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Shirley Povich Tribute

  Football's Unbroken, Unequaled Bronko

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 10, 1990; Page F02

There is a memory, undimmed by the passage of 52 years, of the worst mismatch these eyes ever beheld. This was in Chicago's Wrigley Field, Dec. 12, 1937. Bears vs. the Redskins in the NFL title game. First quarter, the Bears behind by 7-0 and lusting for the tying touchdown.

The Bears were deep in Redskin territory and in these circumstances, with the Redskins' defense running out of yardage, Sammy Baugh moved up from his usual safety position to middle linebacker. The Bears of course would give the ball to Bronko Nagurski. The rail-thin, 6-foot-2, 175-pound Baugh in the Redskins' last line of defense against a Nagurski charge? What a joke.

Nagurski, 230 pounds of shoulders and high knee-action, did not trample Baugh. He lowered his head and gored him. Flung him high in the air and out of the vicinity, getting the Bears the big first down they needed, unimpeded by the Redskins' middle linebacker.

On Sunday, Bronko Nagurski died at 81, his place in both college and professional football firmly fixed. Probably no football player ever commanded so many superlatives, and in this appreciation of the Bronk, may I ask to be indulged to digress for a moment to relive that Redskins glory day in 1937 when the rookie Sammy Baugh beat the Bears for the title, 28-21, flicking touchdown passes of 55, 78 and 35 yards. For all his fame as a quarterback, Baugh wasn't a quarterback then. He was throwing the passes and doing the punting as the team's tailback in the double wing system. Riley Smith, on the flank, called the signals. But Baugh often operated on his own. So with the Redskins huddled in their end zone early in the game, they heard him say, "We're a-goin' in punt formation but we're really gonna pass." He took the snap and threw 55 yards to Cliff Battles to launch the first touchdown.

But this week belongs to Bronko Nagurski. There are many remembered examples of his fame, as once were listed in the book "Sports Immortals." "When you tackle the Bronk, it's like an electric shock. If you hit him above the ankles, you could get killed," Red Grange said.

It was put another way by fellow Hall-of-Famer Ernie Nevers: "Tackling Bronko is like tackling a freight train going downhill." In the pros, Steve Owen, whose New York Giants were often wrecked by Nagurski's charges, suggested his formula for dealing with the Bronk. "The only way to stop Nagurski is shoot him before he leaves the dressing room."

The version of Nagurski's power that I liked best was the comment of his college coach, Bernie Bierman of Minnesota, whose team was en route to a road game by railroad. When that train suddenly braked hard and came to a jolting stop, Bierman exclaimed, "My God, Nagurski has tackled the train."

Nagurski's fame led to fantasy. It was a college football scout who first told how he was recruited: "Driving by, I saw this powerful young man plowing a field. Then I noticed he had a plow, but no horse. I asked him directions to a certain town, and he pointed in the opposite direction — with the plow in his left hand."

Nagurski came out of Rainy River, Ontario, moving to International Falls, Minn., with his Polish-Ukrainian family at an early age. He lost his given name of Bronislaus when a teacher, perplexed by his mother's broken accent, simplified his name by entering it as Bronko.

For the Bears, Nagurski was the symbol of the Monsters of the Midway, the team that dominated the NFL for nearly a decade, with one winning streak of 18 games. He alternated at fullback and tackle, often playing both positions in the same game, as he had in college.

In his last two years in college, he was a near-unanimous all-American, and in 1929 received the ultimate reward from the New York Sun, which allotted him two places on its all-American team that year as fullback and tackle. Eventually he was named to the college and the professional Halls of Fame.

For all his size and power, Nagurski was a gentle, sensitive soul off the field, and in 1937 he quit the Bears, offended by George Halas's failure to raise his $5,000 salary, the same figure he was paid in 1930. He was persuaded to try pro wrestling, for which he was unsuited, but was quickly made a world champion by the wrestling folks in the manner that they do such things. Fact is, some of the old pro wrestlers worked hard to keep from pinning down this novice. He returned to the Bears for one more season, in 1943.

In his later years, Nagurski returned to Minnesota, serving as a fishing guide and later owning a service station. It was long after 872 carries of the football in the toughest company in the world, and after leading the blocking for Beattie Feathers when that chap set the NFL rushing record of 1,004 yards, that Bronko, at 70, announced he was retiring. "My legs started bothering me," he said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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