The Silver Football is awarded by the Chicago Tribune to the best college football player in the Big Ten Conference.
Presented annually since 1924, it is the conference’s most prestigious individual award. Traditionally, the winner of the Silver Football has been published in the Chicago Tribune on Christmas Day. Today, the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player is announced on the Chicago-based Big Ten Network [BTN].
The winner of the Silver Football is determined by a vote of Big Ten head football coaches. Each coach submits a two-player ballot with a first and second choice, and coaches cannot vote for their own players. The first place vote receives two points, while second place earns one.
Red Grange of Illinois was the award’s first recipient. A three-time consensus All-American, The Galloping Ghost led the Illini to the 1923 national championship, then legitimized the NFL when he signed with the Chicago Bears. Grange was a charter member of both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. In 2008, Grange was named the best college football player of all time by ESPN. Three years later, he was named Greatest Big Ten Icon by BTN.
In December 1935, University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger – who was born on this date in 1914 — was awarded the Silver Football. That same month, he became the first recipient of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy, renamed the Heisman Trophy the following year. In 1936, Berwanger was the first player taken in the NFL’s inaugural draft.
Including Berwanger, 14 players have won the Silver Football and Heisman Trophy, including Nile Kinnick. Tom Harmon, Desmond Howard, Eddie George and Charles Woodson. Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, college football’s all-time leading rusher, won both trophies in 1999.
After winning the Silver Football as a sophomore and junior, Ohio State’s Archie Griffin openly campaigned for Buckeye quarterback Cornelius Greene as team MVP in his 1975 senior season. Greene won the team MVP by one vote – Griffin’s – becoming OSU’s representative for the Silver Football, which Greene won. Archie went on to earn his second consecutive Heisman Trophy, becoming the only Heisman winner not to be MVP of his own team.
Six Silver Football recipients are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In addition to Grange, Otto Graham [Northwestern], Dick Butkus [Illinois], Bob Griese [Purdue], Orlando Pace [Ohio State] are enshrined in Canton. Michigan’s Charles Woodson and Drew Brees of Purdue are certain hall-of-famers once they become eligible [HOF rules mandate that players are retired five years before becoming eligible].
Nine players have won Big Ten football’s most coveted award and gone on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions. Grieseled the Miami Dolphins to two world titles in the early 1970s. Others to win tandem trophies include Jim Grabowski, Troy Smith, Antwaan Randle-El, Rashard Mendenhall, Pace, Woodson and Howard.
Ohio State has produced the most Silver Football Award winners, with 19. Michigan is next, with 17. Three schools have never produced a Big Ten football MVP: Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland. It is probably fitting, as most Big Ten traditionalists believe these schools should never been admitted to the conference in the first place [the jury is still out on Penn State, which joined the league in 1993].
While the Heisman Trophy is virtually reserved for offensive backs [Woodson is the only defender ever to win a Heisman, and much of his exposure came returning punts], the Silver Football involves all position players. Rooted in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten — where blocking and tackling is highly valued – the gleaming trophy has gone to several men who played in the trenches. Larry Bethea [Michigan State] and Brandon Graham [Michigan] won the award as defensive ends. Butkus was a linebacker and Pace an offensive tackle. Alex Agasseand Bill Burrell won as guards for the University of Illinois. In 1964, Michigan’s Bob Timberlake became the only place kicker ever to win the Silver Football.
Penn State’s Saquon Barkley garnered his second Silver Football in 2017, becoming the fifth player to win the award twice. Previous back-to-back winners include Paul Giel [Minnesota 1952-53], Griffin [1973-74], Anthony Thompson [Indiana 1988-89] and Braxton Miller [Ohio State 2012-13]. Barkley is also the second of two dual Silver Football Award winners, having shared the honor with Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett in 2016. Daryll Clark of Penn State and Michigan’s Graham were named co-MVP’s of the Big Ten in 2009.
Two Silver Football honorees went on to play Major League Baseball following their college football careers. Wisconsin end Red Wilson won the Silver Football in 1949, then played catcher for the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians between 1951 and 1960. A star halfback at Minnesota, Paul Giel finished runner-up to Johnny Lattner of Notre Dame for the 1953 Heisman Trophy. His 1,794 votes received are the most by any player not to win the award. Giel was also an All-American pitcher for the Golden Gophers who inked a $ 60,000 signing bonus with the San Francisco Giants in 1954 – the richest in franchise history at the time. The hard-throwing righty played for four big league teams between 1954 and 1961.