Heisman: First is last in Chicago

The dream died when they took down the billboard.

As he recovers fully from a nasty Achilles tendon injury suffered last season, Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa's well-publicized Heisman chances are, to borrow the school's hopeful sales pitch, not Persa strong.

So before last week's game against Eastern Illinois (Persa didn't play and is unlikely to play Saturday at Army), the school removed the "Chicago's Heisman candidate" billboard that overlooked a highway.

And Chicago's Heisman drought will last another season. (It's not quite as bad as the Cubs' streak, yet, but it's getting there.)

Long live Jay Berwanger, the only Heisman Trophy winner this city has ever known.

Berwanger, the burly University of Chicago halfback, won the first-ever Downtown Athletic Club award in 1935. Back then the award didn't have cachet, or even the Heisman name yet, so Berwanger was, as they say, just excited for a plane ride to New York City. He had received the news via telegram at his fraternity house.

At 6 feet, 2 inches tall and nearing 200 pounds, Berwanger was bigger than some linemen. And even though his numbers weren't exactly eye-popping for U of C's last semi-competitive team, his reputation and ferocity earned him the title of "best player east of the Mississippi."

Berwanger's legacy is mostly lost to historical trivia, given that the football program on the Midway Plaisance (where do you think "Monsters of the Midway" came from?) was excised from the university after the 1939 season. (Stagg Field didn't go totally unused, however; the atomic bomb was tested under an end zone in 1942.)

Despite his size, Berwanger never played a down in the National Football League. Felicitously enough, he was the first pick in the first-ever NFL draft, and perhaps the first to thumb his nose at George Halas.

He was drafted by the Eagles, then had his rights traded to the hometown Bears. The story goes that Berwanger asked Papa Bear for $25,000 guaranteed over two years (about $340,000 in today's dollars) and the notorious cheapskate Halas said no. But most believe that take to be apocryphal. In reality, Berwanger just wanted to start another career.

Either way, Jim McMahon would've been proud.

Berwanger wrote sports columns for the Chicago Daily News, coached at his alma mater and fought in World War II. In 1948, he founded Jay Berwanger Inc., which, according to the company's website, is "a manufacturers' sales agency specializing in rubber, plastic, urethane and other elastomeric materials."

Benjamin Braddock should've listened to the advice of the older businessman in "The Graduate"; Berwanger made a lot of money in plastics. And when football returned to the university after a 30-year absence, Berwanger was a familiar face as a booster.

After he won the bronze trophy, Berwanger wound up giving it, I kid you not, to his Aunt Gussie. As the legend goes, she used it as a doorstop. Eventually he donated the trophy -- and, later, a Heisman diamond ring, presented to him by the DAC -- to the university.

The Heisman, now moored to a sturdy base on campus, comes out of its case a few times a year, like when interested publications come calling and for picture day for the modern-day University of Chicago Maroons football team. Every player gets to pose. No other Division III school can offer that.

There's a picture of Berwanger in the iconic pose tucked in behind the trophy.

"A lot of people think he inspired the pose of the trophy," said assistant athletic director Dave Hilbert. "He didn't. That's all they posed for pictures. But we let people believe it."

Hilbert, the school's sports information director, and Tom Weingartner, the AD, got to know Berwanger quite well in the last 10 years or so before he passed away from lung cancer in 2002. He would stop by the campus regularly, tell stories and give pep talks to the football team.

"He was a special guy," Weingartner said. "Just a gentleman in every way."

One favorite memory of theirs is when Hilbert and Weingartner honored Berwanger at a game for the 60th anniversary of his Heisman award.

They printed some posters and set him up in the old Jay Berwanger trophy room at Bartlett Hall, a classic Gothic building right out of "Harry Potter." Before they knew it the line for autographs snaked out of the building and onto 57th Street.

"After all those years, people still loved Jay, they loved the Heisman," Weingartner said.

A year after Berwanger died, the $51 million Gerald Ratner Athletic Center opened. Now his trophy is in a secured, well-lit case in the center of the lobby, surrounded by memorabilia from the school's athletic glory days, including Berwanger's No. 99 football sweater.

Students pass by the trophy every day and the school gets the occasional visitors who make a pilgrimage to see it.

"Sometimes there are fans who come into town to see Notre Dame or Northwestern, and they want to see the first Heisman," Hilbert said.

Longtime University of Chicago football coach Dick Maloney takes pride in the school's history, listing the 1905 and 1913 national championships on his letterhead.

"Kids nowadays are like, 'Yeah, that's the Heisman, that's neat,'" Maloney told me in 2009. "But when their dad or their grandfathers come in, you see a look on their face, like 'Wow.' Especially if they're Chicago people or Big Ten people and know how football was in the old days."

Given the scandals that have plagued college football, especially right now, then university president Robert Hutchins looked prescient when upon termination of the U of C program he said:

We shall get rid of an important handicap to education. It is hard for an educational institution to live in a satisfactory way with football, win or lose.

It's easy to dream about what the U of C, and for that matter, the South Side, would be like if the school never left the Big Ten all those years ago. But the decision was for the best. The university is one of the most academically rigorous in the country -- for undergrads and the many graduate programs.

At a school where three-quarters of the brainy, often quirky student body probably doesn't know a competitive football team exists there, there are no T-shirts in the bookstore with Berwanger or the Heisman on them. That could change soon, athletic department officials say.

But there is a T-shirt emblazoned with every Nobel Prize winner with University of Chicago ties. Another shirt has a brain and Earth tagged "supply" and "demand."

In Hyde Park, far from the controversies of big-time football, the priorities are still very clear. Berwanger would be proud.