Nagurski, Bronislau ("Bronko")

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NAGURSKI, Bronislau ("Bronko")

(b. 4 November 1908 in Rainy River, Ontario, Canada; d. 7 January 1990 in International Falls, Minnesota), Pro Football Hall of Famer, unstoppable All-Pro fullback and defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears.

Nagurski's parents, Nykoleig and Michalina Nagurski, were from the Russian Ukraine; his father was a grocer. The family, which included four children, moved to International Falls, Minnesota, in 1912. A grade school teacher dubbed the boy "Bronko"; the name stuck and proved prophetic for Nagurski, who as a hard-hitting collegiate and professional football player in the 1920s and 1930s was renowned for dragging would-be tacklers into the end zone as he scored.

Nagurski enjoyed football as a child and played for two years at International Falls High School. As an upperclassman, he transferred to nearby Bemidji High School but was barred from participation in the football program for being an out-of-district student. An influential University of Minnesota alumnus, having seen Nagurski play earlier, recommended the young athlete to Gopher coach Clarence ("Doc") Spears, who in 1925 went to visit Nagurski. The story of their first meeting became a legendary testament to Nagurski's unusual strength. According to Spears, he was driving through the farm country near Nagurski's home when he came upon Nagurski plowing a field without a horse or mule. Nagurski lifted his hand to indicate a direction without dropping the plow. This unusual show of strength impressed Spears, and he recruited Nagurski to play for the University of Minnesota Gophers after he graduated from Bemidji in 1926.

The Gophers performed admirably during Nagurski's time with the team. By the end of his final season in 1929, the team had amassed a three-year record of 18–4–2. In 1928 Nagurski became the only collegiate player ever to be named All-America for two different positions (fullback and defensive tackle) in the same season. He received that honor for a second time in 1929.

By 1930 when he received his B.A., Nagurski was a hulking six-foot, two-inch bruiser and weighed 225 pounds. Coach George Halas personally signed Nagurski to play with the Chicago Bears of the National Football League (NFL) in 1930. In nine seasons with the Bears, Nagurski—wearing jersey number 3—distinguished himself as both fullback and offensive tackle; he also played as a defensive lineman. Nagurski made All-Pro fullback in 1932, 1933, and 1934, and received compensation at various rates of pay during his career, up to $5,000 per season. Among his more memorable plays was a fourth-quarter touchdown pass launched during the 1932 NFL championship playoff against the Portsmouth Spartans (now the Detroit Lions). Nagurski, in order to release the pass, leaped above the players on the line of scrimmage and connected successfully with teammate Harold ("Red") Grange. The play broke a scoreless tie and won the championship for the Bears. The team won a second title in 1933, and won three playoffs in all during the Nagurski years, leaving him with a collection of leviathan championship rings in size nineteen and one-half.

On 28 December 1936 Nagurski married Eileen Kane; the couple had six children. The following year Nagurski resigned from professional football after eight seasons of NFL play. Unable to serve in the military due to his athletic injuries, he rejoined the Bears for a single season as a defensive tackle during World War II, and for the third time in his career helped the team to a championship in 1943. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, into which he was inducted in 1963, Nagurski's rushing total after nine years of play was 4,031 yards. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

After the NFL years Nagurski pursued a career as a professional wrestler for more than a decade. He retired from wrestling in 1960 and opened a filling station in International Falls. In 1963 he was enshrined along with Grange, Jim Thorpe of the New York Giants, and fourteen others as a charter entrant to the new Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Nagurski spent his later years in Rainy Falls, Minnesota, four miles from International Falls. A self-admitted recluse, he avoided the press but made a brief public appearance in 1984 in Tampa, Florida, as the honorary coin flipper at Super Bowl XVIII. After some months in a nursing home in the late 1980s, Nagurski died of undisclosed causes at Falls Memorial Hospital in International Falls. He is buried at Saint Thomas Cemetery.

Stories of Nagurski's unparalleled strength on the football field abound. As sportswriter Arthur Daley said, "He shook off secondary tacklers as a dog shakes off fleas." Nagurski summed up his paradigm of play: "If somebody got in my way, I ran through them." On one occasion eyewitnesses concurred that Nagurski collided with and knocked over a mounted policeman—along with his horse—who was stationed on the arena field to quell an unruly crowd. On another day, according to Nagurski's teammates, he leveled four opposing players on his way to the end zone. After scoring on that run and unable to slow down, he rebounded off the goalpost before slamming into the brick arena wall of Chicago's Wrigley Field. Still on his feet, Nagurski returned to the sideline and complained to the team, "That last guy hits hard!"

Solid, strong, agile, and easygoing by nature, Nagurski was the prototype of the NFL professional. He was twelve years old when the NFL was organized in 1921, and the league was only in its tenth year when he joined the Bears. The college draft was not yet established, and NFL franchises operated with meager crews of eighteen to twenty-two players. Football historians cite Grange and Thorpe as the greatest backfield players overall, but the impassable Nagurski is revered by many as the greatest football player ever. Although others among his contemporaries were taller or faster, none were stronger than the square-shouldered, square-jawed Nagurski. On the gridiron he rushed a straightforward course, never to the sideline, even in the absence of teammates to run interference. In 1984 New York Times columnist Grantland Rice said, "Eleven Bronko Nagurskis could beat eleven Red Granges and eleven Jim Thorpes."

Arthur Daley, Pro Football ' s Hall of Fame (1963), includes a chapter on Nagurski. Articles on Nagurski appear in Andrew H. Malcolm, New York Times Biographical Edition (23 Apr. 1972), and Ira Berkow, New York Times Biographical Service (21 Jan. 1984). Nagurski is discussed in conjunction with Red Grange in Robert H. Shoemaker, Famous Football Players (1953). An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Jan. 1990).

Gloria Cooksey