In 1943 everything was scarce—beef, tin and football tackles, too. So George Halas lured the old man down from International Falls as a defensive replacement. It made a nice story for the dailies, and it thrilled me, for though I had never seen him I was a Chicago Bear fan and he had been the greatest Bear of all—the legendary Bronko Nagurski. I was 10 then, so legends came easy.
The season began, and he played tackle as advertised—well enough, I suppose, and the Bears did well enough, too, but they were expected to win (it was that era) and win easily. But they were not winning easily. The last game of the season was against the old Chicago Cardinals, and the Bears had to win it. If they did, they would be division champions. There were rumors before the game that Nagurski might play fullback, but for part of the first half he played tackle. It was not for Bear fans, that first half. The Cardinals were splendid; not so our side, and at the end of the third quarter the score was 24-14 against the Bears.
I was fumbling through my program when the sound began.
"Bronko," the sound said, "Bronko." And as he moved slowly from the bench into the offensive backfield, the sound grew louder and louder. The man to my left yelled at me, "Now you'll see something—you wait—now you'll see," and I nodded and smiled, because I never wanted to see something so much in my life. Nagurski joined the huddle, and when the Bears broke and approached the line the sound abruptly died.
" 'Course, he's old," the man to my left muttered. "You gotta remember that. But even if he does badly, he was the best."
"He won't," I said. "He won't!"
"He's awful old," the man said.
Sid Luckman was quarterback. That is a statement of fact. All the others—Cecil Isbell, Bob Waterfield, even Sammy Baugh—they only played quarterback. And in all the years that I watched him Luckman called only one stupid play, and this was that play. Because everyone knew the ball was going to Nagurski, everyone was ready for it, particularly the Cardinals. He should have tried a pass, old Sidney, or a halfback around the end—anything but the obvious. But no. The ball was snapped, and he turned and he gave it to the Bronk, and no hole opened. So there he was, Nagurski with the ball, Nagurski at the line of scrimmage, with only the Cardinals for company. They met him, caught him, lifted him high in the air.
Furious, I looked away.
I hated the Cardinals for smearing him, and I hated Luckman for turning suddenly stupid after all those years, and I hated Halas for sending the old man in to play. But most of all I hated the old man for playing. What right did he have, doing this to me? Wasn't I a worshiper? Didn't I blindly believe? Hadn't I treasured the legend? Nagurski in college, considered for All-America at both tackle and fullback; Nagurski the pro, leading the Bears to an undefeated season in 1934, blocking so fiercely for Halfback Beattie Feathers that Feathers swept around end for 1,004 yards in 117 carries; Nagurski breaking into tears late in a game after his fumble had put the Bears behind with only seconds left to play and begging in the huddle for one last chance to carry the ball, and then, tears streaming down his face, running 75 yards through the mud for the winning touchdown as the final gun sounded. Oh, I knew the legend, all right, but that legend had been born in the '20s, reached full size in the middle '30s and it was the '40s now, and I hated him for mocking it, destroying it before my eyes, for making me a fool.
I looked back on the field, and he had gained four yards.
I wasn't quite sure how, but evidently his weight had been too much and the Cardinals had fallen backward, carrying him with them as they dropped, tangled, to the ground. Nagurski finally stood up and shook himself once before rejoining the huddle. It was second and six. That wasn't so bad. You couldn't complain about second and six. "Well," I said to the man on my left. "Shut up," he told me. I did.
Then it began.
There is a special way that a skilled woodsman attacks a tree. He works, it appears, without effort, and when he swings his ax, he swings it slowly, so slowly that there is a moment, as metal touches wood, when it almost seems as though the wood stands a chance; as though the ax, instead of cutting, might bounce away.
So it was as the old man attacked the Cardinal line. He worked, it seemed, without effort. And when he ran, he ran slowly. And when he met the line there was that moment when it almost seemed that the line stood a chance, that the old man might bounce. He didn't, of course. For the Cardinals parted, and the old man battered through, lunging into the secondary, going down after five or six or seven yards beneath that many men. Always it went that way. Time after time, Luckman gave him the ball, and time after time he met the line and the line held for a moment, but then, because they had to, they parted, letting the old man through.
The Bears marched slowly down the field. There was almost quiet in the stands. Occasionally I would look at the man on my left and we would nod, and once I said, "He's very good, Nagurski," and the man said, "Yes." We both knew he was more than very good—he was inevitable.
A powerful legend
Again and again the old man gained. Nothing subtle about him, nothing cute—no cuts, no hip fakes—just power. Just legend trying to get along. The Cardinals dropped him on their 11 and waited, kneeling at the scrimmage line. This time as he charged them they dropped him at the eight, and the play should have been over then. But it wasn't. The old man started to crawl. Clutching the ball, he crawled forward—from the eight to the seven to the six to the five to the three. At the one-yard line they all jumped on top and they stopped him. They piled off wearily now as the old man stood, shook himself and went back to the huddle.
The Cardinals dug in, slapping each other, shouting, building up confidence as they bunched at the center of the scrimmage line, waiting for him, for Nagurski. And he came, and they tried, holding him for that moment before they parted, and he was through, free and clear in the end zone.
After that it wasn't much of a game. The Bears won 35-24, but I doubt that anyone, even the most devout Cardinal fan, was offended. Because Nagurski had performed for us. And for me, at least, he had done a good deal more than perform. He had given me a buffer, mine for the using whenever Spahn blunders or Sugar Ray falls. It isn't easy, being a sports fan; we nurture them, we build them up with care and then the quick young men always betray us. They slow, they age, they cause us pain. But not Nagurski. Not old Bronko. Not then, on that good day.