Bronko Nagurski (Chicago Bears) – The Monster of the Midway

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This episode we fire up the DeLorean and head back to explore the life and career of Bronko Nagurski, the original Monster of the Midway.  Bronko was one of the most feared runners and defenders of the early Chicago Bears.  He was famously known for one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, returning to the game after a 6 year hiatus.  He was also a world champion professional wrestler.  So strap on your seat belt, and let’s get ready to take this baby up to 88mph.

 

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Introduction
On January 8th, 2011 Marshawn Lynch (affiliate link) went full beast mode on one of the most legendary runs of all time. The 12th man crowd stomped so hard in excitement; it generated seismic activity mimicking an earthquake. In this episode, I’m going to tell you the name of the man that had a run that was a precursor to the famous "Beast Quake" (affiliate link).

Intro Music
Welcome to the Football History Dude Podcast, where each episode is a journey back in time to learn about the rich history of the NFL. Your host is Arnie Chapman. Football is his passion and he wants you to come along with him to explore the yesteryear of the gridiron. So hop on board his DeLorean and let's get this baby up to 88 miles per hour (Great Scott).

Bronko’s Early Life
This time we step off the DeLorean and the date is November 3rd, 1908. We are in Rainy River, Ontario. Which happens to be a border town across International Falls, Minnesota. I hope that you brought your passport with you because we’re going to the neighbors up to the north of us. The reason we’re going up there is because our hero was born in Canada and his name was Bronislau Nagurski. Which is better known to you and me as, Bronko Nagurski (affiliate link). In the last solo episode we talked about Red Grange that had a Zeus-like lightning power to him. But this guy, Mr. Bronko, was a thundering, rumbling, hammer-wielding powerhouse of a man. Kind of reminds me of Madden. The game that most of you, many of you have probably played ever since the inception of the game and if you’re like me purchase the new one each year. They don’t have him in there anymore, but back in the day, it used to be him and a lot of times Pat Summerall and they would have these one-liners that in between plays you would get to hear the famous John Madden one-liners. One of my favorites was a total spot-on description of this guy. Lets paint a picture here; in Madden I got this dude running the ball, pressing the hit stick. I don’t think they had the hit stick back then. This is an earlier rendition. Anyway, running the ball-smash. Jump cutscene to a huddle and then in the middle John Madden goes, “That guy worked as a bulldozer in the off season”. That right there would be the guy we’re going to talk about, Mr. Bronko Nagurski. He was a road grader unlike the league had ever seen before. But we have to go a little bit back. We have to start this thing fresh and we have to go back to his childhood days - his early life. And one of the first things we talk about is how did this dude get the name Bronko? I thought his name was Bronislau. I might be butchering that a little bit, but just in case, because it’s an audio for you- I’m just going to spell Bronislau. Reason why he had that name is because his parents, Michael and Emilia, were Ukrainian immigrants and farmers. I do not know how truthful this is, but a story in the LA Times for his obituary said that Bronislau was changed to Bronko by a teacher that was perplexed by his mothers accent. She couldn’t understand it, so somehow this came up Bronko. So I declare if that’s true, this teacher is a national hero because she officially gave this dude, what I am calling, one of the most perfect football names of all time. If I say Bronko Nagurski and you had no clue who he was, I mean you’re listening to a football podcast then you will probably assume it was a football dude. But if you didn’t know that this was a football podcast, you have got to imagine that yourself thinking the name Bronko Nagurski and boom, tough middle linebacker I’m going to steamroll right over you. I’m going to smash you into oblivion and that’s just what that name means to me. Maybe it does for you, maybe it doesn’t. But that’s what I hear when I got that name in my ears. But a name does not make the man. The man makes the name. How do you make that man? You give him some tough stuff, tough love growing up as a child. When he was growing up there in Canada, in the cold weather, things weren’t easy for him. He would have to get strong as a lumberman and as a farmer. In high school he would take up wrestling, boxing, baseball, and of course football. But, there was a caveat, apparently when he was in his senior year he decided to transfer to Bemidji High School in hopes of securing a college scholarship. The problem was, he declared him ineligible due to the transfer. He just played basketball instead. It kind of reminds me of Antonio Gates (affiliate link), and some of these other freakish athletes that were basically so skilled that they were able to translate a basketball powerhouse into a football and just meld both of them together and dominate. The school was called the Bemidji Lumberjacks, which was a perfect fit since he was a lumberman. He had to play basketball, however, he would go on to play college ball.

College Football Days
This brings us to one of our first fantasy story legendary base type occurrences of Bronko Nagurski. Recruiting is common practice as it was back in the day, but the story and the accounts told by that college recruiter that got Mr. Bronko Nagurski to the University of Minnesota that could rival the labors of Hercules himself. There was an account and it goes as such: Driving by I saw this powerful young man plowing the field. Then I noticed that he had a plow but no horse. I asked him directions to a certain town. And he pointed in the opposite direction with the plow in his left hand. He’s probably thinking that there isn’t going to be a big tractor because this is mid 1920’s, but he’s probably thinking he’s going to have a plow and a horse. They’re going to be pushing it along and he’s just going to be the one directing the horses where to go. Imagine, he gets out into the field and he sees this big hulking dude plowing the field by himself-no horse. He’s baffled, doesn’t know what to do. He just signs him on the spot to play for the Minnesota Golden Gophers (affiliate link) and he would enter the school in 1926. From 1927-1929, he would proceed to star in 4 different positions that would be an end, guard, tackle and a fullback. Mostly tackle on defense and fullback on offense, but he would play those other positions as well. He would be in 1929, named the consensus All-American for two different positions at the same time and same year - fullback and tackle. His website, which is BronkoNagurski.com stated that he was the only person ever to be named to two positions in the same year, which I believe could be in the realm of possibilities. Because first of all, most times players don’t star on offense and defense at the same time because it’s tough enough alone to try and be good at one position - let alone both. Then, to be the best at those positions and named consensus All-American in two different positions - that is just unfathomable. Speaking of legend, what is considered to be his greatest college game came against Wisconsin in 1928. This would be another quote from his website: “Wearing a corset to protect cracked vertebrae, he recovered a badger fumbled deep in their territory and ran the ball 6 straight times to score the go-ahead touchdown. Later in the same game he intercepted a pass to seal the victory.” Basically, what I grab out of that picture was not only was he the dude you were going to give the ball to shove it down their throats, he was also the character that is going to be on the defense preventing them from scoring the touchdowns. He’s going to recover a ball, he is going to go ahead and play interception and he is basically going to say get on my shoulders I am going to take us over there to the victory. Overall, he was at Minnesota, the Gophers would have a record of 18-4-2 and they would win the big 10-conference title in 1927.

Pro Football Days
Though he had a dominating college career, he really made his hay when he went to the professional football league. Because of this college career, Mr. George Halas and the Chicago Bears were definitely interested in this character. He would play for them from 1930-1937. Initially that is. That last episode, discussing Red Grange, talked about Halas and Sternaman who were the owners. Basically, they decided that they weren’t going to coach anymore. Some things went down and different articles said that they didn’t get along. Things would happen and Halas would end up being the only owner of the team down the road. They put Ralph Jones of Lake Forest Academy in charge as the head coach. He was previously an assistant to Bob Zuppke (affiliate link), which was the other dude we talked about who coached for Red Grange back in Illinois. Apparently, when he became the head coach he promised a championship within the next three years. He had to make due on this promise. He ran a standard T-formation. One of the first things he did was go out and get a bruising rookie by the name of Bronko Nagurski. At 6 foot 2 inches and 235 pounds I would say this dude would be a formidable opponent in any era of the NFL. We kind of described this a little bit when we talked about Pudge. The size and stature of these guys - that was much smaller back then. As a full back, a guy toting the Rock who is going to smash through that line would be going towards some dudes. In fact, the Bear dudes are basically going to be maybe 200 pounds. It’s kind of like, when they had William Perry the “fridge” suck that ball take it over the goal line. This guy was fast and he was ripped. If you saw the pictures of him, which I’m going to provide some links, he was The Rock *affiliate link)-the precursor to the Rock. He was a pretty big strong looking dude. He was a monster. One of the videos that I saw on YouTube that described him said, “They still have on record today the largest ever ring for a championship”. He had the biggest finger. They also said that he had the largest helmet. His head was the biggest of all time. I did not really prove or disprove this. Vince Wilfork for the Patriots and the Texans later on was a pretty big boy. I’m going to say that is probably just a legend. To go along with this, the big dude, Red Grange’s teammate was happy that he only had to face him in practice. There was a quote that goes as such, “When you tackle the Bronk, it’s like an electric shock. If you hit him above the ankles, you could get killed.” In a few years into his career the Giants coach, Steve Owen, was at the time considered a defensive mastermind. To go along with the same theme, when he was asked how he planned to stop Bronko, he said “with a shotgun as he’s leaving the dressing room”. That’s extreme. That kind of goes along with the theme that on the field you aren’t stopping this guy. In a famous moment that sums this up, that every article I read talked about, was a run against the Red skins and I would say that it rivaled that modern day beast quake, which we talked about at the beginning of the episode. That was when Marshawn Lynch took the entire Seahawks team and stadium on his back. There is part of it he would say to Mr. Tracy Porter to get out of here. He flung them off. Pushes them out of the way. There are 11 players on the team, right? I swear he tried to get tackled by 23 guys. Everyone on the team missed him multiple times. If you have never seen that run by Marshawn Lynch, then you are doing yourself a disservice to your fandom of the NFL. You need to go to YouTube and search for Marshawn Lynch beast quake. Or just type in beast quake. Back to Bronko Nagurski, which to me will be Bronk Smash. He decided he would single handedly smash the Red Skins defense. Close your eyes and imagine David vs. Goliath, Thor vs. Loki, any big dude that you can think of and that’s Bronko. He will come charging through that line of scrimmage. He would knock two linebackers in opposite directions. Then he would proceed to stomp on a defensive halfback. After that, he would crush his safety and then bounce off goal post and finally he would run into the brick wall at Wrigley Field. He would crack it. They said he cracked the brick wall at Wrigley Field. He ran so hard that as he proceeded to smash his body into that brick wall it would crack the foundation. That was some pretty epic stuff, but the best part of it was when he went back into the huddle, legend has it he was quoted as saying “that last guy hit me pretty hard”. Yeah it was a brick wall. I think Mr. Charles Richter was a little bit scared of this guy.

In 1935, Charles Richter invented the Richter scale (affiliate link). Which was a tool that would measure the magnitude of earthquakes. When Marshawn Lynch made the run against the Saints, the crowd got so excited that they registered on the Richter scale with seismic activity that replicated an earthquake. My joke is that Bronko cracking that wall had something to do with Charles Richter creating the Richter scale. I guess in a way he possibly could have saved a lot of lives because seismic activity on the Richter scale helps us to detect earthquakes. It doesn’t make sense you say? I can’t, but it’s cool to think Bronko Nagurski cracking a brick wall. I do not recommend you do that at home. You shouldn’t find a brick wall and run into it. If you do so, and you’re able to crack it, send me a picture because it would be pretty cool. He wasn’t just a hard charging nose diving bronco bull. He was a stellar blocker. Behind Bronko Nagurski, Beattie Feathers would end up being the first player to ever gain 1,000 yards in one season for the NFL. That will come in 1934, Bronko had a quote of his teammate, “Beattie had an uncanny knack for following a blocker and ran with his hand on my hip - together he gained a lot of yards”. History in the making, a lot is revolving around the Chicago Bears back in the day - George Halas, Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, and Beattie Feathers. In the previous solo episode, we discussed how Bronko would end up tossing that touchdown to Red Grange against the Portsmouth Spartans in the first ever league title game back in 1932. Then in the next year in the NFL’s first official championship game, he would end up throwing two touchdowns. Basically, this guy he tackles, blocks for people, run the ball with veracity, throw the ball for touchdowns. What else could he do? He did a whole lot more than just those things. It wouldn’t be in football though.

Wrestling Career
It was the Great Depression, so money was hard to come by. They weren’t really paying the players a lot back then. He would turn to professional wrestling in February of 1933. He won his first match in 2 minutes and 14 seconds. He would end up wrestling from January-July and play football from September-December. He had his whole year mapped out. There are many videos on YouTube of his wrestling days. In June 1937 he won the title by defeating Dean Detten in Minneapolis. He would end up wrestling and playing football for the rest of that year. It said that during a 21 day period he would play in 5 football games and defend his wrestling title 8 times while traveling from the Midwest to the West Coast across to the East Coast and then back to the Midwest. That could rival the “barnstorming tour” of Red Grange. That’s a lot of physical activity and traveling. It didn’t hurt that he was twice the size of everyone so even if his health is at half bars, that’s ok. Over all he held the NWA, which was the National Wrestling Alliance (affiliate link), title 5 times from 1937-1941. They said that his favorite holds were the rope butt, the flying tackle, and the body slam. He would initially retire in 1942. Then he would resume wrestling in 1946 and finally retire in 1958. At the beginning of the episode we found out he was born in 1908. This meant that he would wrestle until he was 50 years old.

Comeback of 1943
But now that we are in 1958, lets go back on that DeLorean and tell Mr. Doctor Emmett Brown to crank that flex capacitor up and throw some more garbage in the disposal and head back to 1943. We need to talk about what was considered one of the greatest comeback stories of all time. This year, as we stand 2018, there’s going to be a lot of big named stars that are going to be on their comeback trails. Just to name a few are Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, David Johnson and lets go ahead and let The Football History Dude keep David Johnson in his home league instead of Le’veon Bell and go ahead and break my wrist the first game. Lets make this year the comeback, just like Mr. Bronko Nagurski did back in 1943. There would end up being a book that came out that Mr. Jim Dent called "Monster of the Midway: Bronko Nagurski, the 1943 Chicago Bears, and the Greatest Comeback Ever (affiliate link) and it was chronicled as the greatest comeback ever. Again, there’s too many out there to discuss, but this one was definitely one of the better ones of all time. He was retired for 6 years from the NFL to do his wrestling career. But this was the time of WWII and the Bears players, many of them were drafted to go to the war and support this country. Mr. George Halas was at war himself. He told the Bears that they should resign Bronko Nagurski, but at this time he was a little older so he was going to play tackle. The guy went from fullback and linebacker to defensive tackle, then offensive tackle. He did whatever to help the team. He was 35 years old and had a 6-year hiatus from the game. Is there one person that can go out of the league for 6 years and comeback to dominate, anyone besides Barry Sanders? We are going to talk about anyone else besides Calvin Johnson. Mr. Terrell Owens is trying to be the first player to ever be an active player that is also in the Professional Football Hall of Fame. I don’t know if he ever is going to get there but it would be cool. It would be neat to see a guy that old and that good of shape to get it done on the gridiron. But we are talking about Bronko Nagurski, and like I said, he would be the offensive tackle and pave the way for the runners. Late in the season the Bears players kept getting drafted so they would turn to him to become that runner. He would near the end of the season go back to his old position of fullback and he would be a man on a mission. He would bring back what I call, “Bronk smash”. He would end up doing this in a game that the Bears had to win to get into the playoffs. He ended up getting the winning touchdown, which would put the Bears into the championship where they would face, the Redskins. He would end up ending his career in this game but not before he scored a touchdown that let the Bears stay ahead in this championship game and give them the victory.

Life Accomplishments and Honoring Him
He had a long career that spanned football and wrestling where at the time wrestling was a major sport. He was able to Bo Jackson style it into two major sports at the same time and be successful. Because of his dominating performance on the field, Bronko Nagurski would end up becoming a Charter member Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. There was a quote form Mr. Ernie Nevers, the guy that we talked about that had 40 points all by himself and still holds a record and he had a quote, “Tackling Bronko was like tackling a freight train going down hill”. So either you step out of the way or you are going to get run over because you are not stopping that thing. They would end up erecting the Bronko Nagurski museum in International Falls, Minnesota where he spent his later days because they had to honor this individual who gave all he had to the game of football. He would even come back at the age of 35 to have, what they say, was one of the greatest football comebacks of all time. If you end up going to that museum, snap a couple photos and send them to me, that would be cool to put on my website. You can head on over to http://thefootballhistorydude.com/episode7/ where you can get a breakdown of the show and I’ll include the links that I talk about in this episode. To go along with last weeks episode, if you want to be featured on an upcoming episode of The Football History Dude, where you share your favorite football moment, head on over to MyFootballMoment.com and I give you two different options for you to record your story. Lets get back to the episode, the United States Postal Service ended up issuing a stamp collection on August 8th, 2003 which they called “Early Football Heroes”. It’s four of the main dudes that we talked about in this podcast. The four guys were Walter Camp, Red Grange, Ernie Nevers, and Bronko Nagurski. The United States Postal Service recognized that these were four of the main dudes from the early days of football lore. Bronko Nagurski was one of the main dudes that was able to help put the NFL on the map. It has grown to be the massive conglomeration that it is today. You and I get to enjoy each week watching our favorite football team. Mr. Bronko Nagurski would end up passing away on January 7th, 1990.

Drop the Hammer
In February 1944, a Minneapolis native Lt. Fred E. Stone requested permission from Bronko Nagurski to use his name and image on the nose of their new B24 bomber. They were able to successfully accomplish this request and the plane was sent to England to prepare for battle. This planes first bombing mission was on April 9th, 1944. Bronko Nagurski was a bull on the field, and his style of play may have helped the B24 crew in 1944 help America win WWII.

Next Episode
I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Football History Dude, and were able to gain some knowledge nuggets of one of the best power backs to ever grace the gridiron. In the upcoming episode, we get to take a closer look at the guy Bronko helped record the first 1,000 yard rushing season in the history of the NFL.

Outro Music
Thank you for listening to this episode of The Football History Dude. To make sure you’re the first to get the next episode, please subscribe with your podcast player of choice and head on over to TheFootballHistoryDude.com for the show notes and more information on the history of the NFL. And remember dudes, where we’re going we don’t need roads.

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About the author, Arnie Chapman

My name is Arnie Chapman, and I am the host of The Football History Dude, a podcast dedicated to teaching fans about the rich history of the NFL. The show officially launched on 4/15/18, and I have not looked back. I have always been passionate about football, and learning about the history of the game has intrigued me, as well. I'm asking you to come along with me on my DeLorean to travel back in time and learn about the yesteryear of the gridiron. To get started, you can go to my website for more details.

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