Just as Bronko Nagurski was a two sport star, in football and pro wrestling, I came away with two feelings after reading the recently-released biography on his life.
The personal life details and the football side of it was outstanding and fitting for a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the wrestling side of it? Not worthy of a two-time World champion.
Bronko: The Legendary Story of the NFL’s Greatest Two-Way Fullback came out a year ago, in August 2022, from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. It was written by Chris Willis, who is the head of the Research Library at NFL Films. Willis has written a veritable starting lineup of football books, including The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr; Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL’s Most Famous Traveling Team; and Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL’s First Superstar. Plus, he’s been involved with some terrific programming, like HBO’s The Game of Their Lives and HBO’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans. To boot, the Professional Football Researchers Association gave him its Ralph Hay Award for lifetime achievement in pro football research and historiography in 2012.
The phrase meticulously researched came to mind almost immediately, and suits it perfectly. Willis hits the right note between telling stories about Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski and the personal details that we crave in an autobiography. Having the support of the Nagurski family, and The Bronko Nagurski Museum in International Falls, Minnesota, Willis is able to cram the book full of great facts. (I have not read 2004’s Monster of the Midway: Bronko Nagurski, the 1943 Chicago Bears, and the Greatest Comeback Ever, by Jim Dent, for comparison’s sake.) All his living children get to share stories, though their strongest memories are, naturally, of the later years, when Bronko ran a gas station in International Falls, which sits the border between Minnesota and Ontario, and the city of Fort Frances.
He was able to crib from previous projects too, like Red Grange’s quote: “There was something strange about tackling Nagurski. When you hit him, it was almost like getting an electric shock. If you hit him above the ankles, you were likely to get killed.” Plus, Willis is able to easily share background on all the goings-on in football at the time, including how the National Football League came together, George Halas and his association with the Chicago Bears, and the founding of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He could probably write those details in his sleep by now.
There was so much new to me, like Bronko’s skill as a basketball player, and the fact there’s a US stamp on him (I will get my stamp collector father on that one!).
Football players who turned to pro wrestling is hardly unique to Nagurski, who at least brought his childhood nickname with him to the ring. This is where I felt a little let down by Bronko though.
Nagurski wrestled during the off-season at first, and was mostly local to Minnesota, having trained with Tony Stetcher. He got pretty good at it, even if he wasn’t a natural showboater and never craved the spotlight.
Never really coming out and saying how predetermined wrestling was, Willis throws out results here and there without much context. Where he’d done amazing jobs telling us about Bronko’s gridiron teammates, he doesn’t do the same for his in-ring foes, who are mostly just a colorful name. He also seems confident that the exact number of matches he mentions are the exact number that happened, whereas in my experience is that wrestlers worked so many small towns where nothing was documented that there are always holes in the narrative. In short, he took everything about Nag’s wrestling career at face value.
What you come away with is an impression that Nagurski was good at wrestling and succeeded because of his personality and toughness, when, as wrestling fans know, the backstage maneuverings are often more interesting than what happened in the ring.
An example: I loved reading the letters from Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas. On March 11, 1936, Halas showed his anti-wrestling feelings, just after Bronko had minor surgery to remove a bone growth on his hip: “I think it was our understanding that you were not going to wrestle until you were completely cured and then only two or three times in main bouts around the latter part of May or early in June. Upon receipt of your letter I immediately telephoned Dr. Oates and he said that you should not wrestle under any condition until every sign of pain is completely gone for an entire month.”
Halas was proven to be hip to how wrestling worked. In 1937, Nagurski was not only playing football but he was the World wrestling champion at the same time and would defend his title during the season. Incredible.
The coach sent a note to Bronko at the Hotel Victoria in New York:
As you know this game Sunday is for the Championship and we must have you here Thursday without fail. Wrigley Field will be complete sellout and you must be here for practice otherwise entire season ruined because of terrible mental effect on players. You must take chance of being suspended which will not be serious because Fabiani controls commission. You owe this your teammates and Chicago fans and you cannot let them down now. — George Halas
Willis either elected not to go off on a tangent or didn’t see that it was even there when Halas referenced Ray Fabini, who was the promoter / maestro in Philadelphia that controlled Jim Londos — whom Bronko would lose the title to. Nothing about Toots Mondt and his control of the World title, the prices that were charged, how he truly drew as a champion, and not just the reported numbers. Sure, it is evident in retrospect that Nagurski’s heart wasn’t truly in wrestling, but it was probably more because of the politicking than the physicality, and that does not come through in Bronko.
To some, this might come off as sour grapes or whining about the lack of respect wrestling gets. If this book had been written in 2000, I’d accept that, but the fact is that wrestling scholarship has come a long, long way, and I know because Steve Johnson and I have played a part in that through our Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame series. There could have been more on Bronko in the ring and I wish there had been. But I also understand that this book isn’t aimed at wrestling fans.
Bronko: The Legendary Story of the NFL’s Greatest Two-Way Fullback is an incredible book for football fans.
- Sep. 5, 2001: Bronko Nagurski the rare superstar in football and wrestling
- The Sporting Connection archive
- Buy Bronko: The Legendary Story of the NFL’s Greatest Two-Way Fullback at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca
- SlamWrestling Master Book List