Bronko Nagurski was a professional American footballer. Renowned for his physical power and strength, he is considered by some as one of the best football players of all times. Apart from being a footballer, Nagurski was also a professional wrestler. He was born in Canada and grew up in Minnesota in the United States. His parents were hardworking immigrants and Bronko helped the family by working in sawmills and delivering groceries for their store. The physical work and the cold harsh Minnesota weather helped build the resilience and strength that he became so famous for later in his career. He started playing football by playing for the University of Minnesota and was later signed up by the ‘Chicago Bears’. He soon became a star player. While playing for the Bears he tried his hand at wrestling and became successful in it as well. Many legends grew around Nagurski but he himself remained devoid of showmanship. He retired from football after 7 years but came back to it for a brief stint after the Second World War. He however, continued to wrestle for two more decades. In his old age, his sports injuries started giving him trouble and he chose to live a quiet life till his death in the town he grew up in.
Childhood & Early Life
Bronko Nagurski was born on November 3, 1908, in Rainy River, Ontario, Canada, to Ukrainian immigrant parents Mike and Michelina Nagurski. He had three siblings.
His actual name was Bronislau but his first school teacher could not pronounce his name and thus shortened it to Bronko, a nickname that stuck.
When he was young his family migrated to the United States, where they lived in International Falls, Minnesota. Life in those parts made him tough and strong. He chopped wood, ploughed, ran two miles back and forth to school each day and helped deliver groceries for his father’s grocery store.
There are many legends about Nagurski’s physical prowess. According to one, the University of Minnesota coach, Clarence Spears had gone scouting for talent. He saw a young man ploughing a field and asked him for directions. The youth was Nagurski who lifted the plough and pointed out the direction to Spears. Spears recruited him right away.
Nagurski joined the University of Minnesota in 1926. From 1927 to 1929 he played four positions - end, guard, tackle and fullback. He won the All-American title for fullback and tackle.
His ability as a power runner won him a place in the ‘Chicago Bears’ when George Halas owner and head coach of the team signed him up in 1930.
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George Halas signed Bronko Nagurski up for $5000. After signing the contract Nagurski came home to find an offer of $7500 from the ‘New York Giants’.
Nagurski had a 22-inch neck, and a size 19 and 1/2 ring and a size 8 helmet. He was one of the bulkiest players. The Bears benefited from his skills as a rusher, passer and blocker. They won for two consecutive years in 1932 and 1933.
Nagurski very soon became one of the star players of the National Football League. In spite of this during the Great Depression he accepted a pay cut and got $3700.
During his football days after being injured he would often be sent to play as offensive tackle instead of resting on the bench. He was known to simply mow down his opponents running straight into them and knocking them down with his power. He inflicted many injuries on his opponents and suffered many himself.
In 1933, his brother Joe’s wrestling manager Tony Stecher suggested that he try professional wrestling. In his debut match, Nagurski pinned his opponent Tag Tagerson in four minutes. He became a regular in the wrestling circuit with Stecher as his manager and had a dual career in wrestling and football.
The same year he helped the ‘Chicago Bears’ to victory against the New York Giants. He had a game-high 65 yards run and two touchdown passes with the second pass leading the Bears to victory.
He retired in 1937 because of a disagreement over salary and also because the Bears management wouldn’t allow him to wrestle professionally. He had garnered 236 points till then.
Bronko Nagurski wrestled professionally from 1937 to 1942. Never the one for showmanship, he used simple tactics and his brute strength to bring down opponents. He won the National Wrestling Association title in 1939 defeating Lou Thesz and in 1941 after defeating Ray Steele.
When World War II started, he was not enlisted in the army because numerous injuries had damaged his knees and ankles. The war took many of the ‘Chicago Bears’ players. After the war ended, George Halas approached Nagurski. He came out of his retirement to play for the Bears again and played tackle.
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Nagurski quit football again after finishing the season and became a coach for the UCLA Bruins. He left it after a year to take up farming.
In 1945 he became the general manager of Sylvan Park Dead Cherokees, a semi-professional football team in Tennessee. This was also a brief stint.
Bronko Nagurski continued to wrestle professionally many years after retiring from football and finally retired from wrestling in 1960.
Awards & Achievements
On September 7, 1963, Bronko Nagurski was enshrined in the ‘National Professional Football Hall of Fame’ in Canton, Ohio.
After his death, the town of International Falls opened the ‘Bronko Nagurski Museum’ in Smokey Bear Park in his honour.
Family & Personal Life
In 1936 Bronko Nagurski married Eileen Kane who he had known since childhood. They had six children, four sons and two daughters. His eldest son, Nagurski Junior, played for the ‘Hamilton Tiger Cats’ in the ‘Canadian Football League’ for eight seasons.
Nagurski suffered many injuries during his football career with his knees bearing the brunt of his tackles. In his later years, he underwent many knee surgeries and also suffered from arthritis.
After the end of his sports career, Nagurski opened a gas station. Eventually, it got too painful for him to work and in 1978 at the age of seventy, he retired. He spent the rest of his days living quietly and gardening in his cottage on the shores of Rainy Lake on the U.S.- Canada border.
Bronko Nagurski suffered a cardiac arrest and died on January 7, 1990, at Falls Memorial Hospital in International Falls. He had been in a nursing home for a year. He is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery at International Falls.