Known as the toughest player in the National Football League in the 1930s, Bronko Nagurski (1908-1990) was a legendary two-way star during the formative years of professional football. His name became synonymous with tenacity. Nagurski also had along and successful career as a wrestler.
Red Grange, the biggest star in the early decades of professional football, called Nagurski, his teammate on the Chicago Bears, the "best football player of all time." Nagurski became a legend as a fullback, and it was said that no single opponent could bring him down. But he also played on defense his entire career, as an intimidating lineman with a reputation for mayhem. "You could have played him at any position," claimed sportswriter Grantland Rice.
Nagurski was born on November 3, 1908 near the small Canadian border town of Rainy River, just across from International Falls, Minnesota. His parents, Michael and Amelia Nagurski, were Ukrainian immigrants and farmers; Bronislaw was one of four children. Surrounded by wilderness and enduring long, cold winters, the brawny young boy loved the outdoors and athletics. He ran four miles each day to and from school.
In high school, Nagurski took up wrestling and boxing. His mother didn't want him to get injured and tried to get him to give up those sports, but with little success. He soon grew interested in football.
In 1926, Nagurski entered the University of Minnesota. From 1927 through 1929, he starred at four different positions on that school's football team—end, guard, tackle and fullback. Nagurski tore apart the Big Ten, establishing a fearsome reputation on offense and defense. For three seasons, he was named an All-American. He was the first college player in history to be named an all-star at two positions—fullback and defensive tackle.
Legendary Chicago Bears head coach George Halas scouted Nagurski and signed him in 1930 to a $5,000 contract, a hefty sum in those days. After returning home from the contract signing, Nagurski found an offer for $7,500 a season from the New York Giants.
After an excellent rookie season, Nagurski had to take a pay cut to $4,500 because the Great Depression was cutting into the Bears' revenue. Wearing the uniform number 3, Nagurski quickly became one of the National Football League's stars, but he did not complain when his salary was cut again, to $3,700.
The Bears were the top team of their era, with the game's top players, Grange and Nagurski. In 1932, the Bears finished first in their division. One of the classic games that season was played at Staten Island, New York, against that borough's Stapletons. Both teams played tremendous defense and Nagurski was held to 52 yards rushing on eight carries. At one point, Nagurski felled the home team's quarterback by smashing him in the face with both hands, and the fans rode him for the rest of the game, which ended in a scoreless tie.
A month later, in a rematch in Chicago, the Bears won 27-7 and Nagurski scored two touchdowns. The Stapletons' touchdown was the first the Bears had allowed in five games.
Early in 1933, wrestler Tony Stecher, who managed his wrestler brother Joe, convinced Nagurski to try professional wrestling. Nagurski made his debut in February and took only four minutes to pin his opponent, Tag Tagerson. Tony Stecher became his manager, and Nagurski began wrestling regularly, sometimes even during the football season.
In 1933, the Bears repeated as league champions, and Nagurski led the team with 533 yards rushing. The key to the divisional championship was a late-season game at Wrigley Field in Chicago against the Portsmouth Spartans. A penalty to Nagurski for holding on defense gave the Spartans a first down late in the game, and they used it to their advantage on a touchdown drive to put them in the lead. Nagurski was enraged. He took the kickoff and ran it back to the Bears' 45-yard line. In the huddle Nagurski reportedly said: "This is my fault. Give me the ball!" He then bulldozed his way through several defenders. Crossing the goal line with the game-winning touchdown, he never slowed until slamming into a concrete wall. Legend has it that Nagurski said: "That last guy hit me awfully hard."
In the league championship game that year, Nagurski ran for a game-high 65 yards and even threw two touchdown passes. The second pass gave the Bears the victory over the New York Giants.
Nagurski always played all-out, making bone-crushing tackles as a defensive lineman and on offense fearlessly running the ball into enemy lines like a bulldozer. "He probably broke more bones, legitimately, than any other player," said biographer Harold Rosenthal. "Contact with him, either trying to stop him as a runner, or trying to block him as a lineman, was extremely costly. If he hit you right, you suffered a broken shoulder." Nagurski was also a fearsome blocker, often clearing the way for smaller running backs.
Almost no one could bring him down alone. Even his own linemen sometimes cleared away so they would not trip him up. "Bronko runs his own interference," New York Giants coach Steve Owen once said.
"Tackling Bronko was like trying to stop a freight train running downhill," said Ernie Nevers, a running back with the Chicago Cardinals. Owen said famously: "The only way to stop him is to shoot him before he leaves the clubhouse." Owen once tried a five-man line against Nagurski, bringing in an extra linebacker. Nagurski carried the ball on the first play of the game. "Two things happened that we hadn't counted on," Owen said. "One, Nagurski gained eight yards. Two, the linebacker had to be carted off the field."
Nagurski didn't dance and dive. He ran straight through potential tacklers, employing his massive body like a battering ram. "If you went at him low, he would stomp you to death," recalled Mel Hein of the New York Giants. "If you went at him high, he just knocked you down and ran over you." Grange said: "Tackling Nagurski was like getting an electric shock." Several players tried rolling into Nagurski's feet in hopes of tripping him up, but that tactic had its price. "You ended up wearing cleat marks for weeks," Giants player Ken Strong said.
For his era, Nagurski was an enormous man. His hands and wrists were monstrous, and his neck was thick. Most linemen weighed only about 210 pounds in the 1930s. Nagurski stood six feet three inches tall and weighed 225 pounds when he broke into the pro ranks. After a few years his weight was listed as 238 pounds. That was large even for a lineman, and Nagurski's size was unheard of in a running back. Despite his size, Nagurski accelerated rapidly when he was handed the football.
Sportswriter Rice once insisted that Nagurski was superior to the two men generally accepted as the greatest football players of the first half of the twentieth century, Jim Thorpe and Grange. Rice said: "Eleven Bronko Nagurksis would have beaten eleven Thorpes or eleven Granges."
Nagurski did not pile up any records for rushing yard-age. The Bears under Halas were a team, not a collection of stars. None of them, including Nagurski, had much use for individual statistics. During only one game in his nine seasons with the Bears did Nagurski carry the ball for 100 yards or more. He averaged less than ten carries a game and never led the league in rushing yardage.
"Halas stockpiled backs and he believed in spreading it around," Nagurski explained during an interview before the 1984 Super Bowl. "Plus he wanted to keep me fresh for defense, where I'd put in a full afternoon."
In that interview, Nagurski told Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated that his method of running the ball wasn't fancy, but it was still intimidating to any potential tacklers. "Just before they got to me, I'd knock 'em out of the way and keep running," he explained.
Nagurski suffered his share of injuries, but in those days, the work ethic dictated that players continue to play through pain. Nagurski was extremely casual about his own knees. If something hurt, he would whack one side of the knee to try to get cartilage back in place.
In 1935, Nagurski sat out almost the entire season with a back injury after breaking two vertebrae in an over-enthusiastic play. "I threw a cross-body block on an end—a stupid block—and I plowed into his knees with the small of my back," he later recalled.
In 1936, Nagurski married his childhood sweetheart, Eileen Kane, in a ceremony on December 28, just after the end of the football season. On June 29, 1937, Nagurski won a world wrestling title by defeating Dean Detton in a match in Minneapolis."He was a pretty big draw," recalled wrestling expert Stu Hart. "He was pretty tough to bring down in wrestling."
In 1937, with the Depression waning, Nagurski finally was raised back to $5,000 by Halas. He had another outstanding season. On Christmas Day that year, Eileen and Bronko had a son, nicknamed Junior. They would have five more children in coming years. With a family to raise, Nagurski could no longer afford to be so forgiving about his salary. In 1938, he asked for a raise to $6,000, but the tight-fisted Halas refused to give him the money. Nagurski quit and became a wrestler full-time.
"I wanted to go home anyway," he told Zimmerman in the 1984 interview. "I was tired of knocking myself out, going on the wrestling tour between games to make extra money."
In wrestling Nagurski earned more money but was not as happy. He didn't like the showmanship aspect of wrestling. "Bronco, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense person, never cared for the capers and antics," said biographer Harold Rosenthal. "He said they tended to degrade." Instead, Nagurski wrestled without much embellishment. He didn't try many fancy tricks, but simply used his tremendous brute strength to bring down opponents. He won the National Wrestling Association title twice, in 1939 and in 1941.
In 1943, Nagurski came out of retirement for one last season to help out George Halas, who because of World War II was desperate for players. He was used mostly as a tackle but then was pressed into service as a fullback. The Bears won their division and Nagurski scored a touchdown to help Chicago win the league championship game over the Washington Redskins. Officially, for his career, Nagurski is listed as having 3,863 yards in 840 carries, but there is doubt about his actual totals due to poor record-keeping in his early years.
In 1951, Nagurski was among the first class of inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame. In his later years, he suffered from arthritis and endured many knee operations to try to salvage what was left of his much-abused knees. Still, he kept wrestling until 1960, then went home to Rainy Lake to become a fishing guide.
In 1963, Nagurski was among the original 17 men inducted into the National Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He attended the ceremonies with the ten other inductees who were still alive at the time. All the men got rings, but the jeweler had to make a new mold to accommodate Nagurski's record ring size of 19 and a half inches.
For years after retiring from sports, Nagurski ran a gas station in International Falls. In his later years, he also delighted in following the career of his first son. Nagurski Jr. played eight seasons with the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the Canadian Football League. Bronko Nagurski died on January 8, 1990 in International Falls, Minnesota.
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