McNally, John Victor ("Johnny Blood")
McNALLY, John Victor ("Johnny Blood")
(b. 27 November 1903 in New Richmond, Wisconsin; d. 28 November 1985 in Palm Springs, California), charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1963), and one of the sport's most remarkable characters.
McNally was one of six children and grew up a privileged youth in northern Wisconsin. His father, John McNally, was from a family that owned newspapers and flour mills. McNally's mother, Mary C. Murphy McNally, tried to instill fine tastes in her son by means of violin lessons and the like but, as he later said, "I had a definite resistance to culture." McNally graduated from New Richmond High School at the age of fourteen.
McNally's slender build precluded success in sports in his youth. He did what today would be called independent study and worked on a North Dakota farm for two years before enrolling at River Falls State Normal School in Wisconsin in 1920. After two years there he enrolled at St. John's, a small Benedictine university in Minnesota, where he blossomed as an athlete. He was skilled in football and baseball, and when pressed into service as a pitcher threw a one-hitter in his first and only attempt on the mound. McNally was a persuasive debater and filled leading roles in college theatricals. He also penned a poem (which he was fond of quoting), "Dear God, how sweet it is in spring to be a boy." McNally transferred to Notre Dame in 1923 after his junior year at St. John's. Now six feet, two inches tall, and 160 pounds, McNally was told by the Fighting Irish football staff that he was a tackle. When he protested, he was told to "play tackle or else." McNally elected the "else," which for him was buying a motorcycle, acquiring a female traveling companion, and taking off on a tour of New England. McNally said, "My only real contribution to Notre Dame football was doing Harry Stuhldreher's poetry assignments for him." Stuhldreher was the All-America quarterback of the famed Four Horsemen back-field.
In 1925 McNally was working as a stereotyper for the Minneapolis Tribune (owned by a family member) when he and a former St. John's teammate, Ralph Hanson, tried out with the East 26th Street Liberties, a semiprofessional football team. Knowing he had a year of college eligibility left—if he ever returned to school—McNally, following the common practice of the time for many college athletes who illegally earned money for playing on the side, knew he should not play under his given name. While speeding to the Liberties practice site, again on a motorcycle, the pair passed a theater marquee announcing a Rudolph Valentino bullfighting film entitled Blood and Sand. The ever-creative McNally elbowed Hanson and said, "That's it! I'll be Blood, you be Sand." Thus the legend of Johnny Blood was born. Some football historians, taking a more formal approach, list him as John ("Blood") McNally, making "Blood" seem like a nickname. However, Johnny Blood was an alias, not a sobriquet. To validate this, McNally signed his professional contracts—which were legal documents—with the name Johnny Blood. Not until much later did anyone know his given name. For a season's effort with the Liberties, McNally received $16.50.
McNally next played for an Ironwood, Michigan, team in a tougher, more respected league, and then for the Milwaukee Badgers of the National Football League (NFL), but made a really big step in 1926 when he joined the Duluth, Minnesota, Eskimos, an NFL team fronted by the immortal Ernie Nevers. The team barnstormed the country, playing twenty-nine games—all but one on the road—but folded after the 1927 season. McNally spent 1928 with the Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Maroons. Official NFL statistics did not come into being until 1932, but anecdotal information shows that McNally, now a lithe 195 pounds, was not only a fast and elusive runner but also a threat as a pass receiver, even though NFL teams used the pass sparingly.
Although the Pottsville fire companies served beer twenty-four hours a day even during Prohibition, McNally felt that the small coal town offered little in off-field diversions. He was as pleased as Green Bay coach Earl ("Curly") Lambeau when the Packers and Maroons swung a deal that sent him to the Wisconsin town that was about to enjoy its first incarnation as "Titletown, USA." The Packers, with the eccentric but brilliant McNally calling signals, won three consecutive NFL titles—1929, 1930, and 1931. One pre-1932 statistic that does survive is the 14 touchdowns McNally scored in 1931. In an era when the leading pass receivers logged catches in the low teens for an entire season, McNally's reception total for 1935 was twenty-five.
McNally added to his own growing legend. Low on funds, he once hopped a freight train and rode the rails to the Packers training camp. A writer was going to refer to him in print as "the Hobo Halfback" but, being image-conscious, changed the phrase to "the Vagabond Half-back."
During the time that the Packers were an early NFL dynasty, McNally drove Green Bay coach Lambeau to distraction. Once, during contract negotiations, Lambeau offered McNally $110 a game if he stopped drinking after Tuesday each week. McNally countered, "Make it Wednesday and I'll take an even hundred." Once McNally, who always spent money as soon as—if not before—he had it, wanted an advance from Lambeau, who locked himself in his hotel room to avoid McNally. In a driving rainstorm McNally scaled a fire escape, leaped across a six-foot-wide air shaft onto Lambeau's narrow eighth-floor window ledge, regained his balance, and came through the coach's window. A shaken Lambeau gave him the money and said, "Just go, Johnny Blood. Go anywhere—just go."
Lambeau finally had enough in 1934 and traded McNally to Pittsburgh. McNally returned to the Packers in 1935 and 1936, but Lambeau traded him back. In Pittsburgh, McNally found a fellow Irish American in team owner Art Rooney. McNally was a player-coach in 1937 and 1938. As if to set an example for his players, he took back the opening kickoff of the first 1937 preseason game for a 100-yard touchdown. He was strictly a coach in 1939. McNally and Rooney convinced University of Colorado All-America "Whizzer" White to postpone his Rhodes Scholar studies in England and play for Pittsburgh at an unprecedented $15,800 annual salary—this in an era when the average professional player earned $100—$150 a game and was paid only if he played. White, who later became better known as U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron R. White, responded by leading the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 1938. When President John F. Kennedy appointed White to the Supreme Court in 1962, McNally was at the swearing-in ceremony. Kennedy told him, "Your name is a household word in our house."
Rooney attempted, unsuccessfully, to get McNally to be a little more religiously devout. McNally's words on the subject were "I was a roamin' Catholic." When he retired from football in 1939, McNally held NFL career records for most seasons played (15), most touchdowns scored (37—only those after 1932 were officially counted), and most points scored (224—again, only those tallied after 1932 were counted). Once when asked about what it was like to be a professional football pioneer, McNally said, "If you don't like neckties, you can't beat it."
McNally drifted out of football. On 8 December 1941, a day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served with distinction as a cryptographer in the China-Burma theater. Those who knew "the magnificent screwball," as writer Arthur Daley tagged him, most often expressed surprise that they had not read about McNally commandeering a plane and bombing Tokyo or some such strategic target.
In 1948 McNally married for the first time, to Marguerite Streater, and finally earned his B.A. from St. John's. He later coached there and was on the faculty for a few years. In 1958 he ran for sheriff of St. Croix County in Wisconsin. Perhaps all chance of victory faded when the semiserious McNally, asked to identify the main plank of his platform, replied, "a return to honest wrestling."
McNally's first marriage "didn't take," in his words, and the couple divorced in 1956. After living the bachelor's life for several years, he married Catherine Irene Kopp, a successful businesswoman, in 1966. McNally came to think of her three sons as his own. The couple lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, before moving to Palm Springs, California, where McNally died from the complications of a stroke—not having missed much, if anything, of what life has to offer. He is buried in Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California.
The writer Jim Klobuchar wrote of McNally shortly before he died: "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."
Ralph Hickock, a writer from New Bedford, Massachusetts, worked with McNally on a biography, but McNally declined to have it finished and published. No other full-scale biography has been written. McNally's life and career are discussed in Arthur Daley, Pro Football's Hall of Fame (1963); George Sullivan, Pro Football's All-Time Greats (1968); Murray Olderman, The Running Backs (1969); and Myron Cope, The Game That Was (1970). An obituary is in the New York Times (30 Nov. 1985).