JAY Berwanger, a halfback who split defenses on the same University of Chicago site where Enrico Fermi later split atoms, was college football's finest player in 1935. Although his name is mostly forgotten today, he will soon lead some of the game's all-time greats in a motorcade down Broadway.
Riding in convertibles behind him will be Doak Walker, Alan Ameche, Angelo Bertelli, and a host of other former superstars.
The occasion is the golden anniversary of the Heisman Trophy and the declaration of ''Heisman Week'' in New York City, where the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) annually presents the bronze likeness of a ball carrier to the country's outstanding college player. The award is named for John Heisman, a storied college coach during the early 1900s and for a time the club's athletic director.
Pete Dawkins, the 1958 recipient, who played for Army, has been struck by the reverence even non-football fans hold for the award. Many years of travel as a military man have afforded him a unique perspective on the trophy's aura.
''My wife and I have come to see the award through the eyes of the movers,'' he explains. ''They might come in and grudgingly note our china and prize possessions, with only a modicum of regard for it all. But after they'd wandered into the den and seen the trophy, their whole attitude would suddenly and visibly change. They would become very interested and very polite.
''They would bring special cases and crates and argue over where in the van to put the trophy. When they got to the other end they would almost audibly cheer when it got there without any damage.''
In his book ''Heroes of the Heisman Trophy,'' Bill Libby calls the accolade ''prominent beyond reason, over-publicized, controversial, and criticized,'' but concludes that it remains ''the most cherished single statue in sports.''
A school and its fans, of course, sometimes do most of the cherishing. At Boston College, for example, spectators are unabash-edly wearing ''Flutie for the Heisman'' painter's caps this season as part of their campaign to get quarterback Doug Flutie selected.
For all the attention on individual players, though, football is profoundly a team sport. ''It's a game in which success is dependent on a whole group of people each doing their part,'' Dawkins says. ''But the more I've thought about it, the more it's come to me that we Americans insist on knowing who is the winner, who is No. 1. The result is a player who really symbolizes achievement within the sport.''
As symbols, says Doak Walker, the 1948 winner, who played at Southern Methodist University, Heisman recipients are under public scrutiny once their name goes on the trophy. ''You're a marked man from that day on, but it's a wonderful marking,'' he observes.
To win the Heisman Trophy, a player doesn't need character references. The award is simply for playing ability, nothing else. Whatever public responsibility a player may feel to uphold the ''office'' is a personal matter. ''There is no oath,'' observes the 1951 winner, Dick Kazmaier, a Princeton tailback.
Even so, the majority of winners have been model citizens who have found success beyond the gridiron.
''About 90 percent of these people have made it in the real world,'' says Bud Greenspan, the writer, producer, and director of stirring films that have highlighted the Heisman TV specials. ''Their need to excel, and the discipline they've used on the playing field, are transposable to life generally.''
To cite a few examples, Kazmaier heads up his own sports and leisure-related firm (see accompanying story); Dawkins, a former Rhodes scholar, serves as a senior executive with Shearson Lehman/ American Express Inc. in Manhattan; Walker is special-events director at the Los Angeles Times; and Terry Baker, the 1962 winner from Oregon State University, has a busy law practice.
Of the Heisman winners not playing today, O. J. Simpson remains the most visible, and for good reason. He has become a one-man conglomerate in the manner of golfing great Arnold Palmer, his Hertz Rent-A-Car sidekick. O. J. Simpson Enterprises keeps track of all the irons he has in the fire. Besides being a commentator on ABC's ''Monday Night Football,'' he is the owner of seven Honey Baked Ham Inc. stores in Los Angeles, a partner in a cinema shorts production company, and the ''vice-president in charge of propaganda'' (as he puts it) of a fast-food chicken franchise.
Even without football, Simpson feels he would have succeeded in life. He acknowledges its impact, though: ''Football has opened up doors I may never have gotten to. It shot me into other areas.''
In his quest for the Heisman, Simpson's main asset was a wonderfully fluid yet powerful running style, but his easily recognizable name - O. J. for Orenthal James - didn't hurt, either.
As in any election, name recognition is important. The same holds true when the Heisman's nationwide electorate of 1,050 voters, mostly football writers and broadcasters, cast ballots.
That's why at Notre Dame, quarterback Joe Theismann was once talked into changing the pronunciation of his name from thees-man to thighs-man - to rhyme with Heisman, of course. The strategy didn't work and Stanford's Jim Plunkett won instead, but the lengths to which Heisman hype could go were established.
The tendency to bang the drums loudly is understandable, since to have a Heisman candidate, much less the winner, brings prestige and attention to a university's football program. Just look at Boston College, which has attracted almost weekly television coverage this year because of its winning ways under quarterback Flutie.
And speaking of TV, many stations across the country will again carry the Heisman Trophy special on Saturday, Dec. 1, beginning at 7 p.m. (Eastern time). The three leading candidates will be flown to New York and the winner announced during a live press conference at the DAC, in lower Manhattan.
In the past, only the winner would be brought in, but the three-finalist procedure was adopted to add suspense and to keep eager-beaver journalists at bay.
Even that hasn't always worked. ''I remember one year Brent Musburger announced from the airport that Herschel Walker was in town and would be the winner, and I didn't even know who had won yet,'' says Andrew Corbett, current Heisman Trophy Committee chairman. Besides Flutie, the DAC almost assuredly will invite Ohio State running back Keith Byars. Brigham Young's Robbie Bosco or Miami's Bernie Kosar, both quarterbacks, could complete this year's trio.
Flutie, the most prolific passer in college history and last year's third-place finisher, appears to be the clear favorite. He fits the unwritten formula that virtually guarantees selection of a senior offensive back from a winning team.
Traditionally, Heisman voters have favored ballcarriers and passers.
Dawkins feels there is a very logical explanation for this. ''Football is a game that centers around scoring touchdowns,'' he reasons. ''So if you're going to pick a single player to symbolize achievement in the game, it's natural to pick a player associated with scoring touchdowns. That being the case, you pick quarterbacks and running backs."