Monster of the Midway: The Life and Legend of Bronko Nagurskiby Jim Dent
Jim Dent's Monster of the Midway is the story of football's fiercest competitor, the legendary Bronko Nagurski. From his discovery in the middle of a Minnesota field to his 1943 comeback season at Wrigley, from the University of Minnesota to the Hall of Fame, Bronko Nagurksi's life is a story of grit, hard work, passion, and, above all, an unstoppable drive/i>
Jim Dent's Monster of the Midway is the story of football's fiercest competitor, the legendary Bronko Nagurski. From his discovery in the middle of a Minnesota field to his 1943 comeback season at Wrigley, from the University of Minnesota to the Hall of Fame, Bronko Nagurksi's life is a story of grit, hard work, passion, and, above all, an unstoppable drive to win.
Monster of the Midway recounts Nagurski's unparalleled triumphs during the 1930s and '40s, when the Chicago Bears were the kings of professional football. From 1930, the Bronk's first year, through 1943, his last, the Bears won five NFL titles and played in four other NFL Championship Games. Focusing on Nagurski's 1943 comeback season, and how he miraculously led the Bears to their fourth NFL championship against the backdrop of World War II era Chicago, Jim Dent uncovers the riveting drama of Nagurski's playing days. His efforts were the stuff of legend, and his success in 1943 accomplished in spite of a battered frame, worn-out knees, multiple cracked ribs, and a broken bone in his lower back.
While chronicling the drama of the '43 championship chase, Dent also tells of both the Bears' colorful early years and Bronko's improbable rise to fame from the backwoods of northern Minnesota. Woven into the narrative are the sights and smells and sounds of one of the most romantic, flavorful eras of the twentieth century. And laced through it all are stories of legend: Bronko rubbing shoulders with colorful characters like George Halas, Red Grange, Sid Luckman, and Sammy Baugh; Bronko running into (and breaking) the brick wall at Wrigley Field; Bronko winning All-American spots for two positions; Bronko knocking scores of opponents unconscious; and Bronko reaching the heights of football glory and, with rare grace, turning his back on the game after winning his last championship.
Rich in unforgettable stories and scenes, this is Jim Dent's account of Bronko Nagurski-arguably the greatest football player who ever lived-and his teammates, the roughest, toughest, rowdiest group of players ever to don leather helmets, and the original Monsters of the Midway.
- St. Martin's Press
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- First Edition
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Monster of the Midway
Bronko Nagurski, the 1943 Chicago Bears, and the Greatest Comeback Ever
By Jim Dent
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Jim Dent
All rights reserved.
The storm blasted off Lake Michigan and bucked into the Navy Pier, hoisting an icy spray over the bow of the USS Wolverine, then cut a swath through the Loop and angled southwest along the Chicago River, kicking up wrappers and scattering old newspapers as the sound of forty thousand voices echoed across the South Side. The second storm blew ashore minutes later at the Museum of Science and Industry, rolling across the neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Kenwood until it turned left and headed west on Thirty-fifth Street, ticketed for Comiskey Park.
The stadium at Thirty-fifth and Shields looked like an old warship. The upper decks were shrouded in a freezing mist, and the light standards swayed against the heavy winds. A low rumble rose from the grandstand and swelled into a thunder that could be heard from Bridgeport to Brighton Park: "Bronko! Bronko! Bronko!"
The first snowflakes glided over the rim of Comiskey Park just as Bronko Nagurski slid the full-length black cape from his shoulders and reached for his leather helmet. Just then, the two storms collided on the South Side. Eyes that had been riveted to the action on the field for three quarters studied the clouds that circled and churned like a riptide.
Nagurski had spent the first nine games of his final season toiling in the Chicago Bears line. Now the Bears desperately needed a victory against the crosstown Cardinals in this regular-season finale of 1943. Otherwise, they could forget about playing in the NFL championship game. To the dismay of all the fans that braced for the bitter winter storm, the Bears were losing 24–14. One quarter was left to play. All eyes were now on the old man.
Of course, Nagurski wasn't really old at thirty-five, but the crooked nose, the bent fingers, the arthritic joints, and a degenerating hip belonged to a man perhaps twice his age. He could no longer run very far. Surely, he could no longer play fullback. He was ancient for a football player.
The Bronk had missed five seasons. He left in 1937 as the greatest player in the history of the National Football League. His name itself suggested primal power. Here was the man who had single-handedly dragged the NFL out of the back alley and into the American consciousness. It was said that professional football was invented to keep coal miners off the street. That was before Nagurski came along and the world took notice. It had been a long, hard ride. There had been joy and pain and broken promises. There had been laughter and bitterness. There were days in pro football when he thought it would last forever, and still others when he longed for his quiet little hometown way up in northern Minnesota. The day he walked away from pro football in '37 was the hardest he could ever remember. Now he was back for one last hurrah, and he prayed his body could weather one more quarter.
The spring in his legs and the steel in his arms and torso had been diminished by age and by the pounding of two sports — football and wrestling. A wrecking ball had been taken to his powerful frame. He was not half the athlete that he'd been ten years ago. But he was still Bronko.
It seemed like an eternity since Nagurski had last lugged the football. In his farewell in that year, the Bears were defeated in the NFL title matchup by the Washington Redskins and rookie sensation Sammy Baugh. The next day, he caught the Illinois Central back to International Falls, Minnesota, and swore he would never come back.
No one was sure about his reasons for leaving. It had something to do with his contractual arrangement with the Bears. Promises had not been kept. He once said, "George Halas throws nickels around like man-hole covers." Nagurski's patience with Halas, along with his shrinking salary and the numerous IOUs, had finally run out. He felt certain that big money awaited him in professional wrestling. The Bronk had his own problems back home, and those problems could only be solved by money, and lots of it.
After the last game that season, Halas and Nagurski had heated words. It was the final nail.
Now, as he removed the black cape and reached for his helmet, the fans at Comiskey Park saw the round stomach and the bowed legs. A man in the fifth row behind the Bears bench dropped his flask and shouted, "Omijesus, he's coming in!" A woman screamed. Then the rolling thunder returned: "Bronko! Bronko! Bronko!" Chi Town had not entertained such a racket since '06, when the White Sox took the World Series in six games from the crosstown Cubs.
The day still could be saved. The Bronk was going in at fullback.
* * *
The world was at war in 1943. Bears owner and coach George Halas, the father of the NFL, was cruising the South Pacific as a lieutenant commander with the Seventh Fleet. More than half of the Bears had been summoned to active duty, including stars like end Ken Kavanaugh, tackle Joe Stydahar, and halfback George McAfee. But the Cardinals' casualties were far more severe: fullback Motts Tonelli was a Japanese prisoner of war and end John Shirk was trying to survive a German POW camp. Forty-two ex-Cardinals were fighting somewhere.
The battles in Europe and the South Pacific grew bloodier by the day. Sixty thousand Americans were already dead. A headline in the Chicago Tribune read, "Nazis Dig Up, Burn Jewish Bodies." American and British troops were making broad progress in Italy, penetrating the Winter Line. This movement had prompted a bold prediction from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower: "We will win the European war in 1944." It was Eisenhower's farewell press conference in Algiers before taking command of Operation Overlord, the heavily guarded code name for the Allied invasion of Normandy, scheduled for the following summer.
On the other side of the world, Formosa had been attacked for the first time. China-based U.S. Fourteenth Air Force bombers destroyed forty-two Japanese bombers on the ground. That same day, five U.S. destroyers had scored a one-sided victory over the Japanese, sinking three of their ships at the Battle of Cape St. George in the Solomon Islands.
For Halas, the trip from San Francisco to Milne Bay near New Guinea had required twenty-two days. Most folks around the Bears thought the forty-eight-year-old coach was crazy for reenlisting. But Halas was still frustrated that he had frittered away World War I at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, playing ball for the base teams. He had promised himself that if another war ever broke out, he would find the action.
The navy had reactivated Halas halfway through the '42 season, presenting him with his sword at halftime of the Detroit game. Chicago won 16 – 0. After the game, Halas named Heartley "Hunk" Anderson and Luke Johnsos interim co-head coaches of the Bears. He was gone the next day.
Halas tried to stay in contact with the coaches through the navy wire. But weeks often passed without communications. After the Bears lost the '42 championship game to the Redskins by the score of 14 – 6, Johnsos could barely find the words to tell his boss. He sat down to write a letter and finally finished it a week later. Given the delay in its arrival, Halas thought Johnsos had dropped the letter into a bottle and the bottle into Lake Michigan. Then, after reading it, he swore he could smell Washington owner George Preston Marshall's victory cigar all the way to the South Pacific. Halas hated Marshall, a promoter, huckster, showman, and owner of the Washington Redskins, with every fiber in his soul.
Halas racked his brain for a way to get revenge. During the summer of '43, while pacing the deck of the ship, he was struck with the idea of bringing back the Bronk. The Monsters of the Midway needed new blood. But wait — maybe some old blood would do the trick. Why not Nagurski? A comeback by the aging warhorse might save the day. Halas sent a cable to Hunk Anderson three months before the start of the season: SIGN NAGURSKI AND PAY FIVE GRAND. STOP. Naval decoders analyzed the message for days, wondering if Nagurski was a Japanese spy.
Then it was Anderson's job to sell the notion of playing football again to a man who said he would never come back.
Anderson was a roughhewn but likable fellow who had been around the block in both college and pro football and had played on Knute Rockne's first two undefeated Notre Dame teams in 1919 and '20; Hunk was the second All-American in South Bend following George Gipp. He went to work for Rock straight out of college and was his only assistant coach through the decade.
From 1922 through '26, Anderson helped coach Notre Dame six days a week. Then, Saturday night, he would catch a train to Chicago to play guard for the Bears. He also worked sixty hours a week at Edwards Iron Works in South Bend. Of this tireless wonder, Halas said, "Hunk was a terror on offense and defense during those sixty-minute days. And he's the hardest-working sonofabitch that I've ever seen."
When Rockne's plane crashed in the Flint Hills of Kansas in 1931, Anderson was promoted to the single most pressurized job in college football. Remarkably, he lasted four years before failing to satisfy the spoiled alumni. He was fired. He knocked around the college and pro game for the next seven years until Halas brought him back into the fold in 1940. It was the right time for the Hunk's return. Halas needed a blood-and-guts man to whip his Bears into shape.
Hunk Anderson seemed the right guy to approach Nagurski about a comeback. It didn't hurt his chances that the Nagurski bank account was drained again. Pro wrestling had been a living, but not a road to riches.
In the summer of '43, the Bronk could barely rise from the bed in the morning. His ankles popped like seasoned firewood as he shuffled barefoot across the cool hardwood floor toward the hallway where the phone was ringing. He reached for the receiver and noticed a bruise the size of a baseball on his heavily muscled right forearm, a memento from Saturday Night Wrestling down in St. Paul. Pain shot through his lower back where a cracked vertebra had tormented him since his college football days.
"Bronk, this is Hunk Anderson calling from Chicago," came the voice over the crackling line.
"Yes sir, Hunk."
"The old man says we're desperate for your services. Says we gotta have you this season. Bronk, I got the cable right here in my hand."
"Where's the old man?"
"South Pacific, Bronk. On a battleship."
"I got no more use for football, Hunk. I couldn't run from here to the john if my bladder was bursting."
But Nagurski could use the money. Wrestling had never panned out. As America plunged deeper into the Depression in the thirties, the crowds thinned and so did the purses. The Bronk was embarrassed that he had fallen for a seedy sport in which the bouts were rigged and crooked promoters skimmed off the top. It had left him with barely enough money to support his wife, Eileen, and two kids, Bronko Jr. and Tony.
He was torn.
Nagurski rarely spoke about his terrific football career, or his past public life, to anyone. Folks in the Big North Country were certain he would never return to the mad bustle of Chicago. He was finished with football, and there was talk he would open a gas station. But the Bronk listened to Anderson's sales pitch anyway. He wanted to say no, but an inner voice kept saying yes. Anderson seemed sincere. The old man desperately needed him. Otherwise, the Bears' domination of the NFL would end at a time when they were considered the New York Yankees of pro football.
"The old man needs you, Bronk," Anderson said for the seventeenth time.
"Look, Bronk," Anderson continued, "if you can't run, we'll put you at tackle. We gotta have bodies in the line, anyway."
A long silence. Anderson suspected the telephone line between Chicago and International Falls, a distance of six hundred miles, had gone dead. Then he heard the Bronk clearing his throat.
"I need five grand, up front," he said. Anderson could have jumped high enough to touch the sky. Nagurski had uttered the magical words — five grand. It was the exact amount that Halas had hoped to pay and prayed that Nagurski would accept.
"You got it, Bronk," Anderson said with a renewed enthusiasm. "I'll send you a train ticket. Camp opens pretty quick."
Two days later, Nagurski was on the train to Chicago, and he spent the next two weeks trying to limber up legs that he thought would no longer work.
The Monsters of the Midway opened the season with a tie against Green Bay and did not lose a game until the ninth week — to the hated Redskins. The season had gone relatively smoothly in spite of Halas's absence. The Bears were 7 – 1 – 1 with the final game of the season against the Chicago Cardinals coming up. Win or tie and they would represent the western division in the NFL title game. Bears fans hungered for a rematch with Washington. But a loss to the Cardinals would be the greatest embarrassment in the history of the storied franchise.
Nagurski had awakened that Sunday morning with the first light angling through the shutters. Pain gnawed at his lower back and his right hip. Standing over him, blocking out the light, was George Musso, the pie-faced 270-pound guard who was Bronko's roommate and best friend.
"Let me give you a boost up," Musso said, chuckling. "Looks like you could use it, old fella."
The simple act of getting out of bed was torture. Two vertebrae had been cracked in a game against Northwestern in '28 and a degenerative hip condition from '35 had almost crippled him. He rose into a sitting position. Then, with his legs dangling over the side of the bed, Nagurski pounded the side of his right knee with a meaty hand. Click. The cartilage popped back into place.
There was dried blood in his nostrils. Musso passed a roll of toilet tissue. The Bronk coughed and felt a hammer slam into his ribs.
That morning, they decided to catch the elevated train from the North Side through downtown Chicago and into the South Side, where Comiskey Park was located. They sat alone as the car roared and clacked. They peered at the swirling clouds, and as the train crossed Lake Street, they could see in the distance the giant neon marquee of the Granada Theatre. Lucille Ball and Harry James were starring in Best Foot Forward. The other big attraction in Chicago was Thank Your Lucky Stars with Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Errol Flynn.
An elegantly decorated forty-foot Christmas tree towered over the Walnut Room at Marshall Field's. Bing Crosby had lonely souls around the world singing, "I'll be home for Christmas."
Nagurski did not start the game but replaced Musso at left tackle in the second quarter. The Bears outclassed the Cardinals at virtually every position, but the game was not going according to form.
What should have been a Sunday drive through the regular-season finale against the Chicago Cardinals had backfired. Balls had slipped through the hands of receivers and between the legs of kick returners. Any hope of reaching the NFL title game a fourth straight year was slipping through their fingers.
That the winless Cardinals could be leading the fabled Monsters of the Midway by the score of 24 – 14 entering the fourth quarter was unthinkable. The Cardinals were the worst team in pro football, possessing barely enough healthy players to fill out a lineup. They had lost fifteen of their last sixteen league games. While the Bears had captured two of the last three world titles, the Cardinals had earned the reputation as football's equivalent of the French army.
As the fourth quarter began, Anderson sidled up to Nagurski on the sideline.
"Bronk, you ready?"
"Told you I was. But don't put me in there unless you're gonna give me the doggone ball."
"Told you I would."
He was going in.
As the Bronk snapped on his chinstrap, he thought about the old days. God, he missed the old days — the days of the helmetless Bill Hewitt, the best defensive end who ever played, and Bill Fleckenstein, the giant brawler. In those days, the Bears were real men. Nagurski had learned the game in the hardscrabble era of George "Brute" Trafton, the roughest, toughest, meanest hombre ever to lace on cleats. Big George, the Bears' All-Pro center, had been like a big brother. God, Nagurski missed those great years with Trafton. And Red Grange! The Galloping Ghost! He was the greatest man Bronko had ever known.
The Bears of '43 would never be like the old Bears. The Bronk knew that. But they still could win one more championship before he went back to the Big North Woods for good. This was an able lineup. The Bears had Sid Luckman, who had shattered two NFL records by throwing seven touchdown passes and compiling 433 yards just two weeks earlier against the Giants. The problem with Sid was that he was up and down like the Midway roller coaster. He seemed at times more interested in driving his shiny new cars around Chicago and wearing his $200 silk suits. In truth, life was no bowl of cherries for Luckman. Virtually every time the Bears broke the huddle, somebody yelled from the defensive side, "Hey, Jewboy!" Or "Hey, Luckman, you kike!" He sometimes joked his name was "That Jew" Luckman, not Sid Luckman. Even his own center, Bulldog Turner, constantly rode him about his clothes, cars, and fat bankroll.
Excerpted from Monster of the Midway by Jim Dent. Copyright © 2003 Jim Dent. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jim Dent is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Junction Boys, which became an acclaimed ESPN original movie. He has written three other books: The Undefeated, King of the Cowboys, and You're Out and You're Ugly, Too (with Durwood Merrill). Dent is an award-winning journalist who covered the Dallas Cowboys for eleven years and worked in the sports media for more than two decades. He is a graduate of Southern Methodist University.
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