The NFL of the 1920s was a lot different than the NFL today.
When the league was in its infancy, college stars who were household names largely bypassed the NFL after graduation.
It was common knowledge that better money could be found elsewhere.
Those that did play were a collection of castoffs, vagabonds, glory seekers, and characters.
However, they were also pioneers of a fledgling league that would grow into a behemoth.
One of those characters, who also happened to be part vagabond and confirmed glory seeker, was Johnny “Blood” McNally.
McNally was an early player in the NFL who was known not only for his athletic skills but also for his crazy antics.
He would later become a coach and a legend in his time.
This is the story of Johnny McNally.
The vagabond halfback, Johnny "Blood" McNally pic.twitter.com/d887wtN8dT
— Seb 🏂 (@CJ28MTL) July 17, 2019
John Victor McNally Jr. was born on November 27, 1903 in New Richmond, Wisconsin.
He was the fourth of six children to parents John Sr. and Mary.
McNally lived a childhood of rare privilege, especially for the early 20th century.
John Sr. was an owner of newspapers and flour mills.
McNally’s mother tried to refine her son further by having him take violin lessons as a youth.
However, the lessons did not seem to take.
“I had a definite resistance to culture,” McNally said years later.
Having access to finery and a good education boded well for McNally.
He graduated high school at the age of 14.
For several years after, McNally continued learning through independent study until it was time for him to go to college.
After attending River Falls State Normal School in Wisconsin from 1920-1922, McNally enrolled at St. John’s University in Minnesota.
It was at St. John’s that McNally first displayed his athletic prowess playing football, track, basketball, and baseball.
During one of his baseball seasons, McNally was called on to pitch.
He wowed teammates and coaches by impressively throwing a one-hitter.
Not only was McNally a star athlete, he could more than hold his own away from the playing field.
Before leaving Minnesota, McNally edited the school paper, led the debate team, and performed well in his classes.
True Story: Football star Johnny “Blood” McNally had never played basketball when he showed up in Collegeville in 1920. By 1923, he was captain and leading scorer of @SJU_Basketball. Went on to a glorious career with the Green Bay Packers. Was inducted into NFL Hall of Fame! pic.twitter.com/pnjVr6SaoD
— Nickle Dickle Hoops (@NickleDickleBB) August 17, 2020
After his junior year at St. John’s, McNally transferred to Notre Dame.
However, when he tried to join the Fighting Irish football team, he was told he’d have to play tackle.
McNally complained to the coaching staff and was given an ultimatum to play tackle or leave the program.
McNally chose to leave Notre Dame.
McNally Changes his Name
A short while after leaving South Bend, McNally found himself working for his father’s newspaper in Minneapolis.
While working for the paper, he heard about an opportunity to make money playing semi-pro football for the East 26th Street Liberties, a local team.
McNally and a former St. John’s teammate, Ralph Hanson, decided to try out for the team.
However, McNally still had a year of collegiate eligibility left.
Not wanting to lose his final year, the duo decided to try out using fake names.
That’s when destiny called.
“On the way there,” McNally said, “we passed a theater on Hennepin Avenue, and up on the marquee I saw the name of the movie that was playing, Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino. Ralph was behind me on the motorcycle, and I turned my head and shouted, ‘That’s it. I’ll be Blood and you be Sand.'”
The newly christened Johnny “Blood” did well during the try out and made the Liberties team.
For his efforts that season, Blood made $16.50.
He played the following season in Ironwood, Michigan and then with the Milwaukee Badgers of the NFL in 1925-26.
Blood Becomes a Household Name in the NFL
Before the 1926 NFL season, Blood signed with the Duluth Eskimos.
Duluth was led (and owned) by multi-sport star Ernie Nevers.
Nevers’ team barnstormed the countryside that year, playing in 29 games with all but one being played on the road.
After the season, the Eskimos franchise folded and Blood was on his way to a new team.
In 1928, the Pottsville, Pennsylvania Maroons employed Blood.
By the time he reached Pottsville, Blood was becoming a household name.
He was fast and agile and had a propensity for catching passes.
That was a rarity at the time as the NFL was primarily ground based.
“They pay me to score touchdowns,” Blood was quoted as saying. “The swagger I give ’em for free.”
Although Blood enjoyed the around-the-clock beer served by the Pottsville fire stations, he was happy when Green Bay coach Earl “Curly” Lambeau made a trade with the Maroons that sent Blood to the Packers in 1929.
RT packers "1929: The #Packers sign Cal Hubbard, Mike Michalske & Johnny Blood, all future Pro Football Hall of Famers who would form the nucleus of the first team to win three straight NFL championships 🏆🏆🏆
📰: https://t.co/oOAZdYJhGv #Packers100 pic.twitter.com/VsfPoCBaJE"
— Jon (@tankman12) July 29, 2018
Even on a loaded team, Blood shined during his stint with Green Bay.
Right away during his first season with the Pack, Blood helped the team get to the postseason with a stellar performance.
Playing in his third game in eight days, Blood scored on a 29 yard pass and a 73 yard lateral to beat a team from Providence, Rhode Island.
The Packers won the NFL title in 1929.
In 1930, Blood helped beat rival New York with a 55 yard touchdown run.
That victory against the Giants eventually led to another world title in 1930.
Then, in 1931, Blood led Green Bay with 78 total points including 10 touchdown receptions (a record that still stands).
For the third year in a row, the Packers won the NFL Championship after the 1931 season.
“The Packers had a lot of great players, but until (Don) Hutson came along, Johnny Blood was the one guy who could beat you with one big play,” former Chicago Bears coach George Halas said years after Blood had retired.
Blood Gets Creative in Getting a Pay Raise
It was around this time that Blood figured he had enough clout as a player that he could ask Lambeau for a raise.
However, the usually tight-fisted owner balked at Blood’s request.
During the ‘negotiation,’ Lambeau told Blood he would give him a raise to $110 per game if Blood (a notorious drinker) would abstain from drinking after Tuesday of each week.
After briefly pondering the offer, Blood counter-offered.
“Make it Wednesday and I’ll take an even hundred,” he told Lambeau.
On a road trip not long after, Blood was low on funds (again) and approached Lambeau for an advance.
Lambeau had grown tired of Blood’s pestering and told him to go away.
He also told Blood there was no use knocking on his hotel room door, because he wouldn’t let him in.
That’s when Blood got creative.
Whizzer White "You know Blood, someday I am going to get out of this game and be a Supreme Court Justice"
Johnny Blood, 'That's cool Whiz, someday I am going to drink a case a beer and sleep with six dollies in one night"#NFLColorization #NFLColorizations pic.twitter.com/SWBCWishpL
— 𝐏𝐫𝐨 𝐅𝐨𝐨𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐉𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐚𝐥🏈 (@NFL_Journal) March 13, 2021
Not to be deterred, Blood got in the hotel elevator and rode up to the eighth floor where Lambeau was staying.
He then found a door to the fire escape and climbed out on a ledge.
In a fierce rainstorm, Blood carefully made his way around the ledge until he was across from Lambeau’s half-open window.
He was about to leap when a teammate saw him from two floors below.
“Is that you up there, Johnny Blood?” cried the teammate.
“The same,” answered Blood.
“Dear God in Heaven,” shouted the teammate, “what are you going to do, Johnny?”
“Coach wants to see me,” Johnny called back. “Told me to drop in and talk over a matter of business.”
With that, Blood took a measured leap over a six foot wide air shaft and landed on Lambeau’s window ledge.
He then grabbed the window, threw it open wide, and jumped in the room.
Lambeau clutched his chest in shock at the sudden appearance of his star player.
Blood wasted no time in pleading his case with his coach.
“I thought that perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, Coach,” said Johnny, “about that advance I asked for. Now the fact is—”
Still reeling from the moment, Lambeau interrupted Blood in mid-sentence and reached for his pants pocket.
He pulled out a few bills and thrust them at Blood.
“Take it, take it!” Lambeau cried. “Take it and go. Go where you want, Johnny Blood.”
“Thank you,Coach,” said Johnny politely. “I knew we could come to an understanding once we talked things over in a calm, reasonable way. Have a goodnight’s sleep, Coach,” he said, closing the door behind him.
Blood is Shipped to Pittsburgh, then Returns to Green Bay
After five years in Green Bay, Lambeau had enough with Blood’s shenanigans.
Not only was he a constant thorn in the coach’s side, Blood was constantly in the news.
At one point before heading to Packers training camp, Blood realized he didn’t have enough money for a proper train ride.
Instead, he hopped on a freight train and made his way to Green Bay.
The press got a hold of this nugget and dubbed Blood the “Vagabond Halfback.”
1944 Johnny Blood NFL All-Time Team
By Chris Willis, NFL Films pic.twitter.com/RR45lm4OYS
— 𝐏𝐫𝐨 𝐅𝐨𝐨𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐉𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐚𝐥🏈 (@NFL_Journal) September 30, 2020
Before the 1934 season, Blood was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates football team.
The year was rough on Blood and he spent most of it dealing with injuries.
Once the season concluded, Blood tried to come up with a plan to return to Green Bay.
In early 1935, he joined the Chippewa Falls Marines and then the La Crosse Old Style Lagers.
Both teams played exhibition games against the Packers during the same month.
Blood played well enough during both games that Lambeau reluctantly signed him, making his return to the Packers complete.
Blood Becomes a Player/Coach
Two years later, Blood signed with Pittsburgh again, this time as a player and coach.
To prove he still had the wheels as an athlete, Blood took the opening kickoff of the first game of the 1937 season and ran 100 yards for a touchdown.
80 years ago (9/19/37): Johnny Blood, NFL #Pirates blank Brooklyn, 21-0. #Steelers #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/uOU2N8lIfU
— PGH Sports History (@PGH_Sports_Date) September 19, 2017
During the 1938 season, Blood was spending time with friends in Los Angeles and attended the Rose Bowl game.
A few people in the press box saw Blood at the game and asked him why he wasn’t in Pittsburgh.
Blood replied that the team had an open date.
Someone then pointed at the scoreboard that showed the scores of games around the country.
Apparently, Pittsburgh did have a game that day and they were playing without a coach.
“I was going to fire him,” Rooney later said, “But the players loved him. So I told him, ‘John, you have to make the games. Nobody would even believe some of the things he did”, said Rooney. “As one of our veterans once said, ‘This is the only team I’ve been on where the players worry about the coach instead of the other way around.'”
Blood decided to retire from playing in 1939.
His 37 career touchdowns and 224 points at the time were league records.
Coaching and Military Service
In 1940 and 1941, Blood became the head coach of the Kenosha, Wisconsin Cardinals, a semi-pro team.
For two games in 1941, Blood and two of his players loaned their services to the Buffalo Tigers of the American Football League.
He played in one of the two games.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Blood enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
He served as a cryptographer in the China-Burma theater.
There were many second glances from servicemen who were shocked to find out that an NFL legend was serving alongside them.
By 1950, Blood found himself back at St. John’s University as the head football coach.
He coached the Johnnies for three seasons and also finished his course work for his bachelor’s degree (26 years after his class had graduated).
When Blood stepped down he told the incoming coach that, “Nobody can win at Saint John’s.”
John Gagliardi did succeed at St. John’s and coached the program from 1953 until 2012.
In fact, Gagliardi became the winningest coach in college football history.
Life after Football and Legacy
Blood married for the first time in 1948.
However, in his words, the marriage, “didn’t take,” and the couple were divorced in 1956.
In 1962, Blood met President John Kennedy when he was in Washington D.C. to watch his good friend (and former teammate) Byron “Whizzer” White get appointed as a Supreme Court justice.
It turns out, Kennedy was a big fan of Blood’s and commented, “Your name is a household word in our house.”
The following year, Blood was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1966, Blood married again, this time to Catherine Irene Kopp, a successful businesswoman.
Blood took a shine to Kopp’s three sons and raised them as his own.
The Packers enshrined Blood into their Hall of Fame in 1970 and the NFL also voted him into the 1930s All-Decade Team.
Heaven Birthday to "The Vagabond Halfback".
Johnny "Blood" McNally
MIL, DUL, POT, #Packers, Pirates
• PFHOF (1963 Charter Class)
• 4x NFL Champion
• All-Decade 1930s
• Player-coach (1937-38)
• Tremendous runner, receiver, & tackler
• Unpredictable, eccentric https://t.co/sgyYmLfEe8 pic.twitter.com/V203z9khJr
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 27, 2020
Two decades later, Blood was asked by a writer about his opinion on the rise of performance enhancing drugs in the NFL.
As always, Blood was candid in his response.
He explained that he remembered taking Benzedrine pills (or ”uppers’ as they were called) way back in 1935.
”In the early days of football, with the light padding and the glove-sized helmets, as they were called, a player needed strong fortification to attain an ethereal frame of mind,”’ Blood said in 1982.
He also admitted that he was fond of drinking to get him through a game.
”That’s a drug, too, you know,” he said. ”Yes, some guys took a drink before a game to raise the spirits.”
Blood admitted that he finally had to quit drinking, especially since it affected his personal life.
”I don’t know how I did it, but I know I paid for it. Games like that [when he imbibed before a game] took a few years off my career. I thought I saw King Arthur’s Court, and walked through a plate glass window to get there,” Blood said. ”I decided then, either King Arthur had to go, or I was going.”
Blood did eventually go when he died from complications of a stroke in 1985 in Palm Springs, California.
He was 82.
Shortly before Blood passed away, writer Jim Klobuchar commented on Blood’s legacy, “He is the kind of man who impels non-psychic types into rambling incantations about reincarnation. Nobody, the theory goes, could possibly pack that much living into one lifetime without some prior experience.”
Now THAT is NFL history
Jason R says
What an amazing wonderful story about the men who helped build the game we love.
Ben Donahue says
I appreciate the kind words! I enjoy researching and writing about the NFL pioneers.
That was amazing story.