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  • First Heisman: The Life of Jay Berwanger by Brian E. Cooper
  • Brian M. Ingrassia
Cooper, Brian E. First Heisman: The Life of Jay Berwanger. Dubuque, IA: Crestwood Publishing, 2014. Pp. 319. 100 photographs, bibliography, notes, index. $26.95, hb.

Halfback Jay Berwanger (1913–2002) was awarded the first Heisman Trophy in 1935. In this thoroughly researched biography, journalist Brian E. Cooper tells the Dubuque, Iowa, native’s life story in meticulous detail. Readers interested in a cradle-to-grave account of a noteworthy midwestern football player will enjoy this well-written volume, while historians interested in 1930s college football will find the book to be a useful reference.

Berwanger descended from German immigrants who came to the United States in the 1880s. By the early 1930s, his gridiron skills at Dubuque High School attracted the attention of several Big Ten universities. Although some Iowans saw Berwanger’s decision to leave the state as nearly treasonous, the “Dutchman” headed to the University of Chicago (UC), where he played for Clark Shaughnessy. Dubuque businessman and UC booster Ira Davenport helped lure Berwanger to the Midway around the same time that Robert Maynard Hutchins was starting to transform UC from a research- and football-oriented school into an institution focused on Great-Books education.

Broadcaster Red Barber called Berwanger “the greatest football player I ever saw” (90), while legendary University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke compared him to Red Grange. But UC’s Depression-era eleven was so weak that it often seemed as though Berwanger was the team. Nevertheless, his 1935 season was so strong that he swept college football’s awards, being named to multiple All-America teams and selected as the Big Ten’s top athlete (over Ohio State track star Jesse Owens). Berwanger also won the inaugural award given by the New York–based Downtown Athletic Club—later renamed the Heisman Trophy. At the time, Berwanger considered the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football Award his biggest honor, so his sixty-pound, onyx-based Heisman Trophy was used as a door-stop at his aunt’s house and later “gathered dust” in his own basement (267). Only in subsequent years did the Heisman take on its present significance in the college football universe.

Fresh off his outstanding 1935 season, Berwanger was selected first, by the Philadelphia Eagles, in the inaugural (1936) National Football League draft. But he never played pro football, which was then a barely reputable pursuit for a college graduate. Instead, Berwanger concentrated on an unsuccessful attempt to compete as a decathlete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. After graduating from UC, Berwanger worked for the Featheredge Rubber Company in Chicago and married in 1940. He joined the U.S. Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, working to recruit men and train Navy flyers. After the war, Berwanger formed his own sponge-rubber manufacturing company, which specialized [End Page 103] in making gaskets for automobiles and home appliances. He was admitted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

This book is a detailed biography. Cooper discusses Berwanger’s summer job working for Ira Davenport’s Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works, the course work that kept him eligible to play Maroons football, and his UC track career. Interesting tidbits abound: Michigan linebacker Gerald Ford’s cheek was sliced open by Berwanger’s cleat during a game. Berwanger played himself in a lackluster 1936 Hollywood film called The Big Game. Shoppers at the Marshall Field store followed faraway football games via a “Grid Graph.” Berwanger, who broke his nose multiple times, was among the first players to wear a facemask, leading to his nickname “the Man in the Iron Mask.”

Cooper has mined newspapers—including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Daily News, Dubuque’s Telegraph Herald, and UC’s Daily Maroon—as well as magazine articles, a 1985 Berwanger interview, and National Collegiate Athletic Association publications. Yet the number of scholarly works listed in the bibliography is slim. In breadth and tone, First Heisman tends toward the journalistic. Its forty-three short and tightly focused chapters include over twenty-five devoted to Berwanger’s high school and collegiate football careers. Some chapters concentrate on individual seasons...


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