Mighty Nagurski Preferred Quiet Life

Minneapolis Star Tribune – January 10, 1990
By Patrick Reusse

Ron Nagurski was on the phone from the family homestead on Rainy Lake in northern Minnesota.

”I’m looking around the house,” Ron said. ”There are a few pictures, a few interesting things, but it isn’t a monument to Dad or anything like that. The house never had a trophy room. I think Dad knew his place in history, but it didn’t seem to matter that much to him.”

You can’t find a loftier place in the history of American sports than was occupied by Ron Nagurski’s father.

Baseball. Babe Ruth.

Football. Bronko Nagurski.

There you have it: The two great American sports, and the two names that have been attached to them for the ages. Babe and Bronko.

Nagurski suffered with arthritis for more than 20 years. Respiratory problems followed, and then his heart went bad. Late Sunday night, at 81, Bronko died at a hospital in International Falls, Minn.

Monday, four of the Nagurskis’ six children – Jane, Eugenia, Kevin and Ron – were gathered at the lake home where they were reared. Two other brothers, Bronko Jr. and Tony, will arrive today.

”That’s why we put the funeral back to Saturday,” Ron said. ”We wanted everyone to have a chance to get here. There are so many grandchildren.”

It takes some time to get to International Falls. You don’t just walk to the counter at the airport in Mobile, Ala., where Bronko Jr. lives these days, and say, ”Put me on the next non-stop to the Falls.”

A few years back, the president of the Chamber of Commerce in International Falls said: ”Wherever I travel, people ask me two things – is it really that cold, and does Bronko still live there?”

The answers to both questions were always yes. A dry climate might have reduced the pain in his arthritic joints, but Bronko wasn’t willing to leave the north country.

”It would’ve been awfully tough to get Dad out of here,” Ron said. ”He loved the Falls, living on the lake, the fishing and the hunting. He taught all of us to fish. He loved it.”

The Nagurskis could walk down to the dock in the front of the house and, odds were, they could reel in a Rainy Lake walleye.

”The house is three or four miles from town,” Ron said. ”It was a lake cottage that originally belonged to one of my grandmothers. Mom and Dad moved into the cottage, and then they kept adding on rooms as the kids came along. We were all raised here on the lake.”

Eileen Nagurski was six years younger than her husband and, according to Ron, she was in charge on the home front. ”Mom was outgoing . . . she was more active in the church and the community, and she ran the show around the house,” Ron said. ”That’s the way Dad liked it. When Mom died in 1987, it seemed to me that his health started to deteriorate more rapidly.”

For years, newspaper and magazine writers made pilgrimages to International Falls, seeking interviews with Bronko. The Babe died in 1948, but this legend was still pumping gasoline at the Pure Oil station he owned, or making the morning trip to town, to drop off Eileen at work and make a stop at the post office.

Mostly, Bronko would turn down the interviews. His legs were swollen from the poor circulation. The glasses he wore were as thick as the cliched Coke bottles. Nagurski once explained his reluctance to grant the interviews: ”I wanted people to remember me as I was, not as I am.”

The disappointed reporters often returned from the Falls to report that Nagurski had become a recluse, but Bronko was never to sports what J.D. Salinger is to literature. Bronko wasn’t in hiding. He was quiet.

Reporters weren’t the only ones who had a tough time getting Nagurski to talk about his football prowess. It wasn’t often that he told stories about George Halas or Red Grange or Doc Spears, even when he was sitting in the fishing boat with one of his sons or around the dinner table with his family.

”I remember one time he got rolling on the stories: It was at my sister’s wedding and one of his old football-playing buddies was there,” Ron said. ”They were talking about the old days, and it was a lot of fun. Then, Dad noticed the audience he had attracted, and that was the end of that.”

In 1984, Bronko surprised almost everyone – including his family – by accepting the NFL’s invitation to be the honorary coin tosser at the Super Bowl. The game was played in Tampa, Fla. Bronko sat through a lengthy interview session a couple of days before the game.

”One reason he went was that the whole family had a chance to go along,” Ron said. ”We all had a great time. It was tough for Dad to get around, but he enjoyed it. That day, Bronko told the reporters: ”I have so much arthritis that, as soon as I move, my joints start barking.”

In 1979, the University of Minnesota Gophers retired Nagurski’s number – the famed 72. He played for Minnesota from 1927 through 1929. As a senior, he was named to the 11-man All-America team at both fullback and tackle, the only player ever to hold that distinction.

Bronko then played eight years for the Chicago Bears, gaining his most fame as the unstoppable fullback, until Halas wouldn’t give him the $6,000 he wanted to play the 1938 season. Bronko went back to International Falls and started a career as a good guy on the professional wrestling tour.

”Some of the matches were fixed, some weren’t,” Bronko once said.

Nagurski wrestled until 1953, returning to play for the Bears in 1943, when they were short of players because of the war. In the late ’50s, Bronko bought the Pure Oil station and pumped gasoline there for about 10 years.

”I worked there with him for most of those years,” Ron said. ”In the summer, people from out of town would make sure to stop at the station for a couple of bucks’ worth a gas, and they would get an autograph, too. Every day, the mail would have letters from people who wanted Dad to send them autographs. He had stenograph pads made up, with one of the pictures of him as a football player stenciled on it. He would write back on that paper. The people liked that.”

Nagurski was a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. They placed Bronko’s bust in the Hall of Fame, and they gave him a duplicate to take home to the Falls.

”The high school wanted the bust to be put on display there, so Dad let them have it,” Ron said. ”As far as I know, it’s still up there. It’s not here at the house.”

The cottage on Rainy Lake was never a museum to the legend of Bronko Nagurski. It was a home. Monday, a reporter called Kevin Nagurski’s residence in the Falls. He was told Kevin was not there.

”Kevin is at the lake with his brothers and sisters,” the lady said. ”Bronk’s place.”

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