The Bronko Nagurski Museum
by Randy Snow
Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Monday, July 21, 2014
His very name has become synonymous with hard-nosed football. The kind of football played back in the days when leather helmets ruled the gridiron and two-way players were the order of the day. Bronko Nagurski is a legend in the world of professional football and he helped lead the Chicago Bears to three NFL titles.
He was born just across the U.S. border in Canada, but grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. It is there that you will find the only museum in the country dedicated to a single NFL player, The Bronko Nagurski Museum. Opened in 1993, it is part of the Koochiching County Historical Museum that prides itself on preserving the local history of the area.
Bronko Nagurski played college football at the University of Minnesota. In 1929, he was named an All American at not one, but two different positions; fullback and defensive tackle. (He is the only player ever to do so) Remember, this was a time when players played both ways during the game. He signed with the NFL Chicago Bears and played for them from 1930-1937. He then concentrated on a pro wrestling career that he had begun a few years earlier. He became a world champion in 1937 and continued to wrestle professionally thought 1960.
Nagurski came out of retirement to play one final season of football with the Bears in 1943 at the age of 35. Even though he had not played for six years, he was still instrumental in leading Chicago to another NFL title.
My son, Abram, and I had visited the grave of legendary college football coach John Heisman in Rhinelander, Wisconsin just the day before, so this was going to be our second brush with a football legend in two days.
The first thing you will see when you approach the museum is the giant statue of Nagurski outside the building. Originally, it was on display at the University of Minnesota, and when they did not want it anymore, the museum made arrangements to bring it up to International Falls.
We arrived just as the museum was opening. In fact, the lights had not even been turned on yet when we walked in the door. We were greeted by the museum director, Ed Oerichbauer, who was more than happy to give us a personal tour and to answer our questions.
The tour started out by watching a 15-minute video on the life on Bronko Nagurski, which was very interesting. From there we saw displays not only of his football career, but of his life away from the gridiron in International Falls as well.
There were displays of Bronko hunting and fishing, something he dearly loved to do. Another highlighted his professional wrestling career and the local Pure Oil gas station he ran with his sons from 1960-1969.
He became a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 and his Hall of Fame ring and jacket are on display there, as well as pictures from his playing days with the Chicago Bears. In 1932, he played in the first ever NFL title game against the Portsmouth Spartans. Nagurski threw the game’s only touchdown pass to another Hall of Fame legend, Red Grange, as the Bears won 9-0.
There is also a plaque honoring his induction into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009.
He was even immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp in 2003 along with Walter Camp, Ernie Nevers and Red Grange.
He was never one to brag about his accomplishments on the field or in the ring. So when the local high school wanted to honor him by changing the school mascot from the Purple and Gold to the Bronkos, Nagurski refused. He insisted that if they wanted to change the mascot, they should use a horse and be called the Broncos. And that is what the school did.
If you are ever in the area of International Falls, Minnesota make sure to visit the Bronko Nagurski Museum. His legacy as one of the toughest players ever to don a football uniform is forever preserved in the town that he called home.
The Bronko Nagurski Museum is located at 214 6th Street in International Falls. It is open from 9-5 Monday through Friday. There is a small fee to enter, but it is well worth it.
If you want to visit the grave of Bronko Nagurski, take Highway 53 south of town and turn left on Memorial Drive. The St. Thomas Cemetery is about a half mile down the road on the left. Enter through the second or third entrance and look for Section G in the middle of the cemetery. His grave is right next to the paved road.
There are actually two markers for Nagurski. One is a modern style, grey stone about three feet tall. The other is the flat, original marker that is right in front of the newer stone. His wife, Eileen, is buried next to him.
Their son, Bronko Nagurski, Jr, who played pro football in the Canadian Football League, is also buried in the same cemetery. However, we did not see it in the immediate vicinity of his parents.
You can also visit the official Bronko Nagurski web site at www.BronkoNagurski.com.