For the most part, the forefathers of professional football are viewed as legends.
These were the men who kick started the professional game and helped found what is now the NFL.
Without them, the game we know today may not exist.
Their names are synonymous with grit, toughness, talent and fortitude.
Perhaps the toughest and roughest of the bunch, however, was Bronko Nagurski.
3 days!!! This message brought to you by Bronko Nagurski.
— Allyson (@ABQBearsGrl89) September 9, 2021
Nagurski, came from humble beginnings only to end up as one of the most popular athletes of the early-to-mid 1900s.
His ability to intimidate his foes with his size and strength is still talked about today.
Not only was Nagurski’s size a factor on the gridiron, but it was also beneficial in his moonlighting career as a professional wrestler.
Athletes like Nagurski are and were a rare breed.
Their talent made it possible for future generations to envision a future in professional football and build the brand into what it is today.
This is the story of Bronko Nagurski.
Early years and accidental college athlete
Bronislau Nagurski was born on November 3, 1908 in Rainy River, Ontario, Canada.
He and his family moved to International Falls, Minnesota when he was five.
While in grade school, Bronislau was given the nickname “Bronko” primarily because his teachers and classmates couldn’t pronounce his name.
Nagurski spent his formative years working on his parents’ farm and the sawmill they operated.
He also spent time delivering groceries for his father’s grocery store.
Since there wasn’t a lot to do in the small town, Nagurski kept active by playing and wrestling with his siblings.
Also, according to local lore, Nagurski frequently ran back and forth for the four-mile trip to school every day.
In high school, Nagurski took up boxing, wrestling and football.
His mother didn’t like the physical contact of the sports, but she realized that her exhortations to do something else were falling on deaf ears.
Before his senior year of high school, Nagurski had a plan to try and get a college scholarship to play football.
He transferred to Bemidji High School in central Minnesota in the hopes that a major program would come and see him.
90 days to go for Minnesota Golden Gophers Football season opener.
90 years ago 1929 Minnesota Golden Gophers team finished season 6-2. Led by Bronko Nagurski who was named All-American at fullback and tackle in 1929.
Nagurski was later named to College FB & NFL Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/gBMJtw607G
— Greg Flugaur (@flugempire) May 31, 2019
His plan backfired, however, when transfer rules forbade him to partake in the football season.
The consistent manual labor and sports activity in Nagurski’s adolescence helped him build a frame of solid muscle and functional strength.
His work ethic led to the most important change of his life.
While on his way to International Falls to scout a potential athlete for his program, University of Minnesota football coach Clarence Spears happened to spy Nagurski.
The coach watched in fascination as Nagurski plowed a field without any type of assistance.
Spears sauntered over to Nagurski to ask directions and get a closer look at the lad.
Astoundingly, Nagurski lifted the heavy plow out of the soil and used it to point.
Spears later admitted that the last part of his story was just baloney, but he did end up offering the young Nagurski a scholarship.
Nagurski didn’t waste any time displaying his brute force and athleticism to his new teammates.
During the first practice of his collegiate career, Nagurski was thrown into a drill called the “nutcracker.”
This was a drill designed for a defensive player to engage and shed two offensive blockers on the way to the ball carrier.
Spears sent a couple of his best linemen at Nagurski only to see him blow through both men and bury the running back.
Spears repeated the drill two more times with the same result.
It was at that point where the coach knew he had struck gold in bringing Nargurski into the fold.
Nagurski played for the Gophers from 1927-1929.
During that period, Minnesota was one of the powerhouse programs in the nation.
Their three-year record while Nagurski bullied and battered opponents was 18-4-2.
In 1927, the team won the Big Ten Conference championship.
As was custom during that time, Nagurski played on both sides of the ball.
He was a defensive tackle and played fullback on offense.
In 1929, he ran the ball for 737 yards and was named a consensus All-American.
Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota Golden Gopher, leaping through the air in a 26-14 defeat of Northwestern, Oct 19, 1929. #GopherGameDay #Gophers #collegefootball #NCAAFootball @cdwillis83 @GopherFootball @GopherHole @FilmHistoric @Ol_TimeFootball pic.twitter.com/cPivXVx0Dg
— History of College Football (@HistColFootball) June 7, 2021
Then, despite the fact that Nagurski saw less reps on defense, he played well enough to be named an All-American on that side of the ball.
Nagurski was the only athlete to be named an All-American at two different positions in the same year.
Before Nagurski’s final collegiate season in ‘29, Grantland Rice, the famous sports scribe, put Nagurski on both sides of the ball for his personal All-American team.
Rice then asked and answered his own personal question about who was the best in the game at the time.
“Who would you pick to win a football game – 11 Jim Thorpes- 11 Glen Davises- 11 Red Granges-or 11 Bronko Nagurskis? The 11 Nagurskis would be a mop-up. It would be something close to murder and massacre. For the Bronk could star at any position on the field, with 216 pounds (98 kg) of authority to back him up.”
Historians believe that Nagurski’s best college game was against Wisconsin in 1928.
Nursing cracked ribs, Nagurski wore a corset during the game to protect himself.
Despite the constrictive chest piece, Nagurski still outshined everyone on the field.
His stats that day included a fumble recovery, six consecutive runs to score the go-ahead touchdown and an interception to seal the Gophers’ victory.
Nagurski joins the Bears
Once Nagurski left college, the young NFL was clamoring for his services.
The great George Halas had scouted Nagurski numerous times, a benefit for playing collegiately so close to Chicago.
The Bears coach offered a $5,000 contract to Nagurski, which was a king’s ransom compared to what most athletes were making at the time.
85 Years Ago: Bronko Nagurski signed contract with the Chicago Bears for $300 a game pic.twitter.com/ngqERXjD04
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 18, 2016
He signed the contract, returned home and found another contract offer.
This one was from the New York Giants and they wanted to pay him $7,500 per season.
Since he already signed his offer from the Bears, Nagurski couldn’t accept the Giants offer.
Ultimately, it did not matter who he signed with.
Because of the onset of the Great Depression, Nagurski took two pay cuts in two years, first a $500 cut, then a $700 decrease a year later.
Despite his willingness to splurge for stars like Nagurski, Halas had to be careful with his money.
He had a habit of collecting talent to give his team a competitive edge.
Not only did he own the rights to Nagurski, but he also had Red Grange under contract.
Grange was a great player in his own right, but even he believed Nagurski was the better athlete, calling him the “best football player of all time.”
Grange’s assessment of Nagurski was universal.
Looking back, the primary reason for Nagurski’s success was his size.
Listed at 6’2” and approximately 225-235 pounds, he was larger than many of the league’s linemen.
Whether he ran the ball or tackled the ball carrier, Nagurski was widely feared.
“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.”
Giants coach Steve Owen once famously quipped that, “The only way to stop him (Nagurski) is to shoot him before he leaves the clubhouse.”
Rather than actually shooting the Bears great, Owen did try several tactics when facing Nagurski.
One game he deployed no less than five men (bringing in an extra linebacker) on the line in an attempt to stop Nagurski.
“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.”
NFL opponents tried several different methods to stop Nagurski’s rushing attack.
They rarely found success.
“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.”
“Tackling Nagurski was like getting an electric shock,” said Grange.
Chicago Bears teammates Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange. pic.twitter.com/4IhSirPjR7
— Mike Pearson (@illinilegends) November 6, 2017
In a desperate attempt, various opponents simply tried rolling at Nagurski’s legs to trip him up.
“You ended up wearing cleat marks for weeks,” Giants player Ken Strong said.
It’s obvious that Nagurski was a health hazard to those who lined up against him.
However, on occasion, his own brutality worked against him.
According to legend, in a game against the Portsmouth Spartans, Nagurski committed a defensive penalty that led to a Spartans score.
Incensed at his own mistake, he made a demand the next time the Bears got the ball.
“This is my fault. Give me the ball!”
No one argued and, after the ball was snapped, Nagurski was fed the pigskin.
He proceeded to blast through several defenders on his way to the game winning touchdown.
In fact, Nagurski didn’t stop until he ran into a brick wall that surrounded the field.
“That last guy hit me awfully hard,” Nagurski commented about the wall.
Not a record breaker
The Bears could have rode the strong back of Nagurski on a regular basis.
However, Halas chose to time-share the workload to an assortment of backs.
“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.”
Halas’ game plan is obvious when going through the historical records. Nagurski averaged less than ten carries a game.
Only once in nine seasons in Chicago did he rush for over 100 yards in a game.
Even more surprising for a man Nagurski’s size, he never led the league in rushing.
One of his best season’s as a rusher was in 1933.
OTD in 1933: The Bears won the inaugural championship game at Wrigley Field after Bronko Nagurski completed a 14-yard pass to Bill Hewitt, who lateraled to Billy Karr.
— Chicago Tribune Sports (@ChicagoSports) December 17, 2019
During the Bears’ run to the league championship, Nagurski led the team with 533 yards rushing.
In the championship game, he ran for a game high 65 yards and passed for two scores.
His second touchdown pass was the difference maker in Chicago’s victory over the Giants.
The team had also won the championship in 1932, making them back-to-back champs.
Chicago and Nagurski had another great season in 1934.
That year, Nagurski ran for a career high 586 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Bears had a perfect 13-0 season, but we’re humiliated by New York 30-13 in the championship game.
In 1935, Nagurski sustained a serious back injury that left him on the sidelines for most of the season.
“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.
His absence led to a paltry 6-4-2 record for Chicago.
1936 was better with Nagurski tallying 529 yards and three scores. The Bears were better also at 9-3 but did not make the postseason.
A wrestling career to boot…
As Nagurski was battering opponents on the field, the country was suffering from the Depression.
To earn a little extra cash himself, Nagurski turned to pro wrestling.
He was no stranger to the sport, having competed when he was younger, but this version was altogether different.
In 1933 a wrestler by the name of Tony Stechler approached Nagurski about trying his hand at professional wrestling in his spare time.
In February of ’33, Nagurski competed in his first professional match. In less than three minutes, Nagurski defeated his opponent.
— Bears Talk (@NBCSBears) February 12, 2019
The crowd loved it and Stechler became Naguski’s manager.
For the next few years, Nagurski wrestled whenever he wasn’t on the football field.
He was also known to wrestle during the season.
Given Nagurski’s unique athletic ability, it’s not surprising that he soon became one of the best wrestlers in the country.
In 1937, he won a version of the world championship by taking down Dean Detton.
Detton himself was a former college football player at the University of Utah.
“He was a pretty big draw,” recalled wrestling expert Stu Hart about Nagurski. “He was pretty tough to bring down in wrestling.”
Another championship run and retirement #1
The same year Nagurski was grappling for a world title, his Bears team was finding their own way back to a championship.
In 1937 they returned to the top of the NFL with a 9-1-1 record. Nagurski put together a decent season with 343 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Chicago returned to the title game and faced the Washington Redskins.
Even with home field advantage at Wrigley Field, the Bears couldn’t hold off Washington.
A young gunslinger by the name of Sammy Baugh paced the Redskins and led them to two touchdowns in the final quarter.
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) May 23, 2021
That was the winning margin Washington needed to escape with a 28-21 victory.
The Depression was still gripping the country in ‘37, but some industries were seeing some income.
Halas increased Nagurski’s salary that season back to $5,000. After the near miss in the championship game, Nagurski went back to Halas for another raise in early 1938.
Nagurski and his wife, Eileen, had a newborn son and the Nagurskis’ were eager to provide for their young family.
However, Halas wouldn’t agree to the pay bump Nagurski asked for of $6,000 per season.
With that, Nagurski stepped away from professional football to focus solely on wrestling.
“I wanted to go home anyway,” he told Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated in 1984. “I was tired of knocking myself out, going on the wrestling tour between games to make extra money.”
Back to the squared circle
Nagurski stuck with his wrestling career and did very well.
In 1939, he defeated Lou Thesz for the world title of the National Wrestling Association.
Nagurski lost the title a year later to Ray Steele then regained it from Steele in 1941.
Three months later, Nagurski lost his title for the second time to Sandor Szabo.
Nagurski would continue to wrestle until 1960.
— Old Wrestling Pics (@OldWrestlingPic) February 4, 2019
Unlike some of the other grapplers at the time, Nagurski did not resort to tricks and props in the ring.
Just as he did on the gridiron, Nagurski simply used his force of will and immense strength to put his opponents in submission.
“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.”
A brief return to Chicago and retirement #2
By the early 1940s, the U.S. had overcome the Depression but was immersed in the second world war.
Because of WW II, the professional football ranks were thin with a large number of the players serving overseas.
Halas reached out to Nagurski in 1943 and asked if he would come back and help the Bears for a season.
This week's #Bears Historic Moment – Bronko Nagurski is the key man in Bears win over Cardinals.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) November 15, 2016
Nagurski obliged and returned to play tackle and some fullback.
Clearly not the same player he was six years earlier, Nagurski only rushed for 84 yards and one touchdown that season.
However, his lone score helped the Bears win the league championship game in a 41-21 blowout over the Redskins.
Once the season ended, Nagurski retired from football for a second, permanent time.
Record keeping in the early days of the NFL was spotty at best.
However, Nagurski is credited with accumulating 2,778 total yards on 633 carries along with 25 rushing touchdowns.
In his career, Nagurski was a three-time NFL champion, four-time First-team All-Pro, NFL rushing touchdowns leader in 1932, a member of the NFL’s 1930s All-Decade team and 75th Anniversary All-Time team.
Heaven Birthday, Bronko Nagurski.
FB-LB-T, #Bears 1930-37, '43
• PFHOF (1963 Charter Class)
• NFL 75th Anniversary Team
• NFL100 All-Time Team Finalist, 50th Anniv Team Runner-up
• 3x NFL Champion🏆🏆🏆
• 5x All-NFL
• Threw winning TD pass in first two NFL postseason games pic.twitter.com/XRSpBJnVSR
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 3, 2020
His Bears #3 jersey has been retired and he is on the list of the 100 greatest Bears of all time.
In 1951, Nagurski was among the first athletes selected for the College Football Hall of Fame.
Twelve years later, he was among the first players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Hall used a quote from Nagurski that summed up his playing style.
“I always used my strength in football. I liked to meet guys head-on when I was carrying the ball. Then I’d drop my shoulder, and catch him with that, and then brush him off with my arm. It worked- most of the time.”
After stepping away from the wrestling ring for the last time, Nagurski went back to International Falls and opened a gas station.
An often repeated anecdote in the community was that Nagurski had the best repeat business in town.
The reason was that Nagurski would fill up his customers’ gas tanks, then screw the gas lid on so tight that only Nagurski could unscrew it.
The Nagurskis’ had six children.
Their first son, nicknamed Junior, followed his father’s trade and became a professional football player.
Nagurski Junior played eight years for the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League.
On January 7, 1990, Nagurski passed away from cardiac arrest. He was 81 years old.