Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bronko Nagurski's Unique Strength and Resiliency

Bronislaw “Bronko” Nagurski

Bronko Nagurski was a one-of-a-kind fullback and linebacker who played in the 1930s.  “Bronk” had the size, strength, and speed of modern fullbacks coupled with the toughness of a freight train.  He later became a professional wrestler.  He was a professional athlete for three decades.  

In 1930, George Halas and co-owner Dutch Sternaman of the Chicago Bears hired Ralph Jones, who was athletic director at Lake Forest Academy, to coach the Bears.  Jones made innovative adjustments to the Bears’ offense that gave the team a more mobile attack.  The Bears also added University of Minnesota standout, Bronko Nagurski, who gave the team one of the greatest power-runners of all time as well as a bone-crushing tackler and a terrific blocker.  With Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, and several other excellent players on the roster, the Bears were a formidable power.  

Bears’ 1932 Season and Championship

In the first 5 years of the 1930s, the Bears would win, place, or show in each of those seasons. Back George Corbett and Hall of Fame end Bill Hewitt were added to the Bears’ roster in 1932.  The season did not start out well for the Chicago Bears as they tied their first three games and then lost to the Green Bay Packers in their fourth.  The Bears turned things around after that and won 6 while tying 3 to give them a 6–1–6 record for their regularly scheduled games.  The Portsmouth Spartans ended the season at 6–1–4, which put them in first with the Bears.  Tied games were not considered in the standings.  It was determined that a championship game would be played in Chicago.  Horrific weather sent the teams indoors to the Chicago Stadium, where the game was played on an abbreviated field.  The Bears triumphed, 9–0, in a game that featured a Nagurski to Grange touchdown pass and a safety.

Bears’ 1933 Season and Championship

George Halas coached the Bears in 1933.  There were many changes in 1933.  The Bears trained at the University of Notre Dame that year.  End Bill Karr, back and kicker Jack Manders, Hall of Fame lineman George Musso from Millikin College, and back Gene Ronzani were added to the 1933 roster.  Two league divisions were created: The Eastern Division included the New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Western Division included the Chicago Bears, Portsmouth Spartans, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago Cardinals.  The divisions would allow the leaders from each to battle for the title in a championship game. 

The Bears won the West Division with a 10–2–1 record.  For the season, the Bears scored 133 points and allowed 82 from their opponents.  With Halas at the helm, the Bears played the Giants in the first scheduled championship game.  It turned out to be the most spectacular game of the season featuring a trick play by the Giants early on and one by the Bears late in the game.  It would also feature six lead changes.  

On a damp cool foggy December 17, 26,000 fans showed up to see the championship battle.  In the early goings, the Giants center Mel Hein reported as an eligible receiver.  Harry Newman took the ball under center from Hein and handed it right back to him with a slight of hand.  While the defense watched Newman fall back as if he was going to pass, Hein hid the ball under his jersey and quietly started to make his way up field.  Not a particularly good actor, Hein got anxious and began to run.  The Bears tackled him on the 15-yard line and although the play worked beautifully, the Bears held and the Giants did not score on that series.  

After two Jack Manders’s field goals, the Bears were ahead 6–0.  Morris Badgro hit Harry Newman on a 29-yard touchdown strike and the Giants took the lead, 7–6.  Again, Manders kicked a field goal for the Bears.  The Giants scored another touchdown on a short run by Max Krause.  Nagurski tossed an 18-yard pass to end Billy Karr and with a successful point after, the Bears led, 16–14.  Ken Strong hit Newman on an 8-yard pass to give the lead back to the Giants, 21–16.  Time was running out.  It was time for the Bears’ trick play.  Bronko Nagurski faked a run and threw a 14-yard jump pass to Bill Hewitt who was attracting Giants. Hewitt lateraled to Bill Karr who then made his way to the end zone.  The Bears won 23–21 to take top honors in 1933.  It was another championship win in which Nagurski played a key role. 

Bears' 1937 Championship

The Bears roared back in 1937 with the best record in football at 9–1–1.  For the season, the Bears scored 201 points and allowed 100 from their opponents.  They won the Western Division.  They split with the Packers, winning at home, 14–2, and losing away, 24–14.  And they tied the Giants, 3–3.  They beat every other opponent they faced. 

For the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski, 1937 would be his last year in the NFL, at least until he was coaxed into coming back during the war.  Bronk was 29 years old and he had 73 rushes for 343 yards for a very fine 4.7 yards per attempt.  It would also be Beattie Feathers last year with the Bears.  Feathers, who had rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1934, was 29 years old in 1937 and rushed for 211 yards.  Bears’ quarterback Bernie Masterson completed 26 passes on 72 attempts for 615 yards.  Bears’ halfback Ray Nolting was the team’s leading rusher with 424 yards.  

In the league championship game the Bears played the Eastern Division Champions, Washington Redskins.  The Redskins had moved from Boston after poor attendance created huge financial losses.  Prior to the start of their inaugural season in Washington, the Redskins picked up an outstanding quarterback in Hall of Famer, Sammy Baugh, who led the league with 81 completions for 1,127 yards.  Another Redskins’ Hall of Famer, halfback Cliff Battles, led the league in rushing with 874 yards.  

On a cold and bitter December 12, 1937, in Chicago’s Wrigley field, the Bears and Redskins played for the NFL Championship.  The field was frozen with jagged clumps of dirt that cut and bruised players.  Yet, the athletes overcame the elements to provide spectators with a tremendous game.  The Bears featured a running game that ground out yards with tough blocking and powerful runners.  Chicago’s defense was stingy and strong.  In eight regular season games that season, they allowed their opponents 7 points or less.  
Washington offered a balanced attack on the strength of spectacular Baugh along with a good receiving and rushing core.  The Redskins’ defense was especially tough on running teams.  

After the first few series, the Redskins and Bears swapped touchdowns.  Baugh managed to sustain a drive and Cliff Battles took a handoff on a reverse and scored from 7 yards out.  Manders scored on a run up the middle for the Bears.  As the first quarter was winding down, Baugh was intercepted by Bears’ end George Wilson.  A few plays later, Masterson hit Manders on a 37-yard touchdown pass.  The teams moved remarkably well considering the field conditions, but in the second quarter the conditions likely contributed to Manders missing two field goal attempts.  

Baugh had been shaken up in the second quarter, but came back in the third and tossed a 55-yard touchdown strike to end Wayne Millner.  The Bears came back on a long touchdown drive that characteristically ground out yardage with Nagurski, Manders, and Nolting.  Masterson’s short pass to Manske gave the lead back to the Bears, 21–14.  Rookie quarterback, Baugh, put on an exhibition from that point forward in the quarter.  He threw two more touchdowns, including a long bomb of 78 yards to another Hall of Famer, Wayne Millner.  Baugh’s last strike of the day was to Ed Justice from 35 yards out.  
Early in the fourth quarter the Bears drove downfield to a first down on the Redskins’ 12-yard line.  After moving the ball to the 7-yard line on two runs, Masterson was sacked back at the 12-yard line.  A fourth down pass fell incomplete and the Redskins took over.  The balance of the fourth quarter was dramatic, but sloppy.  Playing for field position, Baugh attempted a quick kick on the Redskins’ 28-yard line on a third down.  His punt was blocked and recovered by teammate Bill Young.  On fourth and 19, Baugh punted again, but this time the punt was mishandled by the Bears’ Ray Buivid and recovered by the Redskins at their own 41.  A few plays later, Cliff Battles fumbled the ball back to the Bears, but Masterson gave it right back when he threw an interception on the next series. The Redskins won the game, 28–21.

Bears' 1943 Season

The 1943 Bears would play without Halas during much of World War II, as Papa Bear was serving in the Navy.  The league suffered financially and players were in short supply.  Assistants Hunk Anderson and Luke Johnsos coached the Bears to another great season.  They were helped immeasurably when Bronko Nagurski was coaxed out of retirement after leaving football in 1937.  Nagurski had become a wrestler.  

Nagurski at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, had the size to play fullback today and the heart to play it in any era.  In his first professional football stretch, he played fullback and defensive line.  When he came back to the Bears, he played tackle.  When the Bears were trailing the Cardinals in a must-win game at the end of the season, Bronko returned to his fullback position, scored a key touchdown, and turned the tide in favor of the Bears.  He returned again as fullback in the championship game in which the Bears beat the Washington Redskins 41–21.  The Bears had won three of the last four championships. 

Bronko Wrestling

Nagurski took to wrestling in the 1930 and held the heavyweight championship several times during his career in singles wrestling.  Wrestling could be more grueling than football in some ways and it is remarkable that he continued to compete for so long.  Well into his 40s in the 1950s, Nagurski formed a tag team with another remarkable wrestler, Verne Gagne, and together they took the tag team title in 1957 and held it for over a year.  After Nagurski retired, he lived another 30  years, passing away in 1990 at age 82.   

Final Summation of Bronko Nagurski

Revered sports writer Grantland Rice, summed up Bronko Nagurski's place in professional football:
 "In my opinion," Rice continued, "the final answer seems to lie in this question: Who would you pick to win a football game - eleven Jim Thorpes - eleven Glen Davises - eleven Ernie Nevers - eleven Red Granges - or eleven Bronko Nagurskis? "I honestly don't think there would be any contest. The eleven Nagurskis would be a mop-up. It would be something close to murder and massacre. For the Bronk would start at any position on the field - with 228 pounds of authority to back him up."

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

Much of this post is taken from Patrick McCaskey's new book, Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championship Games available at selected stores and from Sporting Chance Press.