Depression and nobody
had any money.”
George Halas, the longtime owner of the Chicago Bears, was a friend
of Berwanger’s and obtained the rights to his contract from the
Eagles. That was all he got, the rights.
“We didn’t have any real serious talks,” Berwanger
remembers. “I told him $25,000 for two years, no cut. I was being
slightly facetious. He said, ‘Good night, it was nice talking to
you. Have a good time.’ There was no bitterness.”
Actually, the first Three Heisman Trophy winners (Berwanger and
Larry 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 Philadelphia
Eages 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 with
For a while, Berwanger earned a living as a nespaper columnist in
Chicago, a coach on the University of Chicago team and a speechmaker.
“I made speeches for $100 to $150, so it came out all right
financially for me.” Eventually he became a successful rubber and
plastics manufacturer. He says that although his Heisman Trophy
hasn’t opened any doors for his business, “it makes
conversation with the customers.”
The same might be said for Angelo Bertelli, another of Notre
Dame’s record six winners. Bertelli, who won the Heisman as a
quarterback for the Fighting Irish in 1943, now runs a retail liquor
business in New Jersey and says, “A day doesn’t go by when
somebody doesn’t mention it when they’re introducing me.”
Bertelli’s award was “strictly a Notre Dame
situation,” he says. “Creighton Miller finished fourth [and
Jim White ninth]. We were national champions. It was the second year
of the T-formation. Frank Leahy had put it all together. I had finished
second as a sophomore and fourth as a junior, so really, they were
thanking me for three years.”
Bertelli’s situation was unique, for he won the Heisman Trophy
wihtout actually finishing out the season. He was taken into the
service of the Marine Corps during the height of the Second World War
after playing most of his senior year at Notre Dame. When told he had
won the Heisman, he was on a Marine base.
“We were in the recreation hall listening to the Notre
Dame-Great Lakes game,” he remembers. “Norte Dame lost at the
end, 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 won
the Heisman. All of a sudden, I became happy. I was tickled pink. I
was happy not only for winning the Heisman, but because I was going to
get 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 defensive
At Notre Dame, he became the main instrument of Leahy’s
T-formation genius under disruptive circumstances. “There was a
lot of controversy then,” he says, “because Leahy had broken
from the traditional Notre Dame shift by [Knute] Rockne to go with the
Hart, a rugged end who played both offense and defense, also had
the good name of Notre Dame to help him in the Heisman voting in 1949.
The Notre Dame quarterback Bob Williams finished fifth and their
fullback, Emil Sitko, eighth that year. The Fighting Irish were
national champions for the third time in four years that season and what
little 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. “It
wasn’t pushed, even then,” Hart says. “Nobody thought
about it. My coach, John Drew, said, ‘Leon, you won the Heisman
Trophy.’ 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 rest
of your life” and would be hesitant to put a value on his 25-pound
bronze statuette that rests these days on the Notre Dame campus.
“the Freedom Train [in 1976] wanted to put the trophy on
display, 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 you
insure something that’s irreplaceable?'”
For trivia buffs, Hart became an important part of the Heisman
scheme, as the last lineman to win the trophy. (The first was the Yale
end Larry Kelley, in 1936.) Hart, now an auto-supplies manufacturer,
went on to a successful pro career with the Detroit Lions of the
National Football League and also became a trivia subject there: the
last NFL player to be named All-Pro on both offense and defense (in
Hart, by the way, is one of the players to escape the so-called
“Heisman Jinx” that has haunted innumerable winners through
the years. For the most part, Heisman winners have not had successful
careers in professional football. A notable disappointment was running
back Archie Griffin of Ohio State, the only two-time Heisman winner
(1974 and 1975).
“O.K., it’s true,” says Griffin. “Heisman
winners don’t necessarily become great pro players. But you have
to look at that statement closely. I used to get the ball 30 times a
game at Ohio State. I got it about 8 times a game in the pros. It was
something to get used to. I used to think I wasn’t deserving
because I didn’t make the yards. But, obviously, I couldn’t
do with 8 carries what I used to do with 30.”
Of all the award winners, probably the one who gave the most
dramatic speech at the Heisman ceremonies was John Cappelletti, who
dedicated the prize to his leukemia-stricken younger brother, Joey, in a
tearful speech in 1973. The story of their relationship was so powerful
that it was made into a movie for TV.
As the 1,000-odd Heisman Trophy voters, made up of sportswriters
and sportscasters as well as former winners, cast their ballots for this
year’s winner, it is obvious that the trophy has come a long way
since even Cappelleti’s day and certainly since Berwanger won in
1935. The former University of Chicago star, who says he was born too
early to capitalize on the Heisman glory, no doubt would have settled
for a contract equaling just the money being spent by schools on
candidates these days. The Heisman is generally assumed to be
eventually worth a million dollars to the winner.
This past summer, sports-publicity departments at various schools
mapped battle plans to sell their candidates. The pitches included
elaborate schemes such as the one at Navy, where McCallum was hauled
down to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and photographed in an
18th-century naval uniform, a sword in one hand and football in the
other, in front of the frigate U.S.S. Constellation. The photo
appeared 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 the
Eagles’ top player.
Still, Flutie knows he has to win it on the field as well as win
the public-relations campaign.
“As far as I’m concerned, the only way to judge it is by
victories,” he says. “If we were losing ball games, I could
be throwing the ball from beginning to end and have all kinds of stats
and records that I could break. But the bottom line is winning or
losing 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.