On February 8, 1936, at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner, is picked No. 1 overall by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first NFL draft. His rights are traded to the Chicago Bears, but Berwanger never plays for them or any other NFL team.
Berwanger’s contract demands were too much George “Papa Bear” Halas, the Bears’ coach and owner. So, the college star became a foam rubber salesman.
“[Halas] asked me what I wanted,” Berwanger told the New York Times years later. “I said $25,000 for two years and a no-cut contract. We shook hands, said goodbye and he and I have been good friends ever since.”
Berwanger also worked as a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, a college football referee and as an assistant coach at his alma mater. He was a Navy officer during World War II.
Game-by-game statistics were incomplete from Berwanger’s college career. According to calculations by the Heisman Trophy web site, he rushed for nearly 1,900 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in college.
After he won the Heisman Trophy in 1935, Berwanger wasn’t focused on playing professional football, which wasn’t nearly as popular then as the college game. “For the time being, I am mainly interested in finishing my courses at Chicago, graduating next June and then trying to win a place on the Olympic team,” he said, according to the Associated Press. Berwanger, a track star, did not make the 1936 U.S. Olympic team.
Media coverage of the inaugural NFL draft and Heisman Trophy presentation was scant. Later in the 20th century, both became major events, with each featured on television.
Berwanger died on June 26, 2002. He was 88.