Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski (November 3, 1908 – January 7, 1990) was a Canadian-born football player. He was also a successful professional wrestler, recognized as a multiple-time world heavyweight champion.
Nagurski was born in Rainy River, Ontario, Canada, of Polish-Ukrainian descent, and his family moved to International Falls, Minnesota, when he was still a boy. His parents, “Mike” and Michelina Nagurski, were immigrants, from Western Ukraine (Halychyna/Galicia). Young Bronislau grew up working on his parents’ farm and sawmill, delivering groceries for his father’s grocery store and in his teens laboring at nearby timbering operations, growing into a powerfully muscular 6 footer.
Nagurski was discovered and signed by University of Minnesota Head Coach Clarence “Fats” Spears, who drove up to International Falls and arriving watched Nagurski out plowing a field. According to legend Spears asked directions to the nearest town, and Bronko lifted his plow and used it to point in the direction of town. He was signed on the spot to play for the Golden Gophers. Spears admitted he concocted the story on his long drive back to the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Legends aside, on his first day of practice Spears decided to test Nagurski in the “Nutcracker” drill, where a defensive player had to take on two blockers and try to tackle a following ballcarrier. On the first drill two All-Big Ten linemen and a 6 foot two, 220 pound fullback nicknamed the “Owatonna Thunder” charged at Bronko, who promptly split the blockers and drove the big fullback into a blocking dummy. Spears sent in three more players, blew his whistle and watched Bronko produce the same explosive results and after a third try with the same conclusion realized what a super player he had recruited.
Nagurski became a standout playing both tackle on defense and fullback on offense at Minnesota from 1927 to 1929. In 1929, after leading the nation in rushing with 737 yards he was a consensus All-American at fullback, and despite playing fewer games at the position also made some All-American teams at tackle. The preeminent sportswriter of the day Grantland Rice listed him at the two positions in picking his 1929 All-America team. Rice later wrote, “Who would you pick to win a football game – eleven Jim Thorpes – eleven Glen Davises – eleven Red Granges – or eleven Bronko Nagurskis? The eleven Nagurskis would be a mop-up. It would be something close to murder and massacre. For the Bronk could star at any position on the field, with 216 pounds of authority to back him up.” His greatest collegiate game was against the University of Wisconsin in 1928. Wearing a corset to protect cracked vertebrae, he recovered a Badger fumble deep in their territory and then ran the ball six straight times to score the go-ahead touchdown. Later in the same game, he intercepted a pass to seal the victory. During his time with the Gophers, the team went 18-4-2 and won the Big Ten Conference championship in 1927.
Sports Illustrated named Nagurski one of the four greatest athletes in Minnesota state history (the other three were Dave Winfield, Kevin McHale, and Joe Mauer). In 1993, the Football Writers Association of America created the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded annually to the best defensive player in college football. Notable winners include Warren Sapp, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey, and Derrick Johnson. In 1999 Nagurski was selected by Sports Illustrated as a starting defensive tackle for their “NCAA Football All-Century Team”. The other starting defensive tackle on that list was Rich Glover. In 2007, Nagurski was ranked #17 on ESPN’s Top 25 Players In College Football History list.
Nagurski turned professional to play for the Chicago Bears from 1930 to 1937. At 6 feet 2 inches and 235 pounds , he would have been a formidable presence in any era of the NFL, and in his day he was a dominant force in the league, helping the Bears win several division titles and two NFL championships.
Nagurski has the largest recorded NFL Championship ring size at 19½ and wore a size 8 helmet. He was probably the largest running back of his time, bigger than most linemen of the day, and a forerunner to large fullbacks like Marion Motley, John Henry Johnson, Jim Brown, often dragging multiple tacklers with him. In a time when players were expected to play on both sides of the ball, he was a standout defensive lineman as well playing ranging tackle or “The Monster.” Following an injury, instead of sitting on the bench, he would sometimes be put in as an offensive tackle, making him the only player in NFL history to be named All-Pro at three non-kicking positions. In a 1984 interview with Sports Illustrated writer Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman, when asked what position he would play if he were coming up in the present day, he said, “I would probably be a linebacker today. I wouldn’t be carrying the ball 20 or 25 times a game.”
A time-honored and perhaps apocryphal story about Nagurski is a scoring gallop that he made against the Washington Redskins, knocking two linebackers in opposite directions, stomping a defensive halfback and crushing a safety, then bouncing off the goalposts and cracking Wrigley Field’s brick wall. On returning to the huddle for the extra point try, he reportedly said: “That last guy hit me awfully hard.”
During his football career, he built a second athletic career as a professional wrestler and became a major box office attraction. Tony Stecher, brother of former world champion Joe Stecher, introduced Nagurski to wrestling in 1933 and became his manager. Nagurski defeated Tag Tagerson in his ring debut. Hitting his peak in the late 1930s, Nagurski won a limited version of the world championship by defeating Dean Detton on June 29, 1937; but he finally achieved full recognition with his first National Wrestling Association world title by defeating Lou Thesz on June 23, 1939. Losing the title to Ray Steele on March 7, 1940, he regained it from Steele one year later on March 11, 1941, but lost it only three months later to Sandor Szabo on June 5, 1941.
During World War II, professional football teams were short of players and in 1943 Bronko Nagurski returned to the Bears for one season. He scored a touchdown in the Bears’ championship victory against the Washington Redskins, served one season as backfield coach for UCLA in 1944, and finally returned to wrestling until his retirement in 1960.
After his retirement from wrestling, he returned home to International Falls and opened a service station. He retired from that in 1978, at the age of 70. He lived out a quiet life on the shores of Rainy Lake on the Canadian border. He died in International Falls and is buried there in the Saint Thomas Cemetery.
Nagurski was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a charter member on September 7, 1963. At the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities house of his fraternity, Sigma Chi, Nagurski’s jersey and Significant Sig recognition certificate are on display. After his death, the town of International Falls honored him by opening the Bronko Nagurski Museum in Smokey Bear Park. In 1995, Nagurski was again honored when the Football Writers Association of America voted to have his name attached to college football’s Defensive Player of the Year trophy. A fictionalized eyewitness account of Nagurski’s 1943 comeback is the subject of a dramatic monologue in the film version of Hearts in Atlantis. The film’s screenwriter, William Goldman, repeated much of this rendition from his earlier account of the same story in his novel Magic.
In 1999, he was ranked #35 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the highest-ranking foreign-born player. In 2000, he was voted the second-greatest Minnesotan sportsman of the 20th century by the sportswriters of the Star Tribune, coming in only behind Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. His son, Bronko Nagurski Jr., would go on to play football at Notre Dame and become an all-star with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. In 2009, he was an honorary team captain, represented by his son, Bronko Nagurski Jr., at the opening game of TCF Bank Stadium. His home town International Falls high school nickname is the Broncos in his honor.
Andy Gustafson (April 3, 1903 – January 7, 1979) was an American football player, coach, and college athletics administrator. He served as the head football coach at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute from 1926 to 1929 and the University of Miami from 1948 to 1963, compiling a career college football record of 115–78–4. Gustafson was also the athletic director at Miami from 1963 to 1968. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1985. Gustafson was born is Aurora, Illinois. As a halfback at the University of Pittsburgh, Gustafson scored the first touchdown ever in Pitt Stadium in 1925 against Washington and Lee. Gustafson served as the head football coach of Virginia Tech from 1926 to 1929, where he compiled a 22–13–1 record. Gustafson is considered one of the University of Miami’s most successful coaches, with a record of 93–65–3 (.587). He led the Hurricanes to four seasons of eight wins or more and was the longest serving coach in school history. He is currently a member of the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame. He also served as the athletic director of the school, following his retirement as a head coach.
Eddie LeBaron (born January 7, 1930) is a former quarterback in the 1950s and early 1960s in the National Football League. LeBaron was born in San Rafael, California and graduated from Oakdale High School in Oakdale, California and went on to the College of the Pacific (now the University of the Pacific). He played there from 1946 to 1949, lettering all four years and achieving All-American honors in 1949 after leading them to an undefeated season. He was a two-way, 60 minute player, as a quarterback on offense, safety on defense, and punter on special teams.LeBaron was commissioned in the Marine Corps reserves while in college and served as a lieutenant in the Korean War after graduation. He was wounded twice and was decorated with the Purple Heart. For his heroic actions on the front lines, he was awarded the Bronze Star. Due to his diminutive size, 5 feet, 7 inches, and leadership skills from his military service, he was sometimes known as the “Littlest General”.
LeBaron was drafted in the tenth round (123rd overall) of the 1950 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins and played with them through 1959, except for 1954 when he played in the Canadian Football League. He signed with the Calgary Stampeders because his college coach, Larry Siemering from the College of the Pacific, was coaching there. In his seven seasons with the Redskins he started 55 of a possible 72 games at quarterback (he played in 70 of those 72 games). He was also the primary punter for his first three seasons with Washington (he would punt 171 times for a total of 6,995 yards in five NFL season, with 164 of those coming in 1952, 1953, and 1955.) To build the roster of the expansion Cowboys, Dallas was allowed to pick certain players from certain teams per league rules. Founder Clint Murchison selected LeBaron, the Redskins’ Pro Bowl quarterback. LeBaron would become the Cowboys’ first starting quarterback. Redskins owner George Preston Marshall had forgotten to move LeBaron to the team’s “protected” list.
He was the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys for their first three seasons, 1960 to 1962. LeBaron started 10 of 12 games in 1960, with the rookie Don Meredith starting one and Don Heinrich starting the other. He also scored the Cowboys’ first-ever touchdown in their first exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers, on August 6, 1960 in Seattle. LeBaron started 10 of 14 games in 1961, with the young Don Meredith starting the other four. He only started five games in the 1962 season, but split time with Don Meredith almost evenly. He started the first game of the 1963 season, but was replaced permanently by Meredith for the rest of the season, with LeBaron becoming Meredith’s backup. He retired at the end of 1963, after playing 12 seasons, throwing for 13,399 yards and 104 touchdowns. He was selected for the Pro Bowl four times in 1955, 1957, 1958, and 1962. The shortest quarterback to ever be selected to the Pro Bowl, LeBaron was known primarily as a ball-handler and elusive scrambler.
LeBaron became a football announcer for CBS Sports after his NFL career, and worked as an announcer from 1966 to 1971. He had obtained a law degree during his off-seasons from football, and practiced law after his football career. He was also the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons from 1977 to 1982 and executive vice president from 1983 through 1985. LeBaron is an avid golfer and continues to play golf in his retirement. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980, into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2004 and was a charter inductee into the Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in October 2010.