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80 years ago, U. of Chicago star was NFL’s first, first pick

Former University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger was the first person drafted in the first NFL draft. | AP

The first pick of the first-ever NFL draft strode with his date through a downtown hotel lobby.

Jay Berwanger was on top of the football world in 1936. The first Heisman Trophy the year before, the University of Chicago halfback was drafted No. 1 overall by the Eagles and then traded to the Bears — whose owner, George Halas, was now crossing the very same lobby.

The two stopped, amazed.

They’d talked before the draft on the phone, but the player was non-committal about playing professionally. He was thinking about training for the 1936 Olympics. It was nearing the end of the Great Depression, too, and no self-respecting business would hire a man who needed to run off to practice or games for part-time pay.

Halas dealt a veteran tackle to the Eagles for the No. 1 overall pick, anyway.

“George sees my dad in the lobby and says, ‘Jay I just traded for you,’” said Butch Berwanger, one of Jay’s three children. “My dad said, ‘Yeah I heard that, George.’”

Negotiations began on the spot — but didn’t last long.

Berwanger said he wanted $25,000 — or about $430,000 in today’s money — for a two-year contract with a no-cut provision.

For a league that was far less popular than its college cohort, the request bordered on crazy.

“My dad knew Halas could never pay that much,” said Butch, an educator of 40 years who lives in Oak Brook.

Berwanger knew it. Most players made around $150 per game.

Unamused but polite, Halas told Berwanger and his date that it was nice to see them, and to enjoy their evening.

He and wife Minnie headed off to their event on the other end of the hotel.

“And that,” Butch said, “was the end of the negotiations.”

• • •

The NFL’s nine owners had grown tired of bidding against each other. To end the salary one-upmanship with the best college players, they decided to meet in Philadelphia and distribute them amongst themselves.

So on Feb. 8, 1936, they gathered around a table at the Ritz-Carlton on South Broad Street. In reverse order of finish, they began selecting college players — most of whom they knew only by reputation — off a blackboard until each of the fledgling league’s teams had nine apiece.

It was, 80 years ago, the first NFL draft.

It bore little resemblance to the version that kicks off Thursday at the Auditorium Theatre and rambles for seven rounds and three days. The NFL expects 300,000 fans to attend “Draft Town” in Grant Park, which was designed to be Lollapalooza for the sporting set.

By contrast, less than half those drafted in 1936 — including Berwanger —played professionally.

“A lot of college stars bypassed pro ball because there was little or no money at the time,” said Brian Cooper, author of First Heisman: The Life of Jay Berwanger.

“It wasn’t a salary dispute. Berwanger quoted a very high dollar figure as a high to inform Halas that he was ready to move on and get a regular job.”

• • •

As amazing as his college career was — former Michigan player Gerald Ford carried a facial scar into the White House suffered trying to tackle him — Berwanger’s life wasn’t defined by football.

When he won the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy in 1935 — it would be re-named when John Heisman died the next year — he was simply thrilled to take his first-ever airplane flight, to New York.

When he returned home with the trophy, he had no room in his small bedroom at the Psi Upsilon house. He gave it to his Aunt Gussie, who used it as a doorstop in her north side apartment. In the summer, the 60-pound trophy propped open her front door to let the breeze in.

He didn’t reclaim it until around 1950, when Butch’s brother John — now a Winnetka lawyer — came home from grade school and asked which Berwanger won the Heisman.

Their father had never told them.

“He said, ‘That’s what I did, that’s not who I am,’” Butch said.

When the trophy presentation was first aired on television in 1977, Berwanger was the presenter. He didn’t tell his family until it was over.

His beginnings made humility easy. The son of a Dubuque, Iowa, blacksmith, Berwanger went into vocational training before his mentor Ira Davenport, a former Olympic track medalist, recognized his skill and encouraged him to focus on academics. Davenport thought he could get a scholarship at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, and Berwanger did.

After college, Berwanger found a way to make money off football — by telling stories about his college football exploits.

“He said, ‘I discovered I could make as much money giving after-dinner speeches as I could playing pro football,’” Cooper said. “’And I didn’t get hit nearly as often.”

• • •

Berwanger went to work at a rubber company and coached at University of Chicago after college, but stayed active by taking up rugby.

“He loved the competition,” Butch said. “I think he would have loved to play football; it just wasn’t financially acceptable, and he wanted to do the other.”

He starred on Chicago’s 1939 national championship team, and quit only when he joined the navy after Pearl Harbor.

When he returned, he founded Jay Berwanger, Inc., in Downers Grove.

The plastic and rubber manufacturer still exists, though he sold it years before his death in 2002, at age 88.

He will be inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame on June 4 in Philadelphia — 62 years after joining the College Football Hall of Fame.

And 80 years after being the first, first NFL pick.

“It’s kinda cool that the draft came back here,” Butch said, “and he was the first guy drafted.”