Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Bronk

Football in America: Game of the Century

Excerpts from Chapter 5:
CHAMPIONS: All Pros of All Kinds

By Bob Oates

2. Bronko Nagurski, Football’s First Big Winner

In the days when football was played largely on the ground, everyone was in awe of another Chicago ballcarrier.

Of the All-Pro football players who stirred America in the twentieth century, Bronko Nagurski joined Red Grange and Sammy Baugh in the first wave. And to sports fans, each symbolized something different.

Baugh was a precision passer, Grange a matchless open-field runner, Nagurski the ultimate power symbol.

As a physical specimen, Nagurski, of the three, was the most masterful. In a time when the game wasn’t as intellectually demanding as it was to become, Nagurski took charge as a famously feared power runner who seemed to be the essence of what football was all about. Even so, ironically, in his two biggest games, this embodiment of football’s brute force helped demonstrate the tactical superiority of the forward pass. In championships won as a passer, Nagurski equaled Baugh: two each.

A 225-pound fullback standing six-two, Nagurski, who in 1933 led the Chicago Bears to victory in the National Football League’s first championship game, is identified in his hometown as the greatest football player of all time. The town is International Falls, which is in the far north of Minnesota.

There the leading hotel, a new Holiday Inn, opened a Bronko Nagurski Room one July in the big fullback’s final years. A tinted, life-size Nagurski photo was unveiled when the room, a banquet hall, was dedicated, and everybody was there – almost everybody in Kouchiching County, that is – except Nagurski, who refused to come. "That’s Bronko," a friend said that summer. "He’s a shy one. Always has been."

In his seventies, Nagurski was then residing on the U.S.-Canada border at Rainy Lake, just four miles up the Rainy River from International Falls (population 6,940). With his wife, the former Eileen Kane, with whom Nagurski raised six children, he had moved into the lakeside cottage during the years when he was playing three positions – tackle and linebacker as well as fullback – for the 1930s Bears.

Numerous Kanes and Nagurskis lived in the neighborhood in those years and still do. It’s a neighborhood that is alternately a winter wonderland and a domain of brief, joyous summers. And the summer Bronko was seventy-five, his relatives and in-laws held a family reunion, with Bronko and Eileen as guests of honor.

Eileen enjoyed herself as usual, but Bronko, of course, wouldn’t come. "He’s reclusive," Dave Siegel, a reporter for the International Falls Daily Journal, said. "We’ve been trying to get an updated file picture of Nagurski for ten years, and we hung around the reunion all day, but no luck."

He was easier to shoot in the 1930s, when, at one time or another, almost every Chicago cameraman caught Nagurski ferrying an opponent or two across the goal line on his back. For decades, his name summoned the raw energy of football. And to this day, they point out the brick wall in Chicago that Nagurski cracked when he ran into it carrying a football one fall afternoon in Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs and, then, the Bears. Scoring the winning touchdown in that game – at the south end of a cramped field where the end zone was only nine yards deep – Nagurski stomped on two opponents, leaving one unconscious and the other with a broken shoulder. Next he collided with a goal post and spun into the wall, which stopped him at last. Picking himself up, he told a teammate, "That last guy hit pretty hard."

At an NFL game years later, when former quarterback Fran Tarkenton asked him about that day, Nagurski remembered everything but fracturing the wall.

"But I’ve seen the crack myself," Tarkenton said.

"Oh, c’mon now," Nagurski said. "No human could crack a brick wall."

No human, maybe. But Nagurski had super-human strength. Everybody who played in that era said so. He was the NFL’s first big winner, and he was the one they talked about the most whenever old-timers got together, as they did one summer in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I saw Nagurski for the first time when I was an NFL rookie," remembered Don Hutson, who has ranked as one of football’s top two or three receivers, all-time, since his All-Pro days at Green Bay. "At Alabama, I’d been known as a good defensive end, so I played Nagurski the way I’d play a Georgia fullback. On first down they gave him the ball, and he ran straight over me. I mean he ran me down and kept going without breaking stride."

Arch-rival Green Bay fullback-linebacker Clark Hinkle recalled: "He was the most bruising runner ever. The first time I tackled Nagurski, I had to have five stitches in my face. My biggest thrill in football was the day he announced his retirement."

At their Canton reunion that summer, Hutson and Hinkle were joined eventually by no fewer than four other all-timers: center Mel Hein, halfback Johnny Blood (McNally), guard Danny Fortmann, and, of all people, Bronko Nagurski himself. Hutson and Blood lured Bronko out of International Falls, Hein said, by putting pressure on Eileen Nagurski, somehow persuading her to fly in with the Recluse of Rainy Lake.

It isn’t true that he hadn’t left his lakeside cottage for twenty years, but he hadn’t left it often, and his appearance at Canton made the show for old-time fans.

Hein, the old New York Giants’ Hall of Fame center, was asked how the Hutson-Blood connection could get Nagurski all the way to Canton when the International Falls people couldn’t get him downtown. "In the last few years, Hutson and the rest of us have called on Bronko at the lake," Hein said. "He knows what we look like, and we know what he looks like now. So he doesn’t mind being around us. But I think he’s embarrassed to show himself in public at International Falls. He’d rather they remember him as he used to be, as he used to look, when he had his strength – when he was tough and trim, and awesomely vigorous." ...

Bronko Nagurski, human battering ram

Chicago Sun-Times, Nov 30, 2003 by Allen Barra

Monster of the Midway

The Life and Legend of Bronko Nagurski

by Jim Dent

Thomas Dunne. $24.95.

There's a memorable scene in the film "Hearts of Atlantis" in which Anthony Hopkins enthralls a young boy by recalling a memorable run by Bronko Nagurski. Hearing Hopkins stirred memories of my grandmother's awed recollections of Nagurski's near mythical power. That's how much he impressed her -- and my grandmother knew less about football than Anthony Hopkins.

For decades, football fans intrigued by Nagurski's story have had little to go on but oral tradition. Now comes Monster of the Midway: The Life and Legend of Bronko Nagurski, by Jim Dent, an instant classic that plugs an enormous gap in our knowledge of the early days of pro football. Dent, author of the best-selling The Junction Boys, about Bear Bryant's brutal first season at Texas A&M, is a master at seeking out great but as yet untold stories. There was no untold story larger than Nagurski's, and none that better deserved telling.

To the reader's delight, much of the folklore that has built up around Nagurski over the years proves to be true. A farm boy of Ukrainian and Polish stock, Bronislaw Nagurski was born in Ontario and raised near International Falls, Minn. He developed his body by pulling a plow. Like many immigrant boys born before World War I, Nagurski saw football as a means to a better life, but unlike today's pampered college stars, early college football players received no scholarships. Young Bronko worked two jobs at the University of Minnesota. The first provided room, board and tuition; the second was the reason he was given the first: he played on both offense and defense, often with padding and helmets that required stitching together before games.

And college football was the glamour game. Pro football in 1930, writes Dent, "was a redheaded stepchild compared to baseball. Players were regarded as hoodlums, owners and coaches as mere hustlers. Most pro teams struggled day to day just to survive." Few people considered pro football as a way to make a living. George Halas, Chicago Bears coach, National Football League founder and notorious tightwad, paid Nagurski the then ridiculous sum of $5,000 a year, the highest salary in the game. Amos Alonzo Stagg, the famed college football coach, thought any salary was too much: "Football is not a game you should get paid for ... He [Nagurski] shouldn't be taking money to play football."

Considering the legitimacy that Nagurski brought to the game as the rock of pro football's first legendary team, it's doubtful any amount would have been fair. With the era of Spandex and steroids still nearly half a century away, there were no specialists in the NFL in those days; you weren't a quarterback or tight end or outside linebacker, you were a football player. The rules and the soft, egg- shaped ball made passing difficult, and coaching from the sidelines was illegal.

It was a player's game, and the greatest player of all, by consensus, was Nagurski. Grantland Rice, the most famous sportswriter of his time, picked only 10 players for his 1929 All-America team; it was understood that Nagurski was the best player on both offense and defense and was thus All-America at both fullback and defensive tackle. The names of the positions in Nagurski's case were irrelevant; when asked what position he played, the Bronk replied, "Well, when the other team had the ball, I played where I thought I had the best chance to stop them. When our side had it, they generally gave me the ball."

"Who would you pick," Rice wrote, "to win a football game -- eleven Jim Thorpes -- eleven Glen Davises -- eleven Red Granges -- or eleven Bronko Nagurskis? The eleven Nagurskis would be a mop-up. It would be something close to murder and massacre." Nagurski's two- way talent extended beyond college and into the NFL. For eight straight seasons he played 60 minutes of every game.

The Bronk "played football like a man boiling over with rage," says Dent, and he played against men as reckless and desperate as himself, men with nicknames like Hunk, Blood, Shipwreck, Buckets, Wildcat, Moose, and Stinky. "Block or get out of my way," he growled at one of his linemen who failed to open a hole for him, "or I will break your spine." "The Bronk waits for nobody," said another teammate, "you block and get the hell out of the way. Or he'll break your back."

He was rough on teammates, hell on opponents, and an absolute terror to cops. On one game at Wrigley Field, he ran into a policeman's horse and knocked the officer sprawling; the horse got off easy. On another occasion, he rammed into a police car parked on the sideline and tore off a fender. Once he was heard to apologize. To three bystanders he plowed into during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles; he said "I am sorry; you fellas really should get out of my way while I'm running."

In the end, he did more damage to himself than any opponent. He played with two cracked vertebrae, was nearly crippled by a degenerative hip condition, and carried the load on both offense and defense with knee damage that would have sent a player in today's game to surgery. His injuries were so severe that during World War II an Army doctor told him, "Mr. Nagurski, I have already found six reasons to flunk you for military duty. I think it's time to stop counting."

Late in life, he was forced to travel to the Mayo Clinic to have the degenerating bones in his ankles fused. When a doctor asked him for an autograph for his son, Nagurski wrote, "To Jeremy -- Do not play football. Bronko Nagurski."

Happy is the man, though, whose biggest dream was to open a gas station in his hometown. Bronko spent the last 30 years of his life, dying in 1990, pumping gas and rebutting wild tales such as the one about the brick wall he cracked at Wrigley Field: "Oh, they say I cracked it. I don't know, I never went back and looked." He did, however, admit, "I hit that wall pretty doggone hard."

Allen Barra is a veteran sportswriter and author. His most recent book is Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century, written with Bob Costas.

Copyright The Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.

Football's Unbroken, Unequaled Bronko

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 10, 1990; Page F02

There is a memory, undimmed by the passage of 52 years, of the worst mismatch these eyes ever beheld. This was in Chicago's Wrigley Field, Dec. 12, 1937. Bears vs. the Redskins in the NFL title game. First quarter, the Bears behind by 7-0 and lusting for the tying touchdown.

The Bears were deep in Redskin territory and in these circumstances, with the Redskins' defense running out of yardage, Sammy Baugh moved up from his usual safety position to middle linebacker. The Bears of course would give the ball to Bronko Nagurski. The rail-thin, 6-foot-2, 175-pound Baugh in the Redskins' last line of defense against a Nagurski charge? What a joke.

Nagurski, 230 pounds of shoulders and high knee-action, did not trample Baugh. He lowered his head and gored him. Flung him high in the air and out of the vicinity, getting the Bears the big first down they needed, unimpeded by the Redskins' middle linebacker.

On Sunday, Bronko Nagurski died at 81, his place in both college and professional football firmly fixed. Probably no football player ever commanded so many superlatives, and in this appreciation of the Bronk, may I ask to be indulged to digress for a moment to relive that Redskins glory day in 1937 when the rookie Sammy Baugh beat the Bears for the title, 28-21, flicking touchdown passes of 55, 78 and 35 yards. For all his fame as a quarterback, Baugh wasn't a quarterback then. He was throwing the passes and doing the punting as the team's tailback in the double wing system. Riley Smith, on the flank, called the signals. But Baugh often operated on his own. So with the Redskins huddled in their end zone early in the game, they heard him say, "We're a-goin' in punt formation but we're really gonna pass." He took the snap and threw 55 yards to Cliff Battles to launch the first touchdown.

But this week belongs to Bronko Nagurski. There are many remembered examples of his fame, as once were listed in the book "Sports Immortals." "When you tackle the Bronk, it's like an electric shock. If you hit him above the ankles, you could get killed," Red Grange said.

It was put another way by fellow Hall-of-Famer Ernie Nevers: "Tackling Bronko is like tackling a freight train going downhill." In the pros, Steve Owen, whose New York Giants were often wrecked by Nagurski's charges, suggested his formula for dealing with the Bronk. "The only way to stop Nagurski is shoot him before he leaves the dressing room."

The version of Nagurski's power that I liked best was the comment of his college coach, Bernie Bierman of Minnesota, whose team was en route to a road game by railroad. When that train suddenly braked hard and came to a jolting stop, Bierman exclaimed, "My God, Nagurski has tackled the train."

Nagurski's fame led to fantasy. It was a college football scout who first told how he was recruited: "Driving by, I saw this powerful young man plowing a field. Then I noticed he had a plow, but no horse. I asked him directions to a certain town, and he pointed in the opposite direction — with the plow in his left hand."

Nagurski came out of Rainy River, Ontario, moving to International Falls, Minn., with his Polish-Ukrainian family at an early age. He lost his given name of Bronislaus when a teacher, perplexed by his mother's broken accent, simplified his name by entering it as Bronko.

For the Bears, Nagurski was the symbol of the Monsters of the Midway, the team that dominated the NFL for nearly a decade, with one winning streak of 18 games. He alternated at fullback and tackle, often playing both positions in the same game, as he had in college.

In his last two years in college, he was a near-unanimous all-American, and in 1929 received the ultimate reward from the New York Sun, which allotted him two places on its all-American team that year as fullback and tackle. Eventually he was named to the college and the professional Halls of Fame.

For all his size and power, Nagurski was a gentle, sensitive soul off the field, and in 1937 he quit the Bears, offended by George Halas's failure to raise his $5,000 salary, the same figure he was paid in 1930. He was persuaded to try pro wrestling, for which he was unsuited, but was quickly made a world champion by the wrestling folks in the manner that they do such things. Fact is, some of the old pro wrestlers worked hard to keep from pinning down this novice. He returned to the Bears for one more season, in 1943.

In his later years, Nagurski returned to Minnesota, serving as a fishing guide and later owning a service station. It was long after 872 carries of the football in the toughest company in the world, and after leading the blocking for Beattie Feathers when that chap set the NFL rushing record of 1,004 yards, that Bronko, at 70, announced he was retiring. "My legs started bothering me," he said.

Bronko and Me: John Carl Theilman

(The 1980s hadn't dawned, and I was already sick of the National Football League's end zone celebrations. And that was a 67-yard punt before these antics became the performance art they are today. Back in '82, Bronko Nagurski was alive, and probably equally unimpressed. I figured he was even in the phone book. I looked, and there he was...)

After his final retirement from football, Bronko Nagurski opened a gas station in International Falls, Minn. The local joke was if you bought gas from Bronko, you never bought it anywhere else. Once Bronko screwed on the gas cap, he was the only person in town who could get it off again.

Sure, it's disillusioning to know the favored form of off-field recreation for NFL players might involve drugs. But, to some, it's the smack on the field that's troubling.

What's shattering the moral fiber of professional football is all this high-fiving. Once little Bobby sees this perversion, he's out in the back yard smacking fingers with the neighbor kids.

We made it through Kool and the Gang's 'Celebrate' -- that overture which rang down upon the culmination of virtually every 1980 athletic event. We endured the posterior-whacking '60s and '70s. Can we survive the high-five?

Bronko Nagurski

It will be difficult to eradicate. This particular celebration occurs overhead everyone on the field, attracting both the television camera and the binoculars of the guy in the cheap seats.

This ceaseless digit-smacking leads a guy to wonder how a real football player reacts to this theatre. Bronko Nagurski was a real football player -- a guy with grass stains on his pants and coagulated blood on the bridge of his nose.

And the 73-year-old lives only a push-button call away, in International Falls.


"I think that's comedy to me," the Bronk says into his telephone. "I don't care for it. I don't care for it whether it's in football or basketball or any sport.

"I imagine some of that started years back in hockey," he continues. "when they'd jump all over each other when a goal was scored. I don't know whether fans enjoy it or not, but I wouldn't go for it myself. If someone started slapping me, I would resent it."

A member of the Pro Football Hall of fame, the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Nagurski was a tackle and fullback for the University of Minnesota from 1927-29. The Gophers lost only four times -- by a total of five points -- in his 24-game career. The Chicago Bears won National Football League titles in 1932, '33 and '43 with Nagurski.

Those were the less glamorous days under a pair of shoulder pads. "One thing we didn't have in my day," Nagurski once said, "was all this knee surgery. When you got hurt, you went ahead and played."

When they went ahead and played, Nagurski says, celebrations to the Scoreboard God were more subdued.

"Well, we'd give the guy who scored a nice pat on the back and congratulate him and we'd go on without a lot of fanfare or hysterics."

When Nagurski performed there weren't 60,000 pairs of screaming lungs in the stands and a few million beer-filled tummies in front of the television. The fact we can no longer, virtually, escape pro football, might have fomented the high-five. These guys understand TV.

"They want to know the camera's on them," Nagurski reasons, "and naturally each one wants to bring on a lot of attention to let everyone know what his number is and that he's in the ballgame."

But be warned, high-fivers: Bronko Nagurski's experience speaks.

"You know, sometimes a fella goes in there and you beat him all over the back and the next thing you know he looks like a bum on a play. You find out the glory doesn't last long."

Maybe the cure for these celebrations is to let today's boys high-five it with Bronko. The guy's ring size is 19 1/2.

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