June 22, 2018:

On June 23, 1939, Bronko Nagurski defeated defending champion Lou Thesz to capture the National Wrestling Association World Title. Say what? Wasn’t Bronko Nagurski one of the greatest old-time football players? Yes, he was. Nagurski was dominating in both sports and as such is the only person ever inducted into two professional halls of fame. And if anyone ever builds a “great name hall of fame”, Bronko will certainly be a charter member along with Picabo Street, I.M. Hipp, and Stubby Clapp. 

An amazing specimen
in 1913, The Nagursky’s family including five-year-old, Bronislau moved from Rainy River, Ontario to International Falls, Minnesota. As a boy, “Bronko” ran four miles each way to school.and spent his non-academic hours working in a sawmill. In 1925, Dr. Clarence Spears, the University of Minnesota football coach, travelled to International Falls to scout a prospect but stopped his car when he saw the hulking Nagurski plowing a field by himself-  no machinery-no horse.  Nagurski accepted Spears’ invitation to become a Golden Gopher and soon the 6’2, 230lb. colossus became known as the Paul Bunyan of football. Nagurski was a consensus All-American fullback and made several All-American teams as defensive tackle. 

Nagurski went on to star for the Chicago Bears, coached by the legendary George Halas, who claimed Nagurski “had the most incredible strength I’ve ever seen…the greatest all-around football player who ever lived”. Despite Bronko’s prowess, he never put-up eye-popping statistics because the Halas system called for numerous players to rush the ball. Yet, there exist many tales of Nagurski’s accomplishments.  In a key 1933 playoff game at Wrigley Field, Nagurski was called for a holding penalty that allowed the Portsmouth Spartans to take a late game lead. The infuriated Nagurski ran back the ensuing kickoff to mid-field. In the huddle Nagurski reportedly said: “This is my fault. Give me the ball!” He proceeded to power through the entire Portsmouth defense. After crossing the goal line with the winning touchdown, Bronko ran into a concrete wall. Allegedly Nagurski commented “That last guy hit me awfully hard.”

Going to the mat
Because of financial pressures brought on by the Great Depression, Nagurski decided to moonlight as a wrestler. He made his debut in February 1933 pinning his opponent in less than four minutes. As Bronko’s second career progressed, Halas observed that the football star was “not particularly colorful for a wrestler, but he sure knew how to get through a match with the sheer ruggedness and methodical straight-ahead nature that he used on the football field” Unlike modern-day wrestling’s emphasis on showmanship, the sport in Nagurski’s era was more about strength, agility and technique. 

1930s wrestling was dominated by Lou Thesz, who held the championship for a record ten-plus- years due to his speed, conditioning and innovative techniques. One recent list of greatest wrestlers ranks Thesz in second place behind contemporary icon Ric Flair, who like Nagurski played football for the Golden Gophers. Thesz saw the opportunity to fight a famous athlete like Bronko as a chance to solidify his reputation as the world’s greatest wrestler. He was also impressed at Bronko’s ability to draw record crowds to his matches across the country. For Bronko, the opportunity to beat Thesz would prove that he was the world’s greatest athlete. Incredibly no details of their title fight exist except that Nagurski emerged victorious and was awarded a $10,000 diamond studded belt by the mayor of Houston. 

Quick hits- 
The iconic sportswriter Grantland Rice called Nagurski the greatest player of the generation, saying that eleven Nagurskis would “mop-up eleven Jim Thorpes or eleven Red Granges — I honestly don’t think there would be any contest”.

Nagurski retired to International Falls where he operated a filling station. It is said that he had the greatest percentage of repeat customers in the country because nobody else could unscrew a gas cap that Bronko had tightened.

Nagurski was inducted into the College Football Hall-of Fame in 1951 and became a charter member in the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1963. He was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame posthumously in 2009. He died of natural causes in International Falls in 1990 at the age of 82. 

Have a great weekend. 

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