Sept. 20, 2007
by Jeff Smith
On Nov. 3, 1908, when Bronko Nagurski was born in Rainy River, Ontario, legend has it that Paul Bunyan sensed it and told his blue ox Babe, "We have a challenger!"
Ninety-nine years later, we might have just had the birth of the greatest football player of all time.
Yet most people are unaware of the dominance, the power, and the durability of Nagurski, who starred on both sides of the ball at the University of Minnesota from 1927-29.
Nagurski was born to Polish-Ukrainian immigrants, Mike and Emelia, and eventually moved to International Falls, Minn., as a young boy. He grew up in the farming town of 4,000, and played high school football on a team that did not even register one win throughout his career. In fact, against the much tougher teams from a neighboring mining town, the International Falls squad never scored a point.
So how on Earth would a 6-2, 190-pound high schooler, who had never won a football game at the prep level, earn the interest of a college coach?
The story has it that Dr. Clarence Spears, the coach at Minnesota, was out recruiting the state when he became lost on a country road in the north woods. His car slowly rolled up on a young farmboy plowing a field - with no horse.
"Which way to the nearest town?" Spears asked.
"Thataway," the youth pointed with one hand while the other was lifting the plow.
"Right then and there I signed him up at Minnesota," Spears recalled in many of his alumni banquets. "Anybody who could point with a plow would have to be a prospect."
Nagurski arrived at Minnesota in the fall of 1926 for freshman football and was promptly greeted along with the rest of the freshmen by Spears.
Offering a hearty welcome to the new bunch, Spears extended his hand for a shake and said, "My name's Spears, what's yours?"
"Mine's Nagurski, Bronko Nagurski," said the new recruit.
Spears chuckled and questioned him. "Bronko, hey? That's a strange name!"
The intense freshman responded, "Well, Clarence ain't so hot either!"
At that point, the marriage was made and Nagurski was officially ready to become the most dominant and feared player college football had ever seen.
Spears was unclear whether or not the Golden Gophers would use Nagurski as a fullback on offense or at defensive tackle. In the first scrimmage, Nagurski was slotted at tackle against the team's first-string offense. When the ball was handed off for a run up the middle, Nagurski drilled the running back for a loss. In the series that followed, Nagurski played the role of fullback and powered through the starting defensive line, shedding tackles well into the secondary.
Needless to say, the 1927 season was full of expectations.
As a sophomore, Nagurski had built his giant physique into a solid 220 pounds. Spears had no intention of using Nagurski in the backfield that season, but rather installing him on the line where he felt more damage to the opposing offense could be done.
Nagurski's most memorable moment in his college career was recounted in the 1967 book THE BIG TEN:
"We were playing Notre Dame at old Cartier Field in South Bend," Nagurski recalled. "Notre Dame hadn't been defeated or tied there in 22 years. Here I was, only a soph, playing against one of Rockne's good clubs. They'd gotten a quick touchdown when Fred Hovde fumbled for us on our own 17. (I don't think I ever forgave Fred until he became a Rhoades Scholar, and later president of Purdue, and I figured I should be proud just to know him.) Anyway, Notre Dame had this 7-0 lead and time was running out. Then it happened. I was at tackle and they had the ball inside their own 20. There was the snap from center and somehow I knocked a couple of guys down and got the ball carrier before he could do much of anything beside fumble. There we were, both of us after the bouncing ball. I shucked him aside and beat him to it on their 15-yard line. Herb Joesting crossed up everybody by passing to Walsh for the touchdown. Barnhardt kicked the point and we'd tied Notre Dame. Nothing I did afterwards in college could compare with causing and recovering that fumble."
Perhaps the most interesting part of Nagurski's memory of the play was that he felt that "somehow he was able to knock a couple of guys down."
Keep in mind that this is the same person that prompted his college coach to say, when the team was en route to a game by rail and the train immediately braked and came to a sudden stop, "My God, Nagurski has tackled the train."
In 1928, Nagurski made the move to fullback after the graduation of Joesting. Occasionally he reverted back to defensive tackle when the team needed a stop, but Nagurski was now the charging force of the Gophers' running game. During the first three games, Nagurski ripped through the line and literally punished the linebacking and secondary core for even thinking they could put on pads and stop him. In the fourth game of the season, facing a tough Iowa team, Nagurski was injured for the first and only time in his college career. It was later discovered three ribs were torn near his spine. Regardless of the pain, he played tackle during the game with exception of the final five minutes and Minnesota suffered a 7-6 setback to the Hawkeyes.
After sporadically playing against Northwestern, Indiana and Haskell Indiana School, the season rested on the Wisconsin game, which after a title drought since 1912, the Badgers were poised to win the conference title. Against the doctors' orders, Nagurski played in the finale. After a late fumble by Wisconsin on its own 18, Nagurski carried the ball five straight times for a touchdown in what was probably the most grueling 18 yards ever recorded. Minnesota upset Wisconsin, 6-0, and ruined all hopes of a championship for the Badgers.
One season later, several critics nationwide felt Nagurski was the best tackle in the nation, but the other half thought he was just as good at fullback. He played at tackle fewer than 120 minutes - less than two total games - yet his performances left media, fans and opposing coaches mesmerized. A 7-6 loss to Iowa and a 10-9 setback to Northwestern ended all hopes for a conference title for the Gophers, but Nagurski was a consensus pick for All-America honors on several teams - whether it was at tackle or fullback. But the New York Sun approached things differently. The paper could not differentiate Nagurski from tackle and fullback, so they did something no other All-America voting panel had ever done or has done to this day. The Sun voted Nagurski as both an All-American at tackle and fullback on its 10-member team.
What most people don't know is that throughout his career, Nagurski played four positions at Minnesota. In addition to tackle and fullback, he was also a center and quarterback.
Following college, Nagurski was courted by several professional teams and eventually signed with George Halas and the Chicago Bears for $5,000. He starred at fullback for the Bears as part of the "Monsters of the Midway" and gained 3,946 rushing yards in eight seasons, equating to almost five yards per carry. In 1934, Beattie Feathers joined the team and set a new league mark with 1,004 yards during the season, which were all gained behind the blocking of Nagurski. In the mid-thirties, Halas asked Nagurski to experiment with the jump pass - where the fullback charges forward, stops, takes a step back, and dumps it off to a receiver. He was successful on 36 of his 73 passes and threw for nine touchdowns.
Nagurski retired from pro ball in 1937, but due to the shortage of men in the league because of World War II, he returned at Halas' request to play the 1943 season at the age of 35. During his time away from football, Nagurski was lured into professional wrestling, where he became a three-time world heavyweight champion.
On Sept. 7, 1963, he was elected as a charter member to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has both his No. 72 jersey he wore at Minnesota and his No. 3 Chicago Bears jersey officially retired. Since 1993, his name has been engraved on the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is awarded each season to college football's Defensive Player of the Year. That award has been given to Big Ten standouts such as current Ohio State linebacker and 2006 recipient James Laurinaitis, Michigan's Charles Woodson who won the award and the Heisman Trophy in 1997, and 1995 and 1996 winner Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern - the Wildcats' current head coach.
And speaking of Northwestern, perhaps one of the most legendary stories about Nagurski occurred in a game against the Wildcats back in college.
It was fourth-and-goal on the Northwestern 12 and the Gophers were counting on Nagurski to cross the goal line. He took the handoff, lowered his 225-pound frame and pounded through the Wildcat wall. His momentum carried him 12 yards passed the goal line, another 10 yards through the end zone and into a stack of 100-pound bags of cement piled up for a construction project. The wall of cement bags was also no match for Nagurski, as they toppled over at impact.
Late in his life, Nagurski retired at age 70 and returned to International Falls to open a service station. He died Jan. 7, 1990, at the age of 81.
Yet several stories, and one trophy, still live on in Nagurski's honor.
Ernie Nevers, a 1963 Hall of Fame inductee with Nagurski, who played for the crosstown rival Chicago Cardinals, once said, "Tackling Bronko was like tackling a freight train going downhill." The harshest solution to stopping Nagurski was recommended by Steve Owen of the New York Giants.
"The only way to stop Nagurski is shoot him before he leaves the dressing room."
But even that approach left some questioning whether that would have done the trick.