Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski (November 3, 1908 – January 7, 1990) was a Canadian-born American football player. He was also a successful professional wrestler, recognized as a multiple-time world heavyweight champion.
Youth and collegiate career
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 (1.88 m) and 235 pounds (107 kg), 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 NWA 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 married his childhood sweetheart Eileen Kane December 28, 1936, and the couple had a child Christmas Day 1937, whom they named after his father.
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.
Championships and accomplishments
- NWA World Tag Team Championship (Minneapolis version) (1 time) - with Verne Gagne
- NWA Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship (San Francisco version) (2 times)
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards
- Other titles