John Jacob “Jay” Berwanger was born in 1914 in Dubuque, Iowa. His parents, John and Pauline, had four other children, Dorothy, Eleanor, Elizabeth, and Paul. He grew up in Dubuque and attended Marshall Elementary School, Jefferson Junior High, and Dubuque High School where he played football, wrestled, and ran track.
After high school, he attended the University of Chicago and was a star halfback for the school’s Chicago Maroons football team. He was known as the “one man football team.” During a game against the Michigan Wolverines in 1934, he left his mark on Michigan center Gerald Ford in the form of a distinctive scar on the future U.S. President’s left cheek. Ford often said that he thought of Berwanger every morning (when he shaved). He also competed in track and field for Chicago, setting a school decathlon record in 1936 that stood until 2007.
In 1935, Berwanger became the first winner of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy. (The following year the award was renamed the Heisman Trophy.) He became the first player to be drafted by the NFL in its inaugural 1936 NFL Draft. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles but they traded him to George Halas and the Chicago Bears. Unable to reach an agreement over salary with the Bears, Berwanger took a job with a Chicago rubber company and became a part-time coach at the University of Chicago.
In an effort to appease his athletic desire, he started playing rugby. He was the headliner on the Chicago team that won 19 straight matches and claimed the national championship in 1939. In mid-November, Chicago posted a 24-9 win over New York before 10,000 shivering fans at Soldier Field. The game and Berwanger’s influence stimulated interest in cross-regional matches because during that time, people simply did not travel out of their regions to play club rugby. He demonstrated that club rugby should be played on a wider geographical scope.
That game featured the first two winners of the Heisman trophy – Berwanger and Yale’s Larry Kelly, representing New York. In another rugby match, Berwanger also faced off against Joseph Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s older brother. In 1961, when Berwanger met JFK, they did not make mention of football or the Heisman. Instead, they talked about rugby. He loved his time with rugby and deeply appreciated the friendships he made and the spirit of the game. Pearl Harbor ended his rugby playing, as he enlisted in the Naval Air Force. He was a flight instructor, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
Just after the start of his rugby career and a few years prior to his enlistment, Berwanger married Philomela Baker. They had three children: John, Cuyler “Butch”, and Helen.
After the war, Berwanger began a successful career as a businessman. He also began officiating collegiate football, including Big Ten games, Notre Dame, and the 1949 Rose Bowl. In 1954, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Two years after his first wife passed, Berwanger remarried an old friend, Jane Temple. They were married for 20 years until her death. Berwanger passed away in 2002 in Illinois.