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No. 57: Bronko Nagurski
Our story will wind and turn and twist, but let’s begin with Hunk Anderson, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound whirlwind whom sportswriter Grantland Rice called “pound for pound, the roughest human being I have ever known” and coach George Halas called “the hardest working sonofabitch that I’ve ever seen.”
There should be a movie about Hunk Anderson — though maybe it was Hunk’s lot in life to be a secondary character in Bronko Nagurski’s movie. Hunk grew up in Calumet, Mich., where he butted heads constantly with a guy you probably have heard of — George Gipp. Right: The Gipper.*
*And there probably should be a movie about the Gipper too, because everything you know about him from Ronald Reagan’s portrayal or Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech is almost certainly not true. The Gipper was a gambling, carousing wild man. But that’s for another time.
The Gipper, 18 or so months before his untimely death, sent a telegram to Hunk telling him to come to South Bend to play football. Hunk would remember shouting a loud “war whoop” in celebration.
“I immediately went to the dentist to get my teeth fixed,” Hunk would write, “and a couple of hours later I was on my way …”
When Hunk got to South Bend, Gipp introduced him to Rockne outside a restaurant called Hullie and Mike’s. It’s probably fair to say that Rockne looked him over and was pretty unimpressed.
“What position do you play?” Rockne asked.
“Fullback?” Rockne grumped. “We don’t need fullbacks. We need guards.”
‘Well,” Hunk said, “you’re looking at the best guard you’ll ever see.”
Rockne said that they would teach Hunk how to play the position. Hunk replied that he already knew damn well how to play guard and that there was no teaching required. At one of their first practices, Rockne himself lined up against Hunk to teach him a blocking technique. “Don’t be afraid to hit me at full speed,” Rockne said.
So Hunk knocked Rockne “on his can” six times in a row.
He was an All-American and a key player on Rockne’s first great teams. All the while, he played some pro games under an assumed name. Then he played for Halas’ Chicago Bears teams while also coaching at Notre Dame and working 60 hours a week at the Edwards Iron Works plant in South Bend. He was often outweighed by 75 or 100 pounds. He was still good enough to be named to the Hall of Fame all-decade team.
Hunk became Notre Dame’s coach after Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931 — an impossible job that he held on to for only three seasons. He coached at N.C. State for a while, then Michigan, then the Detroit Lions. And it was in Detroit that Hunk Anderson invented the blitz. Well, who is to say who invented what in sports? You will often hear that Donald Ettinger, a linebacker at the University of Kansas, was the first to blitz — so much so that his nickname was “Red Dog,” another name for the blitz. And a defensive backs coach named Chuck Drulis is sometimes credited for developing the safety blitz for Larry Wilson when he was coaching the Cardinals in 1960.*
*One rabbit hole leads to another — do you know that copper artwork on the front of Pro Football Hall of Fame?
One of the figures is Chuck Drulis. Do you know why? Because Chuck’s wife, Dale Drulis, was the artist commissioned to create the artwork, and she based the figures on her husband Chuck and their sons Chuck and Kerry. God, I love writing stories like this one.
Anyway, Hunk Anderson always said that he invented the linebacker blitz (which he named “Red Dog”) way back in 1939, when he was coaching the Lions defense, and then he pioneered the safety blitz for George McAfee when he was defensive coach for the Chicago Bears in 1945. The safety blitz is particularly interesting because… do you know who was a member of that Bears team in 1945? Yep. Chuck Drulis.
Point is, Hunk was one of the pivotal figures in early professional football — it’s kind of absurd that he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And we have yet to discuss what was perhaps his most remarkable achievement:
In 1943, he convinced Bronko Nagurski to come back for one more season.
Bronko was almost 35 years old when Hunk Anderson asked him to come back, but his body was much closer to 70. There wasn’t a part of him that didn’t hurt. He had bashed and smashed and crashed his way through the early days of professional football, 60 minutes every game, the best running back of his day, the best blocker of his day, one of the betters passers of his day, the best defensive player of his day (the Nagurski Award goes to college football’s best defensive player), And then he retired and became a professional wrestler, and that took even more out of him.
Let’s talk for a second about the wrestling thing, because Nagurski’s world championship match with Dean Detton in 1937 is an absolute classic. Detton, as champion, found himself frustrated by Nagurski’s brute strength and ability to break every hold. That’s when he started throwing punches, which infuriated the crowd and, more to the point, made Nagurski really mad.
You just didn’t want to make Bronko Nagurski really mad.
He promptly picked up Detton and threw him out of the ring. Detton’s back hit the edge of the ring and he crumpled to the floor and couldn’t move. His manager, Gentleman Jack Washburn, raced over to revive Detton, whom the papers would say, “might have suffered a fractured vertebra.” Finally, Washburn (no Gentleman, he) was able to roll Detton back into the ring, and Nagurski was waiting for him with a “flying tackle and hit him so hard that Detton crumpled to the floor with Bronko on top of him.”
The referee, Billy Hoke — who had been recruited at the last minute because of some controversy with the original referee — counted Detton out, crowning Nagurski as world champion.
“[The fans] went absolutely cockeyed with joy,” the Minneapolis Daily Star reported. “They threw hats, papers, wives, sweethearts into the air. One woman fainted at the ringside. Then the more enthusiastic made a rush for the ring. … It was fully 10 minutes before the excitement died down.”
I cannot tell you how much I love old-time pro wrestling stories in those days when people insisted that it was real.
But even if the wrestling wasn’t real, the pain was — according to Jim Dent’s classic “Monster of the Midway,” Nagurski had a degenerative condition in his hips that left him all but immobile, his left knee often popped out of joint just when he walked, his ribs had been broken so many times that he was just in a permanent state of pain there, his lower back barked at him like the neighborhood dog, and his ankles made a loud popping sound that didn’t hurt so much as remind him of the long road he’d taken.
Put it this way, the day after Pearl Harbor in 1941, Nagurski went to enlist in the Army. The doctor looked him over for five minutes and said, “Mr. Nagurski, I have already found six reasons to flunk you from military duty. I think it’s time to stop counting.”
It was two years after that — and countless more wrestling injuries — that Hunk Anderson called.
“We need you,” Hunk said. He had been enlisted to bring Bronko back to pro football; Bears coach George Halas was at war and so couldn’t make the pitch himself. It was probably just as well; Nagurski and Halas had gotten into a nasty fight over money in ’37.
“You’d need a sundial to time me in the hundred,” Bronko replied.
Hunk told him that he could just be an offensive lineman; he didn’t have to be a running back this time around. Nagurski kept listening. He was growing weary of the sleaze of professional wrestling, not to mention the physical pain. He also needed the money.
“I need five grand,” Nagurski finally said. “Up front.”
“You got it Bronk,” Hunk said.
And that’s how Bronko Nagurski came back to professional football. The reaction around the NFL was similar to the reaction around the NBA when Michael Jordan came back after his baseball adventure.
“God save us all,” Mel Hein said when he heard about Bronko’s return.
“I still have nightmares about that big monster,” Sammy Baugh said.
“I feel,” Bronko’s teammate Bulldog Turner said when meeting the man face to face, “like I’m shaking the right hand of God.”
And Nagurski’s return to football has the appropriate legend: At training camp, he kept hitting teammates so hard that, eventually, they started coming up with excuses not to line up against him. This infuriated Hunk Anderson, who finally shouted out, “Fine! I’ll do it.” And even though he was 45 years old and 50 pounds lighter, he stepped in there against Bronko.
And on the first play, Bronko knocked him unconscious. After they snapped him awake with smelling salts, the legend was that Hunk Anderson said, “You tell that sonofabitch I can still whip his ass.”
And then he added, “but not today.”
Bronko Nagurski was still a force on the offensive line for the Bears in 1943 … when he could play. He did miss a couple of games because of various leg injuries. And when he played, he was nowhere near the man he had been, of course — “I couldn’t run from here to the bathroom if my bladder was bursting,” he had told Hunk. But he was still Bronko, still impossibly strong and utterly driven.
He helped lead the Bears to a 7-0-1 record as they readied to play their arch-rival, Washington, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
But that game was a disaster. Washington won 21-7 and the lone Chicago touchdown came after the game was well in hand. The Bears had not lost a regular-season game in three years, but they couldn’t do anything against the Washington defense. It felt like a near-perfect repeat of the 1942 championship game, which Washington won 14-6 — the very game that had prompted George Halas and Hunk Anderson to ask Nagurski to come back in the first place.
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“Our fullbacks can’t block,” the Bronk told Hunk after the game. He’d had enough. He wanted to go back to the position he’d made famous — fullback. He wanted to carry the ball again. He wanted to get a running start and block some linebackers into oblivion.
And so at the Thursday practice before the Bears’ final regular-season game, Bronko Nagurski lined up at fullback. Hunk Anderson tried to keep it a secret. Jim Dent reports this exchange with reporters:
“We hear you’re moving the Big Nag to fullback,” the Chicago Daily News reporter said.
“Nah,” Hunk said. “Hell, Nagurski’s older than dirt. He’s slower than Grandma.”
“But you used him at fullback at practice,” the Chicago Tribune reporter said.
“We got so many boys hurt that we just needed a body out there,” Hunk said. “Hell, he almost needed oxygen when practice was over." The Bronk ain’t no ball carrier anymore.”
Hunk’s too-obvious attempt to cover up what was happening was entirely ineffective.
“Bronko Nagurski to Carry Ball Sunday,” was the headline in the Davenport Daily Times on Friday.
“Nagurski to Play Fullback,” they reported in Des Moines.
“Nagurski Back at Old Position,” was the headline in Waterloo.
“Bronko Nagurski will carry the ball this Sunday from the position where he slammed out a reputation as football’s mightiest line plunger,” wrote the United Press reporter in Chicago.
It wasn’t often that pro football news broke through in 1943, with the war raging. It was no more than the fourth or fifth (or sixth) most popular spectator sport in America at the time (this at a time before basketball and hockey had really broken through). Pro football was many furlongs behind baseball …. and horse racing, for that matter. Boxing was much bigger. College football was much bigger. Track and field was, in many ways, pro football’s equal. Nagurski often made more money and drew bigger headlines wrestling.
But the country knew Nagurski. He was bigger than life no matter what he did.
And so, 17,219 were there in the stands for the last regular-season game of 1943, even though it was destined to be a blowout. The Bears needed to win to guarantee a spot in the NFL Championship Game. And their opponent was the crosstown Chicago Cardinals, a ragtag bunch of hangers-on who had not won a game all season. Their quarterback, Ronnie Cahill, had thrown three touchdown passes and 21 interceptions. Their running backs averaged 2.1 yards per carry. They had been shut out three times already, once by the Bears the first time they played.
The Bears were 23 1/2-point favorites.
Well, wait, before getting to the big finish, we have one more rabbit hole: Charles K. McNeil. He was one of those kids who was too scrawny to play football but loved it completely and without limit. He wasn’t strong enough to play at the University of Chicago, but he became close to the football coach there, one of the most influential sports figures in American history, Amos Alonzo Stagg. If we had time for another rabbit hole, we could go deep with Stagg, who basically invented five-man basketball, coached the U.S. Olympic Track team in 1924 and more or less pioneered just about every early football innovation you can think of, from the center snap to putting numbers on the jerseys.
We don’t have time for another rabbit hole.
McNeil was a high school math teacher during the roaring ’20s and became a bank analyst after the Depression hit, but his love for football never waned. To make some extra money, he would go to football games (and baseball games) and drum up some bets with the people in the stands. Turns out he was a natural gambler, and by the late 1930s, he quit his bank job and began betting full-time. He was so good at that, he used to say, that the Chicago bookies began putting limits on him.
Around 1940, McNeil opened up his own sportsbook … and that’s when he changed American sports. Before McNeil, everything in football gambling was built around odds — bet $1 to win $2 or vice versa, depending on which team was favored. He didn’t like that; he wanted people to have the opportunity to bet on either team and win the same amount of money. But how?
That’s when he invented the point spread — not too long before the Bears-Cardinals game. He called it wholesaling odds. By giving the Chicago Cardinals 23 1/2 points against the Chicago Bears, just as an example, he completely reimagined what football gambling (and later gambling for other sports, such as college basketball) could become. He was so successful that it spread rapidly and, yes, he had to quit bookmaking because, as Sports Illustrated reported him saying, the Chicago mob wanted “to go partners with my brain.”
Apparently, McNeil never stopped gambling … and also never told Amos Alonzo Stagg how he made his living. He also never stopped loving it. “There are three things a gambler needs,” he said. “Money. Guts. And Brains. If you don’t have one, you’re dead. I had all three.”
Anyway, the Bears were 23 1/2-point favorites.
And then, for 45 minutes, the Cardinals absolutely kicked the Bears around. As they told the story later, the Cardinals were driven solely by their pure and unadulterated hatred of the Bears. Their season was lost, yes, but if they could help knock the Bears out of the championship game (a Bears loss would force an extra playoff game with Green Bay), it would be worthwhile. And at the end of three quarters, the Cardinals led 24-14, scoring the most points they had scored in a game since 1938.
And then, as the fourth quarter began, Bronko Nagurski came in to play fullback.
“You’re nothing but a goddamned old man!” the Cardinals’ top defensive lineman, Chet Bulger, shouted. The crowd was chanting his name. Nagurski got the ball and crashed into the line for four yards. The game had now begun.
Nagurski got the ball again, crashed again into the line, seemed to go down but somehow kept his feet and drove forward — a gain of 11. Next play, Nagurski gained nine, carrying defensive players on his back. Next play, he gained 11 more, pushing the ball to the Chicago 32.
After a pass moved the ball to the 20, Bronko Nagurski had his moment. Was it the greatest moment of his career? That’s hard to say — there were so many moments, so many bone-crunching hits, so many overpowering runs, and most of all, so many defender-deleting blocks. In 1934, when Bronko was 26 and in the prime of his career, he opened such vast holes that a fast and green rookie named Beattie Feathers averaged 8.4 yards per carry and became the first player in NFL history to gain 1,000 yards rushing in a season. Feathers was never nearly as good after that because the holes were never quite as wide.
In any case, you can argue whether what happened next was Nagurski’s greatest moment, but it was surely the moment his whole football life had been building up to. He took the ball at the 20, slammed into the line, was grabbed by three defenders and pushed them forward for five. And he kept going. Two more defenders jumped on top of him, and he carried them for more yards. Snow fell. Fans lost their minds. “Now, he was like a bear walking on three legs,” Jim Dent wrote, and another defender joined the party, and still Nagurski would not go down. When he fell flat at the one-yard line, it was less a case of him being tackled and more a case of him expiring.
On the next play, Bronko bashed in for the touchdown.
The final Bears drive was something of a comedy — the Bears got the ball at their own 13-yard line and needed an 87-yard drive to win. Of course, they gave the ball to Bronko, who smashed for 17 yards.
And then, Hunk took Bronko out of the game.
He would never explain why, but the Bears stalled and faced fourth and four. Back in came Nagruski who ran for 12.
And then Hunk took Bronko out of the game again.
Again the Bears offense stalled, and until they faced fourth and one. The best explanation seems to be that Hunk simply didn’t know what Nagurski had left and wanted to save him for when it mattered most. This time, Nagurski blasted forward for three yards, a first down. He stayed in the game this time, picking up 15 yards on his next two runs. Then, quarterback Sid Luckman stepped to the line and saw the exhaustion in the eyes of the Cardinals players. He also saw how every single one of them had their eyes trained on Bronko Nagurski.
The play was for Nagurski again; Luckman changed it to a play-action pass to Harry Clark. It was a brilliant call; there was nobody near Clark as he hauled in the game-winning touchdown. Every player on the Cardinals had lined up to tackle Bronko.
The Bears went to the NFL Championship, where they beat Washington — and Nagurski scored the last touchdown of his NFL career.
After he finished playing football, he returned home to Minnesota, where he farmed and opened up a gas station. One of the countless Bronko Nagurski legends is that he would personally fill up people’s tanks and then tighten the gas caps with such force that nobody else could open them — thus guaranteeing return business.
Nagurski never really liked talking about his playing days — he was a modest man who was thoroughly unimpressed with all that he achieved. “I could tell you right now,” he said in his Hall of Fame speech, “if I had to face what I’ve got sitting behind me, nothing could ever get me off the farm.”
Someone once asked Bronko if he ever spiked the ball or did a dance or celebrated any of his touchdowns.
“Nah,” he said. “I was too tired.”