Most of the obituaries on former Hamilton Tiger-Cats' offensive tackle Bronko Nagurski Jr. (pictured at right on his Post cereal 1962 playing card), who passed away today at the age of 73, will likely put much of focus on his father. That's understandable, of course; the original Bronko Nagurski remains not only one of the greatest Canadian-born football players of all time, but one of the most famous football players ever at both the NCAA and NFL levels. However, Nagurski Jr. was a legend in his own right north of the border, and a tremendous force on the line for the dominant Hamilton Tiger-Cats teams of the 1960s.
The senior Nagurski was born in Rainy River, Ontario, but while he was growing up, his family moved an hour's drive east and south to International Falls, Minnesota. The legend of his discovery by University of Minnesota Golden Gophers coach Clarence "Fats" Spears bears repeating; Nagurski was apparently out plowing a field, Spears is supposed to have asked directions to the nearest town, and Nagurski reportedly lifted his plow and pointed with it, convincing Spears to sign him up on the spot. Whether that's true or not, Nagurski demonstrated incredible strength during his tenure with the Golden Gophers, playing both ways as a fullback and a defensive tackle for Minnesota from 1927 to 1929. He recorded 737 rushing yards in 1929, the best total in the country, and was named an All-American at both positions. His legendary accomplishments can perhaps best be summed up by what famed sportswriter Grantland Rice once wrote; "Who would you pick to win a football game - eleven Jim Thorpes - eleven Glen Davises - eleven Red Granges - or eleven Bronko Nagurskis? The eleven Nagurskis would be a mop-up. It would be something close to murder and massacre. For the Bronk could star at any position on the field, with 216 pounds of authority to back him up." Nagurski went on to be a dominant force for the Chicago Bears of the 1930s, playing at running back, offensive line and defensive line; he also had a notable wrestling career.
Funnily enough, the Canadian-born senior Nagurski made his football impact south of the border, while his American-born son is most remembered for what he did north of the 49. Nagurski Jr. was born in International Falls on Christmas Day, 1937, and he went on to play offensive tackle for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in college. The Irish were in a bit of a down cycle during Nagurski's tenure, so he didn't receive the attention he might have on a more successful team, but the San Francisco 49ers still chose him 114th overall in the 1959 NFL draft. However, he turned them down to head to Ontario and suit up for the Tiger-Cats. Hamilton was almost 2,000 kilometres from where the senior Nagurski grew up (Rainy River's west of Thunder Bay, close to the Manitoba border), but his legend was well-known in Canada by this point. That left Nagurski Jr. with some massive shoes to fill.
Fortunately, he was more than up to the task. Nagurski Jr. brought size, ferocity and technique to the Hamilton offensive line, anchoring the tackle position from 1959 to 1966. He and other legendary Tiger-Cats like Angelo Mosca helped develop the brand of hard-nosed football the team became known for, and they won Grey Cups in 1963 and 1965. They also picked up one of the more notable records in the history of Canadian football, beating the AFL's Buffalo Bills 38-21 in a 1961 exhibition. Nagurski Jr. was widely recognized as one of the keys to their success, and was selected as a CFL all-star three times. After football, his impressive work ethic led him to plenty of other success; he worked in the paper industry for 30 years and was also a firefighter in International Falls for 14 years. Mosca said it was that work ethic that made Nagurski Jr. fit right in on those Steeltown teams, and helped him become a dominant CFL force:
"As a player, Bronko was one of the hardest workers in the league and a big part of our Grey Cup championship teams," said former teammate Angelo Mosca. "He was always a pleasure to be around - a great teammate and an even better friend."
As I wrote last week, one of the most interesting things about the CFL is its history. Much of that history isn't all that well-known, though, especially compared to the stories about early NCAA and NFL legends like Nagurski Sr. Nagurski Jr. may never have achieved the same level of continent-wide fame as his father, but he was a crucial part of some great teams north of the border. For that, he's definitely notable in his own right.