Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski (November 3, 1908 - January 7, 1990) was the most versatile and dominant American football player of his era. In college, Nagurski earned the rare honor of being named All-American as a fullback and as a defensive tackle. As a professional in the NFL, he's the only player in its history who was named All-Pro at three different positions (Defensive Lineman, Offensive Lineman and Running Back).1
He was also a famous professional wrestler, being one of the first football players to succeed as a wrestler. In professional wrestling he won the National Wrestling Association title twice, in 1939 and in 1941.
He was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame. The Bronko Nagurski Trophy has been awarded annually since 1993 to the best all-around defensive college football player.
Youth and collegiate career
Nagurski was born 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 he grew up loving the outdoors and athletics. In high school, Nagurski took up wrestling and boxing.
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 established 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.
Perhaps his greatest collegiate game was against the Wisconsin in 1928. Wearing a corset to protect cracked vertebrae, he recovered a Badger fumble deep in their territory and then ran the ball six straight times to score the go-ahead touchdown. Later in the same game, he intercepted a pass to seal the victory. During his time with the Gophers, the team went 18-4-2 and won the Big Ten Conference championship in 1927.
Sports Illustrated magazine named Nagurski one of the three greatest athletes in Minnesota state history (the other two were Dave Winfield and Kevin McHale). In 1993, the Football Writers Association of America created the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded annually to the best defensive player in college football. Notable winners include Warren Sapp, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey, and Derrick Johnson. In 2007, Nagurski was ranked #17 on ESPN's Top 25 Players In College Football History list.
Professional football career
Nagurski turned professional to play for the Chicago Bears from 1930 to 1937. At 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) and 235 pounds (107 kg), he was probably the largest running back of his time, bigger than most linemen of the day, and a forerunner of the large fullbacks of the modern era. In an era where players were expected to play on both offense and defense he was a dominant player on both sides of the ball.
Legendary Chicago Bears head coach George Halas scouted Nagurski and signed him in 1930 to a $5,000 contract. 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. Nagurski played with other legends like Red Grange, Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh. The Bears won five NFL titles and played in four other NFL Championship Games during his career.
The jump pass, in which he would fake a plunge, then step back a yard or two, jump and lob a pass to a waiting receiver was devastating. His jump pass to Red Grange was responsible for the key touchdown in the Bears' 1932 victory over Portsmouth for the league title.
The next year, in the National Football League's first official championship game, Bronko passed for two touchdowns, including the game-winning score.
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 paid much attention to 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.2
In 1938 a salary dispute led him to retire and turn full time to professional wrestling.
In 1943, when the demands of World War II left the Bears short of manpower, he rejoined the team as a tackle after a six year hiatus.
At the age of 35, Nagurski was once again a headliner. He put in a strong season blocking and tackling until the final regular season game against the arch-rival Chicago Cardinals. The game was crucial, as the Bears needed a win to clinch the Western Division championship and advance to the league championship match. Trailing 24-14 after three quarters, the Bears gave Bronko the opportunity to take back his old position at fullback.
Play after play Nagurski was given the ball and he responded by picking up sizeable yardage with every run. He scored the tying touchdown and set up another. By the time the contest ended, the Bears had scored 21 unanswered points and won 35-24. Bronko had collected 84 yards (in just one quarter) and was proclaimed the hero of the game. With characteristic nonchalance he shrugged off the attention and adulation of reporters, saying he needed to get back to take care of his farm before the upcoming championship game.3
No other professional football player has ever come back so successfully after such a long absence.
He went on to serve one season as backfield coach for UCLA in 1944, before returning fulltime to wrestling.
In 1936, Nagurski married his childhood sweetheart, Eileen Kane, in a ceremony on December 28, just after the end of the football season. On Christmas Day in 1937 they had a son, nicknamed Junior. They would go on to have five more children. With a family to raise, Nagurski asked for a raise in 1938 to $6,000, but the tight-fisted Halas refused to give him the money. Nagurski quit and became a wrestler full-time.
In his later years he enjoyed in following the career of his first son. Nagurski, Jr. played eight seasons with the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the Canadian Football League.
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. He would become a two-time world heavyweight champion.
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," according to his 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.4
Nagurski hit his peak during the late 1930s, early 1940s, when he held the NWA World title twice, beating Lou Thesz June 23, 1939 for his first win. Nagurski would lose the title to Ray Steel March 7, 1940, and regain it from Steele a year later on March 11, 1941. Sandor Szabo finally took the gold from Nagurksi on June 5, 1941.
In another version of the world title, he overcame Dean Detton in Minneapolis on June 29, 1937.5
After his retirement from wrestling, he returned home to International Falls and opened a service station. He retired from that in 1978, at the age of 70. He lived out a quiet life on the shores of Rainy Lake on the Canadian border.
He died in International Falls and is buried there in the Saint Thomas Cemetery.
Nagurski was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a charter member on September 7, 1963.
At the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities house of his fraternity, Sigma Chi, Nagurski's jersey and Significant Sig recognition certificate are on display.
After his death, the town of International Falls honored him by opening the Bronko Nagurski Museum in Smokey Bear Park. It is the first museum dedicated to a single football player. The Bronko Nagurski Museum was constructed as a wing to the Koochiching County Historical Society and opened in 1993. It is a state-of-the-art museum facility. Photographs, artifacts, contracts, and other materials from Bronko's distinguished life are on display. A 15-minute video includes highlights of Bronko's career, including actual footage of his playing days.3 Also in 1993 Nagurski was honored when the Football Writers Association of America voted to have his name attached to college football's Defensive Player of the Year trophy (Bronko Nagurski Trophy).
A fictionalized eyewitness account of Nagurski's 1943 comeback is the subject of a dramatic monologue in the film version of Hearts in Atlantis. Another account is in the William Goldman novel Magic.
In 1999, he was ranked number 35 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the highest-ranking foreign-born player.
In 2000, he was voted the second-greatest Minnesotan sportsman of the 20th century by the sportswriters of the Star Tribune, coming in only behind Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.
In 2003 Bronko Nagurski was honored with his own stamp as part of a set of four 37-cent "Early Football Heroes" stamps released by the United States Postal Service.
- ↑ The All-Time 11 Coldhardfootballfacts.com. Retrieved October 17, 2008.
- ↑ Bronko Nagurski Profootballhof.com. Retrieved October 20, 2008.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Ingert Kuzych, Bronko Nagurski: football's greatest player of all-time? Ukrweekly.com. Retrieved October 20, 2008.
- ↑ Biography:Bronko Nagurski Answers.com. Retrieved October 20, 2008.
- ↑ Bronko Nagurski Canoe.ca. Retrieved October 20, 2008.
- Bronko Nagurski: World's Heavyweight Wrestling Champion! 1939. Minnesota: s.n. OCLC 23361924
- Dent, Jim. 2003. Monster of the Midway: Bronko Nagurski, the 1943 Chicago Bears, and the greatest comeback ever. New York: T. Dunne Books. ISBN 0312308671
- Gorn, Elliott J. 2008. Sports in Chicago. Sport and society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252033179
- Roberts, Kate. 2007. Minnesota 150: The People, Places, and Things that Shape our State. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. ISBN 9780873515948
- Vecchione, Joseph J. 1991. The New York Times Book of Sports Legends. New York: Times Books, Random House. ISBN 0812917987