Monthly Archives: September 2014

Preview of coming attractions

Big piece coming tomorrow on Bronko Nagurski’s amazing 1937 season, when the Bears’ Hall of Fame fullback went back and forth between the football field and the wrestling mat (where he had just won the heavyweight title). Thought I’d whet your appetite with a couple of photos I came across during my research. The first is a promotional shot showing Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight boxing champ, “hanging” Jack Dusek to establish that the latter was tough enough to take on The Bronko.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 11.49.10 AM












The second is of a referee admonishing an underhanded opponent of Nagurski’s by giving him some of his own medicine. Enjoy.

Wresting ref grabbing guy's mouth




The joy of stats, Week 4

The Vikings’ 41-28 win over the Falcons on Sunday produced not one but two intriguing statistics.

1. In his first NFL start, the Vikes’ Teddy Bridgewater completed 19 of 30 passes for 317 yards and . . . that’s it. No touchdowns, no interceptions. You might say it’s unusual to throw for 300 yards, average 10 per attempt (league norm: 7.1), avoid getting picked off and not have any TD passes. In fact, Bridgewater is just the third quarterback since 1960 to have such a game.


Date Quarterback, Team Opponent Yds YPA TD Int Result
9-28-14 Teddy Bridgewater,Vikings Falcons 317 10.6 0 0 W, 41-28
11-4-12 Matt Ryan, Falcons Cowboys 342 10.1 0 0 W, 19-13
12-10-00 Kurt Warner, Rams Vikings 346 10.8 0 0 W, 40-29

A big reason Bridgewater didn’t throw for any scores — except for a two-point conversion, that is — is that Minnesota ran the ball well when it got near the goal line. Matt Asiata pounded it in from 1, 3 and 6 yards out, and Teddy scrambled 13 for another touchdown. The four rushing TDs equaled the franchise record, first set in 1965.

Anyway, that’s how Bridgewater wound up with his unusual 30-19-317-0-0 line. (And it’ll probably never happen again.)

2. In defeat, the Falcons’ Devin Hester caught a 36-yard scoring pass from Matt Ryan. That gave Hester touchdowns rushing, receiving and punt returning in the first four games. Only five players have done that since ’60. The list:


Year Player, Team Rush TD Rec TD PR TD
2014 Devin Hester, Falcons 1 1 1
2011 Darren Sproles, Saints 1 1 1
2008 Reggie Bush, Saints 1 2 1
1966 Mike Garrett, Chiefs 1 1 1
1961 Bobby Mitchell, Browns 1 2 1

Finally, one other performance popped out at me in Week 4. Frank Gore, at the tender age of 31, racked up 119 yards rushing and 55 receiving against the Eagles in the 49ers’ 26-21 victory. Since 1960, just nine backs 31 or older have had a 100/50 game. Five are in the Hall of Fame, so the feat must mean something, right?


Date Running back (Age), Team Opponent Rush Rec Result
9-28-14 Frank Gore (31), 49ers Eagles 119 55 W, 26-21
9-10-06 Tiki Barber (31), Giants Colts 110 61 L, 26-21
10-31-04 Priest Holmes (31), Chiefs Colts 143 82 W, 45-35
11-9-86 Tony Dorsett* (32), Cowboys Raiders 101 64 L, 17-13
11-9-86 Walter Payton* (33), Bears Bucs 139 69 W, 23-3
11-10-85 Walter Payton* (32), Bears Lions 107 69 W, 24-3
10-13-85 Tony Dorsett* (31), Cowboys Steelers 113 82 W, 27-13
9-25-83 Franco Harris* (33), Steelers Patriots 106 83 L, 28-23
9-10-78 O.J. Simpson* (31), 49ers Bears 108 56 L, 16-13
11-11-73 Floyd Little* (31), Broncos Chargers 109 76 W, 30-19
12-10-72 Wendell Hayes (32), Chiefs Colts 104 55 W, 24-10

*Hall of Fame

By the way, that was the last 100-yard rushing performance of Simpson’s career. He outrushed Young Sweetness that day, 108-62, and outgained him from scrimmage, 164-65. Think he might have been up for the game?

Gore, though, looks like he might still have a little mileage in him. So we might need to update this chart at some point in the future.


Murray in a hurry

How unusual are DeMarco Murray’s four 100-yard rushing days in the first four games of the NFL season? This unusual: No other active running back has done it.

Indeed, only one other back has done it in the 2000s. The short list of runners who have accomplished the feat since 1960:


Year Running back, Team Att Yards Avg TD Proj. Yds Final Total*
2014 DeMarco Murray, Cowboys 99 534 5.4 5 2,136 ?????
2003 Stephen Davis, Panthers 106 565 5.3 2 2,260 1,444
1997 Terrell Davis, Broncos 95 526 5.5 3 2,104 1,750
1995 Emmitt Smith, Cowboys 88 543 6.2 9 2,172 1,773*
1985 James Wilder, Bucs 102 497 4.9 2 1,988 1,300
1975 O.J. Simpson, Bills 118 697 5.9 5 2,788 1,817*
1973 O.J. Simpson, Bills 102 647 6.3 4 2,588 2,003*

*led league

As you can see, there are two Hall of Famers here (Smith and Simpson) and two 2,000-yard rushers (Davis in 1998 and Simpson in 14 games in ’73). So Murray is in pretty good company. As you also can see, none of the backs came within 300 yards of their projected total (based on their four-game figure). So DeMarco likely will fall considerably short of 2,136.

(FYI: Davis’ streak came in his first four games with the Panthers after signing with them as a free agent. Carolina went all the way to the Super Bowl that season — and nearly upset the Patriots.)

What Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has to be careful of is playing too much with his New Favorite Toy. After all, Murray is on pace for 396 carries, which would be the seventh-highest total of all time — and nearly twice as many as he’s ever had in a season (217). The group he would join:


Year Running back, Team Carries
2006 Larry Johnson, Chiefs 416
1998 Jamal Anderson, Falcons 410
1984 James Wilder, Bucs 407
1986 Eric Dickerson, Rams 404
2000 Eddie George, Titans 403
1985 Gerald Riggs, Falcons 397
2014 DeMarco Murray, Cowboys 396*


Seasons like these aren’t usually conducive to long-term productivity. Johnson, for instance, never had another 1,000-yard year, and Anderson, Wilder and Riggs had only one. As for George, he was a diminished back after that, averaging just 3.2 yards a carry in his remaining four seasons. Dickerson is the outlier, topping 1,000 yards three more times and winning the rushing title in 1988. Not coincidentally, he’s the only one in Canton (or likely to get there).

At any rate, it’s something for the Cowboys to think about. Murray is just 26, and he’s been used humanely up to now. He could be capable of a few more seasons like this if they don’t run him into the ground.


Steve Smith makes the Panthers miss him

For the second straight NFL Sunday, a well-known wide receiver topped 100 yards in his first game against his former team. Last week it was the Redskins’ DeSean Jackson renewing acquaintances with the Eagles; this week it was Steve Smith exchanging pleasantries with the Panthers.

In the free-agent era, such made-for-TV reunions have become commonplace. They didn’t happen nearly so often in the old days. Consider: Don Hutson played for only one club his entire career: the Packers. The same goes for Raymond Berry (Colts), Charley Taylor (Redskins) and Steve Largent (Seahawks). Don Maynard had all but six of his 633 catches for the Jets, Art Monk all but 52 of his 940 for the Redskins. And each of them, I’ll just remind you, held the all-time receptions record at some point.

Now you have wideouts — in their later years, particularly — bouncing from team to team and basically playing as long as they’ve got two legs to run routes with. What was Jerry Rice’s last known address again? Oh, yes, the Broncos (though he had second thoughts and retired before playing for them).

So expect to see plenty more of these scenes in the seasons ahead — a celebrated wideout crossing paths with his old club. It’s kind of the football equivalent of bumping into your ex-wife, and, as we’ve seen, can make for very good theater. Smith, with touchdowns of 61 and 21 yards vs. Carolina, and Jackson, with an 81-yarder vs. Philadelphia, had two of the best Revenge Games (if you want to call them that) in modern times. One man’s Top 10:


Date Receiver, Team Former Team Rec Yds TD Result
10-30-11 Anquan Boldin, Ravens Cardinals 7 145 0 W, 30-27
9-18-05 Terrell Owens, Eagles 49ers 5 143 2 W, 42-3
9-28-14 Steve Smith, Ravens Panthers 7 139 2 W, 38-10
9-21-14 DeSean Jackson, Redskins Eagles 5 117 1 L, 37-34
10-18-09 Torry Holt, Jaguars Rams 5 101 0 W, 23-20
11-15-64 Tommy McDonald, Cowboys Eagles 7 99 0 L, 17-14
11-21-93 Irving Fryar, Dolphins Patriots 4 97 1 W, 17-13
9-23-62 Bobby Mitchell, Redskins Browns 3 94 1 W, 17-16
9-12-93 Gary Clark, Cardinals Redskins 6 93 0 W, 17-10
12-24-94 Henry Ellard, Redskins Rams 5 81 0 W, 24-21

Note: Mitchell caught the winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes, a 50-yarder. . . . Ellard’s game was the last one the Rams played in Los Angeles before moving to St. Louis.


Date Wide Receiver, Team Former Team Rec Yds TD Result
11-3-02 Jerry Rice, Raiders 49ers 6 74 0 L, 23-20
9-23-12 Randy Moss, 49ers Vikings 3 27 0 L, 24-13
9-13-87 James Lofton, Raiders Packers 2 32 0 W, 20-0
11-5-72 Lance Alworth, Cowboys Chargers 1 8 0 W, 34-28
11-24-13 Wes Welker, Broncos Patriots 4 31 0 L, 34-31
9-24-00 Keyshawn Johnson, Bucs Jets 1 1 0 L, 21-17


Bronko Nagurski, heavyweight wrestling champ

Thanks to a bye week between the Bears’ first two games in 1937, Bronko Nagurski, their legendary fullback, defended his heavyweight wrestling championship seven times in 10 days. He continued to slip in matches that season — all over the country — whenever the football schedule permitted. The sports world had never seen anything like it . . . and never would again. The story of his adventures:

During the 1937 season, Nagurski’s schedule was packed with 13 football games — including two non-league exhibitions — and 13 wrestling bouts. His itinerary went like this: Green Bay; Duluth, Minn; Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, B.C.; Seattle; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Oakland; Salt Lake City; (pant, pant); Pittsburgh; Erie, Pa; Philadelphia; Cleveland; Minneapolis; New York; Philadelphia; New York; L.A.; Detroit (with seven games in Chicago sprinkled in).

As fullbacks go, Bronko Nagurski was a Category 5. Tackling the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Chicago Bears Hall of Famer required more than just malice aforethought, it also took a plan — for self-preservation’s sake. With a football under his arm, the Bronk was a glorious advertisement for Newton’s Laws of Motion, especially the one that states, roughly: To every lowered shoulder there is an equal and opposite reaction, sometimes even a broken collarbone.

Packers great Cal Hubbard, no pushover himself at 6-2, 253, considered Nagurski “the toughest guy [in the early years] to bring down. If he was in stride, you didn’t have much of a chance. He’d run right over you and hit you before you hit him. And if you tried to make a flying tackle, you’d probably get a knee in the chin.”

To Sid Luckman, the Bears’ iconic quarterback, Bronko was “the nearest thing to perfection. I would refuse to tackle him [in scrimmages]. I just jumped on his back and rode him piggyback as best I could.”

Brooklyn Dodgers back Joe Maniaci, who was dealt to Chicago after Nagurski retired, might have had the most creative approach to impeding Bronko’s progress. Rather than meet force with force — a losing if not injurious proposition — he “stepped aside and tackled him from the rear,” he once told me. “I think that might have been why [George] Halas traded for me. The players said he loved to show the film of me making that tackle. He’d say, ‘Look, here’s a man who tackles to play another day.’”

There was nothing, it seemed, Nagurski couldn’t do. He was big enough to play tackle (his first position with the Bears), fast enough to line up in the backfield and a good enough thrower to Bronko in wrestling trunkstoss touchdown passes in two NFL championship games. So when he branched out into professional wrestling in 1933, to make a few bucks in the offseason and cash in on his popularity, it figured to be only a matter of time before he was a success in that racket, too.

But no one envisioned the spectacle that unfolded in 1937. That was the year Nagurski became the heavyweight champion — or one of them, anyway — and defended his crown 13 times during the Bears’ season. He had matches in the East, West and points in between, filling arenas almost everywhere he went. Had it been any other player, Bears coach George Halas likely would have balked, but what Bronko wanted, Bronko got.

“Never before has the kingpin of one sport tried to maintain his pre-eminence in another sport,” Jack Cuddy of the United Press wrote. Art Cohn, the Oakland Tribune columnist, called it “one of the most amazing chapters sport[s] history has known.” It was certainly the most Bronko thing Nagurski ever did, a feat that made him a year-round fixture in the sports pages.

This was no small accomplishment. Pro football, after all, wasn’t the colossus back then that it is today. In fact, it didn’t get much media attention beyond game coverage. But Nagurski, with his chiseled jaw and thighs the size of beer kegs, was an object of great fascination. So much so that a Wisconsin newspaper once ran the following note: “A United Press story today to the effect that George Halas is satisfied with his Chicago Bear[s] backfield seems to dispel a rumor circulated in Stevens Point last night that Bronko Nagurski was killed in an automobile accident.”

Flipping through a newspaper in 1937, you might come across an ad for a “Bronko Nagurski Jr.” regulation football. Or maybe, beneath the listing for the Clark Gable-Carole Lombard film, No Man of Her Own, you’d see the following short subject: “World Champion Wrestling Match with Nagurski-Lopez.”

Football players in the pre-television era tended to be anonymous creatures, but Bronko’s Mt. Rushmore face was widely known — thanks, in part, to photos that showed him manhandling wrestling opponents, hoisting them on his shoulders or hurling them to the mat. (Typical cutline: “Bronko Nagurski, the pro footballer who claims the world’s rassling title, made a valiant attempt to ram Dean Detton’s head right through the ring in their match in Los Angeles, but the floor stood up under the strain.”)

Nagurski was hardly the first NFL player to go into the grunt-and-groan business. In the 1920s, Gus Sonnenberg, the Providence Steam Rollers’ 5-6, 200-pound dynamo, took the title from the famed Strangler Lewis, subduing him with his signature weapon, the flying tackle. Other players, scores of them, also climbed through the ropes.

Indeed, you could put together a pretty good team in those years of gridders-turned-grapplers. In the backfield you’d have Bronko, Wildcat Wilson, Joe Savoldi and Father Lumpkin, and up front you’d have Sonnenberg, Tarzan White, Jim McMillen, Sammy Stein, Buckets Goldenberg, John Spellman and Pete Mehringer. (The latter two won Olympic gold medals in the sport.) Sometimes they were even matched against each other. Now that could be fun.

“A two-man football game will be played at the Oakland Auditorium tomorrow night,” Cohn wrote before a Nagurski-Sonnenberg bout in late September. “No helmets. No pads. No Ad for Nagurski-Sonnenbergcoaches. No ball . . . and, best of all, no rules!” (Here’s another matchup between the two in Los Angeles in 1938.)

Sonnenberg’s slam-bang style helped turn wrestling into the choreographed spectacular it is today. Nagurski followed suit, employing not just the flying tackle but his own variation of it, the flying block. As Cuddy put it, “Regardless of the hold that finishes his man, it’s the crashing, crashing, crashing impact of his body against that of an opponent that ultimately wins out.”

For Bronko, it was just an extension of how he brought down ball carriers. Never much for wrapping up, he preferred to barrel into them with his shoulder — in hopes the shock of the blow would cause a fumble. Besides, he was a virtual novice when he was talked into giving wrestling a try. He hadn’t competed in the sport at the University of Minnesota because he had to work his way through school once the football season ended.

Nagurski wasn’t as quotable as the gregarious Sonnenberg or some of the other champions. Sportswriter Stanley Frank joked that Bronko “was with the Bears for five years before he said anything on the field except, ‘I hope that kid isn’t hurt too bad.’” But by 1937 some of the rough edges had been smoothed away. The big fullback, closing in on his 29th birthday, had recently married and was awaiting the birth of his first child.

After winning the championship from Detton in June — in Minneapolis, site of his college triumphs — Nagurski seriously considered retiring from football. For one thing, wrestling had become more lucrative and offered better long-term prospects. For another, being a Human Bulldozer for better than a decade, first in college and then for the Bears, had begun to take its toll.

Contrary to legend, Bronko wasn’t indestructible. You couldn’t play football the way he played it — the Isaac Newton way — without absorbing a fair amount of abuse. Andy Lotshaw, the Bears’ longtime trainer, liked to perpetuate the myth, liked to tell people, “He never knew what a bruise was. Why, they couldn’t even dent him. Only time I ever laid a hand on him was to tape his ankles.” But teammates knew different.

By the end of his career, “Bronko was a little beat up,” Ray Nolting said. “He had a hip, a rib, his hands were all busted up. He went through the whole kit and caboodle when it came to injuries.”

So, yes, wrestling was looking better and better to Nagurski as the ’37 season approached. Wrestling promised a second athletic life. Wrestling was something he could do into his 40s or even 50s if he took care of himself. But the tug of football was still strong. And after the Bears lost a preseason game to a team of college all-stars in Dallas, he decided to rejoin the club. It was barely a week before the Sept. 19 opener at Green Bay.

Thus began the Bronko Across America Tour. From then until the end of the season, Nagurski’s schedule was packed with 13 football games — including two non-league exhibitions — and the Nagurski bout in adaforementioned 13 wrestling bouts. His itinerary went like this: Green Bay; Duluth, Minn; Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, B.C.; Seattle; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Oakland; Salt Lake City; (pant, pant); Pittsburgh; Erie, Pa; Philadelphia; Cleveland; Minneapolis; New York; Philadelphia; New York; L.A.; Detroit (with seven games in Chicago sprinkled in).

Much of this travel was by air, which in those days was only a few steps removed from the Wright brothers. It’s a wonder, really, he didn’t lose his bearings and show up in the wrong town . . . or the wrong attire. He missed plenty of practices the first two months, but he still made an impact in most games. His 4.7-yard rushing average was his highest in three seasons; he just didn’t carry the ball as much as before (73 times, 49 fewer than the previous year). Even if he hadn’t gained a yard, though, he would have earned his keep with his ferocious blocking and linebacking. (Blessed was the back who got to follow Bronko through the hole. It was like being in the sidecar of a motorcycle.)

The Bears had two bye weeks in ’37, breaks of 13 and 10 days that enabled Nagurski to squeeze in two West Coast wrestling trips. As the champion he needed to be visible, lest the promoters decide to give the belt to someone else. Many of his matches had a familiar script. The opponent — be it Dirty Dick Raines, Leering Lou Plummer or some other bad guy — would establish himself as the villain by employing questionable tactics. (In Philly, Ernie Dusek rubbed a bandage on his elbow across Bronko’s eyes. In New York, Ray Steele was disqualified for kneeing him.) Then Nagurski, the “clean” wrestler, would explode with a series of flying blocks and tackles that enflamed the crowd and ended the match quickly.

If Bronko really got mad, he might throw his foe out of the ring. But he was always very polite about it. As the United Press pointed out: “It has been the custom, up to last night, for the meanies of the ring to annoy the lads of the press by tossing this opponent or that into the press table, scattering pencils and cameras. Nagurski, the boys of the fourth estate find, is a gentleman. When he saw fit to clear the ring of [Plummer], he clipped him two rows clear of the press.”

Bronko’s wholesomeness, his refusal to get rough unless his opponent did, went over big with the fans. Toots Mondt, who promoted him, said, “For years I’ve been waiting for a man who can really catch the popular fancy. Nagurski is the man. . . . He has everything. A physique which makes you catch your breath when he takes off his robe. He’s the strongest man I’ve ever seen on a mat. He’s as fast as lightning and has the earnest manner and the obvious love of rough competition that excites the crowd.”

When Nagurski wrestled in Chicago, the other Bears would cheer him on. Well, sort of. “We used to go and make fun of him,” Ookie Miller said. “George Musso would get up and make all these kinds of [snide] remarks at the guys. ‘Come on out here and I’ll get you!’” One time, according to Luckman, some players met with Bronko before a bout. “He said, ‘I’m going to fight this bum [tonight]. When I wink, you’ll know I’m gonna win the battle.’ Well, this guy threw him from pillar to post for about 40 minutes. Then the Bronk winks at us, and two minutes later the fight was over.”

He was a traveling circus, Nagurski was. On Oct. 4, he stepped off a plane in Pittsburgh, after wrestling seven times in 10 days out West, and rescued the Bears against the Pirates. When Chicago drove 79 yards for the winning touchdown in the third quarter, the score that gave them a 7-0 victory, it was Bronko who did much of the heavy lifting. “Now and then the Pirates stopped him,” the Pittsburgh Press reported, “but never without some pain.”

Nagurski had another big day against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Nov. 14, breaking runs of 46 and 33 yards in a 29-7 win. Two weeks later, in a 15-7 victory over the Cleveland Rams that clinched the Western Division title, he got the Bears going with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Bill Karr.

At that point he’d suspended wrestling activities until after the season — at Halas’ request. There was an NFL championship to be won, and Papa Bear worried that his star fullback would get worn out trying to serve two masters. Nagurski, ever the stoic, waved off this notion. “I think wrestling has been largely responsible for my good physical condition this year,” he said. “My legs never felt better, and I was in shape for the Bears’ first game even though I didn’t report for practice until five days before the opener.”

Still, he admitted, the globetrotting and job-juggling were “too much work, and it isn’t exactly fair to the other fellows on the Chicago Bear[s] team. . . . George Halas doesn’t like it during the football season.”

Especially since, after years of struggle, the pro game was beginning to make inroads with the sporting public. Nagurski and the Bears were a huge attraction that fall. They broke the attendance record in Green Bay, shattered the one at Wrigley Field twice — the second time by more than 10,000 — and drew 50,449 at the Polo Grounds, the second-biggest NFL crowd since 1925, when Red Grange made his debut in New York.

Nagurski, who had seen pro football evolve from a low-scoring defensive game to a more offensive, crowd-pleasing one, could only shake his head. “I wish I was just starting to play football now,” he told the Associated Press.

Protecting his assets, Halas held Nagurski and several other starters out of the regular-season finale against the cross-town Cardinals. He wanted them at their best for the championship game against the Washington Redskins, a club that had just annihilated the Giants in New York, 49-14. Looking back, it was such an intriguing matchup, this first of four title games between the Bears and Redskins over a seven-year span. On one side you had Sammy Baugh, the slingin’ symbol of the NFL’s future, and on the other you had Bronko, the brawny standard-bearer of the league’s past.

Not that the Bears weren’t forward-thinking. Halas was in the process of developing an offense, revolving around the T formation, that would revolutionize football. Every other team in the league ran the single wing or some offshoot; the contrarian Bears had their quarterback under center, a full-house backfield behind him, and used a man-in-motion. For opposing defenses, it was all very disorienting.

But the T wasn’t a passing offense — yet. It spread the field more, sure, but it still leaned primarily on the ground game. As Halas explained in The Modern T Formation with Man-in-Motion, the primer he wrote with Clark Shaughnessy and Ralph Jones, the alignment “affords a ‘boxing’ type of offense. The quick-opening plays can be compared to the left jab of a boxer, the man-in-motion and the faking of the backs to the feints, and the fullback plays to the real punch. The pass plays should be used as the unexpected sock.”

In the title game at Wrigley Field, it was the Redskins who did most of the unexpected socking. Taking advantage of the slippery footing — both teams wore sneakers on the icy turf — Baugh threw for 335 yards and touchdowns of 78, 55 and 35 to lead Washington to a 28-21 victory. That was more yards than anybody had ever passed for in a regular-season game.

Nagurski did what he could, rushing for 47 yards in eight carries. The film of the game also shows that — surprise, surprise — he wasn’t just a between-the-tackles runner. He had another gear, even at that stage of his career, that made him dangerous on sweeps as well.

On one play that set up a touchdown, the motion man sealed off the end, the other halfback blocked the linebacker and Bronko, taking a pitch from quarterback Bernie Masterson, thundered nine yards around the left side to the Washington 10 (where Baugh submarined him). The Bronk tends to be thought of as a north-south bruiser, the Larry Csonka of the ’30s, but he was quicker than that, more like Marion Motley or a young John Riggins. Watch his run to the 10 (and how he bounces up and squeezes out a bit more yardage because, in 1937, you could do that if your forward progress hadn’t been stopped):

For his efforts that year (and perhaps his exploits in previous years), NFL coaches voted him to the all-league second team. But football was becoming less of a Bronko Nagurski world — and more of a playground for Baugh and the fancy passers who would follow. Too, the mileage was beginning to mount for Nagurski, and no one knew that better than him. “Someone once told me a football player should play until it starts to hurt,” he said during the season. “Well, it’s starting to hurt me. . . .  I get pains in my back now and then, especially when it rains. I don’t know, but I guess another year will be enough for me. Maybe not even that.”

On Christmas Day, Bronko Jr., a strapping 8 ½ pounds, joined the Nagurski huddle. Before the year was out, his daddy was tangling with Sonnenberg in Denver. It was a classic bout between two footballers. The end came suddenly — as ends often do in wrestling — when Gus, sent airborne by a Bronko hit, somersaulted over the ropes and landed with a thud on his head and back.

Soon enough, it was official: Nagurski was hanging up his leather helmet (except, that is, for a curtain call in 1943, when the Bears talked him into helping them out during the war). In mid-January, the Chicago Tribune ran a photo of him in a hospital bed, recovering from some “rope burns” he’d suffered in the ring. A “streptococcus infection” had resulted, the newspaper said, but the pretty nurse in the picture wasn’t changing his bandages or taking his temperature. Oh, no. She was lighting his cigarette. This was, after all, Bronko Nagurski. She probably struck the match on his chin.

Nagurski in hospital


A fearsome foursome of NFL golfers

Since it’s Ryder Cup Sunday, why don’t we explore the following question:

Which NFL players, past or present, have been the best golfers?

Among current players, the consensus seems to be that the Cowboys’ Tony Romo — “with a handicap that’s been as low as plus-3.3,” according to Golf Digest — is Numero Uno (though two other quarterbacks, the Broncos’ Peyton Manning and Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, are deemed quite capable). Romo, you may recall, partnered with Tiger Woods in the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

A bit farther back, Al Del Greco, the Titans kicker, shot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the 2000 American Century Celebrity Golf Championship to win by three over former Dolphins safety Dick Anderson. Yeah, you might say Al could play a little.

But I’m going to start with the guy who finished third behind Del Greco and Anderson: John Brodie, erstwhile star quarterback for the 49ers. For starters, Brodie, a month shy of his 65th birthday, was much older than Al (38) and Dick (54). Aside from that, though, he was probably the best golfer the NFL has seen.

In his early years with the Niners, Brodie played in the occasional PGA Tour event during the offseason and even qualified once for the U.S. Open. In one pro tournament, the 1960 Yorba Linda (Calif.) Open, he had the low second round, a 5-under 67, which put him ahead of a couple of fellows named Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper. Alas, he faded the last two days and ended up taking home a check for . . . $112.50. But hey, he still finished tied with five players who had won or would win majors: Jack Burke (1956 Masters, ’56 PGA), Tommy Bolt (’58 U.S. Open), Dow Finsterwald (’58 PGA), Art Wall (’59 Masters) and Tony Lema (’64 British Open).

Here, for your amusement, is Brodie’s agate line in the newspaper (“winnings” and all):


Yorba Linda final results












After 11 seasons as an analyst on NBC’s NFL broadcasts, Brodie got serious about golf again and joined the Senior (now the Champions) Tour. He finally broke through in his 158th Brodie Top 10tournament, beating Chi Chi Rodriguez and 1969 Masters champ George Archer in a playoff to take the 1991 Security Pacific Senior Classic.

“Being able to play a game of this competitive level at over 50 years old is an even better feeling [than winning football games gave him],” he said after tapping in his winning birdie. “I enjoyed broadcasting, but I don’t think I’ll have too many people come up to me and say, ‘Why did you quit?’”

Three other golfing NFLers of note:

● Kyle Rote — Rote, the first pick in the 1951 draft out of SMU, could do just about anything. Before he even played for the New York Giants, he hit .348 in 66 at bats (with seven homers) for the Corpus Christi Aces of the Gulf Coast League. Midway through his NFL career, he moved from running back to wide receiver — something nobody does anymore — and had some nice seasons, catching 10 touchdown passes in 1960.

Rote was a terrific golfer, too. In June of ’51, before reporting to the Giants’ training camp as a rookie, he competed in a celebrity tournament in Washington, D.C. This is from The Sporting News:

“Rote was placed in the football division and easily took that prize with rounds of 75 and 70. There were 15 pros in the event, and Kyle’s total would have ranked seventh among them. His round of 70 was the best for the entire event except for a 69 shot by Cary Middlecoff.”

Middlecoff, of course, is a Hall of Famer who won two U.S. Opens (1949, ’56) and a Masters (’55).

● Joe Maniaci — It’s hard to say how Maniaci, a running back with the Bears in the ’30s and ’40s, compared to the others, but his golf exploits did get noticed. In 1939 this brief item ran in newspapers across the country:

Maniaci in '35 Amateur






Joe once said he picked up the sport because his brother Sam, who played football at Columbia, was pretty good at it, “and I just have the idea in my head I can beat him.”

“I became seriously interested in golf on the Pacific Coast. [The Bears] were out there to play a football game [against] the National [Football] League All-Stars. Jimmy Thomson and several other [pro] golfers were staying at the same hotel. Somehow, I outdrove Thomson a lot and was ahead of him for 14 holes in a match we got up one day. [Note: This is the same Thomson who finished second in the 1935 U.S. Open and ’36 PGA and was one of the biggest hitters in the game.]

“Thomson advised me: ‘If I were you, I’d take this game seriously.’ I’ve been hitting drives from 240 to 260 yards. I have broken four driver club heads without hitting the ground in getting power into my tee shots. Harry Cooper [another famed pro] told me that he’d like to tutor me in Chicago, said I’d make a pretty good amateur golfer.”

Maniaci must have added some distance to his tee shots, because this ran in Hugh Fullerton’s Associated Press column in 1944:

“Lt. Joe Maniaci . . . won the officers’ and chiefs’ golf tournament at the Bainbridge Naval Training Center, shooting a 77. Joe had a 335-yard drive on one hole and didn’t fumble once.”

● Joe Namath — OK, the Jets’ legendary quarterback wasn’t nearly as good with the sticks as Brodie, Rote and Maniaci, but he did give us one Memorable Golf Moment. Playing in an NFL/MLB event in Puerto Rico in 1973, he “overslept” and kept his partner, baseball great Willie Mays, waiting on the first tee for 40 minutes.

Willie was pissed — and threatened to walk out until he was repaired with Cardinals running back Donny Anderson. Broadway Joe wound up playing with Pirates pitcher Steve Blass.

“I don’t give a damn who it is,” Mays said. “I warmed up and was ready to play. My partner ought to be ready, too.”

The classic headline:

Namath, Mays headline




Namath’s apology rang a little hollow. After all, AP reported, the day before he’d “kept his partners — John Meyers, publisher of Sports Illustrated; Joseph Schroeder, clothing manufacturer, and columnist Buddy Martin of Gannett newspapers — waiting for close to two hours in the preliminary pro-am.”

Joe, Joe, Joe. Will you never learn? (Apparently not.)

Enjoy the golf today. When you’re not watching football, that is.

Friday Night Fights IV: Fridge Perry vs. Manute Bol, 2002

For sheer grotesqueness, it’s hard to top the celebrity bout between William “The Refrigerator” Perry, the former hole-clogger for the Chicago Bears, and Manute Bol, the erstwhile three-point shooting machine for the Golden State Warriors. Perry weighed over 400 pounds — at least 50 above his playing weight — when he climbed through the ropes at Atlantic City’s Emerald Queen Casino on May 22, 2002. As for Bol, he was still the 7-foot-7 stick figure of his basketball days when he climbed over — yes, over — the ropes:

In a pre-fight interview, Fridge seemed undaunted by Manute’s 102-inch reach (as well as his reputation, as a youth in his native Sudan, for killing a lion with a spear). “He’s seven-foot-something,” he said. “I’m 6-3 or whatever. But, you know, you don’t fight standing up. You got to bend down, you got to bend your knees and everything. So he’s got to come down to size.”

Ring analyst Ray Mancini, the onetime WBA lightweight champ, wasn’t sure how Perry could attack Bol — legally, at least. “This guy is so tall,” he said, “I don’t know where [Perry]’d hit him without it being below the belt.” And indeed, watching the two paw each other was like watching a giraffe tangle with a water buffalo.

Both men had retired in 1994. They also were the same age: 39. In his sports afterlife, Perry goofed around in wrestling and Toughman boxing, while Bol engaged in various publicity stunts to raise money for relief efforts in his war-ravaged country. He even tried to play hockey with the Indianapolis Ice of the Central Hockey League, “but his arthritic feet swelled in his custom-made skates before he could take the ice,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The bout was scheduled for three rounds of about 90 seconds (by my watch). Looks like Michael Buffer is ready to introduce the fighters. . . .

Thankfully, there was no rematch.

Why the Falcons eased up on the Bucs

One thing you never want to do in the NFL, funny as this might sound, is beat a team by too many points — by, like, 50 or more. The Falcons had that opportunity against the Bucs in Week 3, building a 56-0 lead through three quarters, and you could see they wanted no part of it. They basically said, “No mas,” put in backup quarterback T.J. Yates (who generously threw a pick-six) and gladly settled for a 56-14 win.

I say “gladly” because, well, look at the historical record. You’d think a 50-point margin would mean there’s a sizable gap between the two clubs. It’s the kind of blowout you might get if, oh, an expansion team had to play the defending Super Bowl champs in its NFL debut. (But only if the defending champs were total bullies.)

And yet, five times since 1940 a club that’s been clobbered by 50 or more points has beaten its clobberer the next time they met — either later the same year or the following season. (Hell hath no fury like a team that’s been annihilated.) Stunning, no? After all, there have been only 23 losses of this magnitude in the last 75 years, playoffs included; so we’re talking about 1 in 5 odds, roughly, that the squashed-like-a bug club will get immediate payback.

Heck, it almost happened last season. In 2012, you may recall, the Cardinals dropped a 58-0 squeaker to the Seahawks, committing eight turnovers and failing to advance beyond Seattle’s 37-yard line. As stinkers go, it was sulfur dioxide. But in Week 16 last year, in the Cards’ second meeting with the ’Hawks since the Great Embarrassment, they upset the Super Bowl winners-to-be, 17-10, at CenturyLink Field — Seattle’s only loss in its last 20 home games.

Without further ado, then, here are, arguably, the Five Greatest Extractors of Revenge in modern pro football history:

● 1977 Falcons In the next-to-last game of ’76, the Los Angeles Rams steamrolled them 59-0 at the Coliseum (and outgained them by nearly 500 yards, 569-81). The Falcons — and their Grits Blitz defense — got even in the ’77 opener in Atlanta, handing the Rams a 17-6 defeat. The L.A. quarterback that day: Joe Namath. Margin of first game: 59. Point swing between the two games: 70.

● 1981 Packers Late in the ’80 season, the Bears hammered them 61-7 at Soldier Field, the most one-sided game ever between the two ancient rivals. When the Pack returned to Chicago in Week 1 of ’81, they turned the tables on the Bears, 16-9. Margin of first game: 54. Point swing: 61.

● 1990 Houston Oilers The feud in the ’80s and ’90s between Bengals coach Sam Wyche and Oilers counterpart Jerry Glanville was one of the most entertaining of all time. Wyche considered Glanville “probably the biggest phony in professional football,” and Jerry’s feelings toward Sam weren’t much warmer. So when Cincinnati got the chance near the end of the ’89 season, it poured it on Houston, onside kicking with a huge lead, booting a needless field goal in the final seconds and burying the Oilers 61-7 at Riverfront Stadium. The next time the clubs crossed paths, the following season in the Astrodome, Glanville was no longer in Houston. (He’d moved on to Atlanta and been replaced by Jack Pardee.) Too bad. He missed seeing Warren Moon toss five touchdown passes in a 48-17 rout of Wicky Wacky’s Bengals. Margin of first game: 54. Point swing: 85.

● 1979 Jets In the second game of the season, the explosive Patriots pummeled the Jets 56-3 in Foxborough as Steve Grogan threw for TDs of 49, 37, 50, 44 and 28 yards. The rematch at Shea Stadium produced a much different result: a 27-26 Jets win that killed the Pats’ playoff chances. Margin of first game: 53. Point swing: 54.

● 1989 Steelers Everything went wrong for Pittsburgh in its opener, a 51-0 loss to the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium. It gave the ball away eight times, managed just 53 offensive yards and watched in horror as the Cleveland defense scored three touchdowns (two on fumbles, one on an interception). Five weeks later, the Steelers rebounded to beat the Browns on the road 17-7, thanks to seven takeaways of their own. Margin of first game: 51. Point swing: 61.

Others of note:

● 1954 Baltimore Colts — It wasn’t just that the Rams obliterated the Colts 48-0 in Week 1 (in Baltimore, no less); it was that their first score, an 80-yard bomb from Norm Van Brocklin to Skeet Quinlan, came on a now-illegal Hideout Play. Quinlan stayed on the Los Angeles sideline until just before the snap, then stepped inbounds and darted downfield, uncovered.

The teams met again in L.A. in December. There wasn’t much to play for except pride; both were out of the championship hunt. The Colts had a little extra incentive, though, and avenged their earlier stomping, 22-21, on a late field goal. (I’d love to see Artie Donovan’s bar bill after that one.) Margin of first game: 48. Point swing: 49.

● 1981 49ers — In ’80, when the Niners were still a work in progress (and Steve DeBerg was still their quarterback), the Cowboys crushed them 59-14 in Dallas. But the next year, with Joe Montana at QB and rookie cornerback Ronnie Lott terrorizing receivers, San Francisco broke the Cowboys’ hearts twice at Candlestick Park — 45-14 in the regular season and 28-27 in the NFC title game – en route to winning the Super Bowl. Margin of first game: 45. Point swing: 76.

Finally, there are the 1961 Detroit Lions. Can’t forget about them. They got ambushed 49-0 in Week 3 when the 49ers unleashed their innovative Shotgun offense. In the Week 8 sequel, however, the Lions rose up in all their fury and . . . tied the Niners in San Francisco, 20-20. Ask yourself: Has there been a more satisfying deadlock in the annals of the game? Margin of first game: 49. Point swing: Ditto.


A small bone to pick with FiveThirtyEight

Lord knows, I love stats. Love what you can learn from them. Love just playing around with them to see what turns up. And what’s Neil Paine does with stats in his revisionist piece about the Greatest Show on Turf — the 1999 Rams offense — is terrific. By all means read it, if you haven’t already.

My only quibble is Paine’s overinflation of Kurt Warner’s ’99 season. “Warner ended up completing 65.1 percent of his passes,” he writes, “which at the time was the third-best single-season completion percentage by any quarterback ever.11” Third-best ever. Wow. That one caught me by surprise. Then I chased down the footnote and found out he was talking about only “quarterbacks with 450 attempts.”

I’m not sure what, in Paine’s mind, is so magical about 450 attempts — other than that it allows him to say Warner’s completion rate was “the third-best . . . ever.” After all, 450 attempts are a lot of attempts. Only three NFL quarterbacks had that many in a season before 1978, when the schedule was increased to 16 games and rule changes turned pro football into the passer’s paradise we have today. (Note: Five more had 450-plus in the bombs-away AFL.)

But that’s a minor point because, the rules being what they were, almost no quarterback back then was going to complete 65.1 percent of his passes — unless it was the Redskins’ Sammy Baugh hitting 70.3 in the talent-starved war year of 1945. Show me a QB in those days who connected on 65.1 percent, and I’ll show you an extraterrestrial.

The larger point is: Why 450 attempts? Steve Young threw 447 passes in 11 starts for the ’95 49ers and completed 66.9 percent (1.8 percent more than Warner). We’re just going to leave him out? Then there’s Joe Montana, who threw 386 passes in 13 starts for the ’89 Niners and completed 70.2 percent (5.1 percent more than Warner). We’re going to ignore that season, too, even though Joe set a record that year (since broken) with a 112.4 rating?

What I’m objecting to is the arbitrariness of “450 attempts,” which serves no real purpose except to make Warner’s season look better. And here’s the thing: Neither he nor the story of the ’99 Rams offense needs any ginning up. His numbers are perfectly capable of standing on their own, without any creative massaging. It was, by any measure, a fabulous year, among the greatest of all time. For Paine create this imaginary 450 Attempts World — in which Warner has “the third-best single-season completion percentage by any quarterback ever” — is just plain silly.

To qualify for the passing title, a QB needs to throw 224 passes (14 per scheduled game). If you make that your threshold, Warner had the 17th-best completion rate ever. The Top 5:


Year Quarterback, Team Att Comp Pct
1982 Ken Anderson, Bengals 309 218 70.6
1994 Steve Young, 49ers 461 324 70.3
1989 Joe Montana, 49ers 386 271 70.2
1993 Troy Aikman, Cowboys 392 271 69.1
1993 Steve Young, 49ers 462 314 68.0

Minimum: 224 passes.

(Note: The schedule was only nine games in ’82 because of a player strike.)

Again, Warner had a sensational season, especially when you consider his 41 touchdown passes, 109.2 rating and Disneyesque backstory as a former Arena Leaguer. But making the cutoff 224 attempts, the league standard, instead of 450 tones down the idolatry a little — which is what statistical research is supposed to do.

Of course, 17th doesn’t sound nearly as good as “third-best . . . ever.” But what are you gonna do? It’s one thing to ignore Frank Filchock’s 111.6 passer rating for the 1939 Redskins because it isn’t “modern” — even though, coupled with his 413 rushing yards (ninth in the league), it was one of the most amazing years in NFL history. But when you disqualify seasons by recent Hall of Famers like Steve Young, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman because they fall short of some arbitrary minimum (450 attempts – and not a pass less!), that’s when I’m going to pipe up.


A flash in the pan . . . or the real deal?

Granted, this is his third NFL season, but the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins had a 400-yard passing game Sunday against the Eagles in just his fifth NFL start. Not too shabby.

What’s surprising is how many quarterbacks have accomplished the feat just as quickly – or even more quickly. I came up with eight since 1960, and there could be a few more further back.


Date Quarterback (Year) Team Opponent Start Yds Result
9-11-11 Cam Newton (1st) Panthers Cardinals 1st 422 L, 28-21
1-1-12 Matt Flynn (4th) Packers Lions 2nd 480 W, 45-41
11-14-99 Jim Miller (6th) Bears Vikings 2nd 422 L, 27-24
11-29-87 Tom Ramsey (5th) Patriots Eagles 2nd 402 L, 34-31
9-30-12 Ryan Tannehill (1st) Dolphins Cardinals 4th 431 L, 24-21
11-10-02 Marc Bulger (2nd) Rams Chargers 4th 453 W, 28-24
9-21-14 Kirk Cousins (3rd) Redskins Eagles 5th 427 L, 37-34
12-21-69 Don Horn (3rd) Packers Cardinals 5th 410 W, 45-28
10-13-61 Jacky Lee (2nd) Oilers Patriots 5th 457 T, 31-31
12-13-04 Billy Volek (4th) Titans Chiefs 6th 426 L, 49-38
10-10-04 Tim Rattay (5th) 49ers Cardinals 6th 417 W, 31-28
9-6-98 Glenn Foley (4th) Jets 49ers 6th 415 L, 36-30

Note: Ramsey played two seasons in the USFL before joining the Patriots in 1985. Those years are counted as experience. . . . Newton also threw for 400 yards in his second NFL game/start (432 vs. the Packers in a 30-23 loss). . . . Volek also threw for 400 in his seventh start (492 vs. the Raiders in a 40-35 loss). . . . The combined won-lost record of the group is 4-7-1. Cousins, in other words, has plenty of company in his despair.

As you can see, only two Actual Rookies since 1960 (Newton and Tannehill) have had a 400-yard passing game in their first five starts. The other quarterbacks were in their second, third, fourth, fifth and even sixth season when they did it.

Also, just two of the dozen QBs listed have gone to the Pro Bowl: Newton and Bulger. The others, for the most part, could be described as Serviceable Backups.

So . . . make of Cousins’ big day what you will. Or maybe he should make of it what he will.


Date Quarterback (Year) Team Opponent Start Yds Result
11-4-12 Andrew Luck (1st) Colts Dolphins 8th 433 W, 23-20
9-8-13 Colin Kaepernick (3rd) 49ers Packers 8th 412 W, 34-28
11-22-09 Matt Stafford (1st) Lions Browns 8th 422 W, 38-37
11-3-13 Nick Foles (2nd) Eagles Raiders 9th 406 W, 49-20
11-13-08 Matt Cassel (4th) Patriots Jets 9th 400 L, 34-31