College Football Countdown: No. 99 Jay Berwanger

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Today marks an important milestone in the 2016 college football countdown. We are officially out of triple digits, and down to just 99 days until the first round of games.

Cal-Hawaii and North Dakota State-Charleston Southern officially usher in the campaign August 27.

At this important juncture in the offseason, CFB Huddle counts down to the season opener, recognizing a legend of the game at each remaining number. The following is the opening induction, Jay Berwanger.

NO. 99 JAY BERWANGER, HB, CHICAGO

The first recipient of the Heisman Trophy, and first-ever selection in the NFL draft, seems an appropriate first induction in our countdown.

Berwanger received the award in 1935 with little fanfare — certainly no black-tie event in Manhattan, as is now the custom. From the University of Chicago archives:

Jay Berwanger received a telegram from Manhattan’s Downtown Athletic Club, informing him that he had won a trophy for being the “most valuable football player east of the Mississippi.”

Jeez, puts into perspective the regional bias that may have denied Christian McCaffrey the Heisman this past season, doesn’t it?

Of course, the Heisman Trophy evolved to no longer distinguish as an honor for the best “player east of the Mississippi” and became a national award. Similarly, the NFL draft grew from the humble roots when Berwanger was selected in 1935, growing into a weekend-long behemoth pundits track for the course of the year.

Time has a way of changing all things, and it took decades for the Heisman Trophy and NFL draft to evolve after Jay Berwanger. Chicago football changed almost immediately, though.

Plenty of universities that were once national powerhouses boast winners of the Heisman in its early years — Yale won the next two after Berwanger, Army produced back-to-back winners during World War II — but Chicago’s the only university with a recipient but no Div. I program.

And it didn’t take long to happen, with the program ceasing operations in 1939.

Ironically, the University of Chicago built around football, not vice versa, hiring Amos Alonzo Stagg before a president, in hopes that a gridiron powerhouse would attract top-tier undergraduates. Dave Revsine’s excellent book Opening Kickoff covers Chicago’s appearance on the college football scene in greater detail.

Jay Berwanger’s Heisman win is the last gasp of a one-time powerhouse. Chicago finished 4-4 that 1935 campaign, a mark reflective of the program’s middling state toward the end of its existence.

Though Chicago bowed out of Div. I 77 years ago, its closure reflects on the sport’s current climate. The economic landscape’s tenuous for many universities; Idaho is dropping to FCS, rumors of Eastern Michigan and Massachusetts considering downgrades have floated.

Time’s changing the sport, and Chicago serves as a reminder that even a school with a legendary coach, Heisman Trophy winner and a scene built on football — quite literally — can move away from the gridiron.