Bronko Nagurski

Many thanks to Ed Oerichbauer, curator at the Bronko Nagurski Museum in International Falls, Minnesota, for his helpful information and insight; a conversation with him ultimately helped me determine the proper direction for the article that follows.

Internet searches are often truly amazing. Sometimes they lead us on a wild goose chase; other times they coax us away from an innocuous topic of interest, drop us in front of a treasure trove of information and offer an idea for an unthought-of story. Such was the case just the other day when I searched for a small piece of information about a former NFL football player who is now a sports media figure...

Suddenly, right before my eyes was a little gem that I had never expected to find: pre-game activities at Super Bowl XVIII (Tampa, Florida in 1984) -- certainly nothing like the present-day circus that accompanies the event -- paid tribute to George Halas, former coach of the Chicago Bears (I am a die-hard fan of the Bears, as was my father before me). There would not even have been an NFL without Halas. More of interest though, was the fact that the coin-toss that year was accomplished by none other than Bronko Nagurski, an all-time legend in Bears history (he played for Halas) and football in general. Several things instantly happened within my mind.

File:Bronko Nagurski.jpg

A flood of memories took me back to when I was eight years old. A number of us neighborhood kids had assembled a group that started to play football, trying to emulate what we watched on television. Our fathers, responding to serious concerns voiced, no doubt by our moms, that we would -- among other things -- knock each others' teeth out, organized us into a real team, shelled out their own money for proper uniforms and equipment and eventually organized us into the first "Small-Fry Football" league in our local area.

In the next few years as the number of teams grew, we all got bigger and stronger and, for the majority of us, our love of the game grew as well; mine certainly did -- by leaps and bounds.  I was fortunate to have come from good stock (my father was a lanky six-feet-two and, dripping wet -- in high school, anyway -- weighed perhaps 180 pounds and was a three-sport athlete, excelling in football).  By the time I got to high school, my "gifts" included quickness, speed and agility; I needed them, as I was just shy of five-feet-ten (including the half-inch added by my shoes) and weighed about 165 pounds. 

My college football days at DePauw University

I never stopped dreaming of playing professional ball, right up through my senior year in college when it finally became clear that, for a number of reasons, I would likely not realize my dream. Importantly though, back then I saw football -- and other sports as well -- as a game played by guys who simply... loved the game.

But I digress... So, what does all that have to do with Bronko Nagurski? Patience, my friends. My point -- in case you were wondering just where the heck I was headed with all this -- was that just seeing the name Bronko Nagurski also took me back to 1972, the year I graduated from college. By the very nature of life, high school and college years tend to create incredible space between fathers and sons; my dad and I had gotten pretty far afield from one another by the time I graduated.

My father had likely wanted to reconnect... and thus informed me that he wanted to -- as a graduation present -- take me to northern Minnesota to go fishing. The lake to which my father took me was Kabetogama. As it turned out, that lake was Bronko Nagurski's favorite place to go fishing; he even had a cabin there that he used when he went hunting and fishing. My father once pointed out the cabin to me; I can only describe it as incredibly rustic, but I knew it was a special and quiet place for Bronko.

Photo provided by Voyageurs National Park

The cabin was only accessible by boat, except during the winter months, and then Nagurski would traverse the lake ice to get there.  According to life-long resident and fishing guide on Kab, Tim Watson: "The Nagurski cabin was on the point just south of the Ellsworth Rock Garden.  As you boat into the gardens there is a reef on the right hand side with a steel post on a tripod marking the rock.  I call that Nagurski's reef. The cabin was right on the point directly in from the reef. Wood frame cabin with a red roof.  Nagurski's Point to me".  View a map of Kabetogama and the location of Nagurski's cabin. (Special thanks to Voyageurs National Park for providing this picture of Bronko's cabin on Lake Kabetogama)

Naturally, my father also wanted me to see the gas station in International Falls that Nagurski purchased after retiring from football and the professional wrestling he did to supplement his income (football players -- even those as good as Nagurski -- made precious little salary back then).

At the time, I'm sure that I was not very impressed. Not that Bronko Nagurski was not impressive. It's more like... well, what is important for a newly-graduated college kid? I knew Nagurski had played for George Halas and the Chicago Bears, but that was more than fifty years earlier. C'mon. I was twenty-two years old; I had more important things to think about... To be honest, at the time, I just couldn't relate.

When the name Bronko Nagurski flashed before my eyes again, I now figured it had more to do with fate. My father's high school team had won their football conference in 1932; Bronko had played for Halas and the Bears in '32. I love the north woods; my father was instrumental in that. I write a lot about the Northwoods, and not an article is written that I don't wax nostalgic about something I learned as a result of being with my father on those trips north. There had to be a connection. Something made me want to know more about a guy who could possibly be one of the best to ever play the game of football.

Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski, according to Wikipedia, "was born in Rainy River, Ontario, Canada (November 3, 1908), of Polish-Ukrainian descent, and his family moved to International Falls, Minnesota, when he was five years-old." That definitely qualifies as Northwoods! Nagurski played for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers; in 1929 he led the nation in rushing yards and was a consensus pick for the 1929 All-American Team by sportswriter Grantland Rice (who, by the way, was also responsible for coining the phrase "Four Horsemen of Notre Dame).

Wearing #3 and playing fullback for George Halas and the Chicago Bears from 1930 - 1937 (and part of a final season in 1943), Nagurski, at six feet, three inches tall and 225 pounds was huge; even most linemen at the time were not that big. But he was darn good and very well-respected, both on the football field and off of it. He mostly ran straight ahead and was next to impossible to bring down. It has been said that "Tackling Bronko was like trying to stop a freight train from going downhill".

In 1963, Nagurski was among the original 17 men inducted into the National Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, attending the ceremonies with the ten other inductees who were still alive at the time. All the men got rings, but the jeweler had to make a new mold to accommodate Nagurski's enormous ring size of 19 1/2.

Football has never been kind to players' body parts; the game made no exception when it came to Nagurski. He suffered from arthritis and multiple knee operations, but he never complained. Finally, in 1960, a tired Bronko Nagurski decided to return home to International Falls, MN and live a quieter, more "ordinary" life (although as I mentioned, he made an appearance -- his final public one -- at the 1984 Super Bowl to handle the official coin toss).

He opened a gas station in the Falls, too (Pure Oil, located near the corner of 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue) that he operated with his sons. It has been said that after he tightened your gas cap, the only way for you to remove it was with a wrench! He dearly loved the area, hunted and fished mostly for fun, and became a fishing guide on Rainy Lake for a while. As for his gas station in International Falls, it is no longer there; the building houses an insurance agency now. There is however, a Bronko Nagurski Museum there!

I have been unable to fish Kab since 2009, but now I realize there is an additional motive to return, if for no other reason than to renew a connection that has finally become clear to me...
It would be great if we could all take a lesson out of Bronko's play book: live life large and play the game with an intensity and love that is uncommon in today's world. My father taught me the same lesson many years ago while encouraging me to compete in football, track and baseball. That mantra is unfortunately noticeably missing in today's sports.

Nagurski never bragged about his accomplishments; he never danced in the end zone after scoring a TD; he simply handed the ball to the ref. He never made a fuss or complained. He just loved to play the game! Period.

Bronko Nagurski will always be legend, and the image of the humble and gentle giant with steel blue eyes will always invoke what desire and tenacity are all about. From "After more than a century of football, he remains one of the sport’s truly immortal legends." Thanks Bronko, for literally reaching from beyond the grave to remind me of a truly a great northwoods connection, complete with some of the best memories of my father that I have!

Stay tuned... I'm certain there are more Northwoods Connections out there; I'll be out there looking for them. As always, I hope to see you On the Lake!

R. Karl