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Bronko Nagurski

[nuh-gur-skee]
Bronislau "Bronko" Nagurski (November 3, 1908January 7, 1990) was an Canadian American football player of Polish- Ukrainian origin. He was also a famous professional wrestler, being one of the first football players to succeed as a professional wrestler. In professional wrestling, he was a multiple-time World Heavyweight Champion.

Bronko has the largest recorded NFL Championship ring size at 19½ (86 mm inside circumference).

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.

Youth and collegiate career

Nagurski was born in Rainy River, Ontario, Canada, and his family moved to International Falls, Minnesota when he was still a boy. His parents, "Mike" and "Emelia" Nagurski, were immigrants, ethnic Ukrainians from the Polish Ukraine (Galicia). Nagurski became a standout at the University of Minnesota, where he played fullback on offense and tackle on defense and was named an All-American.

According to legend, Nagurski was discovered and signed by University of Minnesota Head Coach Clarence "Fats" Spears who had gotten lost and asked for directions to the nearest town. Nagurski (who had been plowing a field without a horse) lifted his plow and used it to point in the direction of town. He was signed on the spot for a full ride football scholarship.

Nagurski played both tackle on defense and fullback on offense at Minnesota from 1927 to 1929. In 1929, he was a consensus All-American at tackle and also made some All-American teams at fullback. Some voters apparently listed him at two positions (this was before there were separate offensive and defensive teams -- everyone went "both ways"). Perhaps his greatest collegiate game was against the 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 three greatest athletes in Minnesota state history (the other two were Dave Winfield and Kevin McHale). 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 2007, Nagurski was ranked #17 on ESPN's Top 25 Players In College Football History list.

Professional career

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.

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, Larry Csonka and John Riggins, 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. Following an injury, instead of sitting on the bench, he put in some time 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 almost certainly apocryphal story about Nagurski is that on one occasion carrying the ball, he was charging toward the goal line, head down, shoving tacklers out of the way, and that he ran right through the end zone and smacked his head on the close-in brick wall at Wrigley Field, cracking the wall. When he came back to the bench, he told coach George Halas, "That last guy gave me quite a lick!"

During his football career, he built a second athletic career as a professional wrestler, becoming a three-time world heavyweight champion.

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.

Legacy

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. It is the only museum dedicated to a single football player

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 (Bronko Nagurski 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. Another account is in the William Goldman novel Magic.

In 1999, he was ranked number 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.

Championships and accomplishments

National Wrestling Alliance
*NWA World Tag Team Champion (Minneapolis version) (1 time) - with Verne Gagne
*NWA Pacific Coast Heavyweight Champion (San Francisco version) (2 times)National Wrestling Association
*NWA/NBA World Heavyweight Champion (2 times)Other titles
*World Heavyweight Championship (Los Angeles version) (1 time)
*World Heavyweight Championship
*World Heavyweight Championship (Minneapolis version) (2 times)

*Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (Class of 1996)

References

External links

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