In the new book. Leatherheads of the North, author Chuck Frederick tells the story of one of the early teams in the National Football League, the 1926-27 Duluth Eskimos. The Eskimos and their star player, Ernie Nevers, barnstormed their way across the country, playing 29 games during the 1926 season, with 28 of those games being played on the road.

The NFL was a fairly new league at the time. It was born in 1920 and was originally known as the American Professional Football League. Football great Jim Thorpe was its first president. The name was changed to the National Football League in 1922.

From 1923-1925, the NFL team in Duluth, Minnesota was simply known as Kelley-Duluth because it was owned, in part, by Michael Hugh Kelley, the owner of the local Kelley Hardware store.

When the Kelley-Duluth team was putting together its first roster in 1923, many players came from a semi-pro league organized by the local shipyard workers. One of those shipyard workers was Harry Grant, whose son, Bud Grant, would one day become the head coach of another NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings.

The Kelley-Duluth team posted a 4-3 record in 1923 and was 5-1 in 1924. However, in 1925, the team had a hard time finding opponents to fill out its schedule and only played three games. (In those days, it was up to the individual teams to schedule their own opponents.) They lost all three of their games in 1925.

Late in the 1925 NFL season, George Halas signed college football superstar Red Grange from the University of Illinois to play for his Chicago Bears. The signing produced sellout crowds wherever the Bears played and brought the NFL from sports obscurity to national attention. Until Grange signed on with the Bears, pro football was seen as a fad and very much inferior to the more highly popular college game. Legendary University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg even declared once that if any of his former college players went on to play professional football, he would revoke their varsity letters!

Grange was the highest paid player in the league at the time. But after the 1925 season was over, Grange wanted even more money to return to the Bears in 1926. He and his agent, C.C. Pyle, were looking for a five-figure salary and a one-third ownership in the team. Halas refused.

Grange and Pyle then went out and secured a lease to play in New York´s Yankee Stadium and asked the NFL to grant them an expansion team. The league already had a team in town, the New York Giants, so his request was denied.

Since they already had a lease, Grange and Pyle decided to form a rival league to the NFL. They called it the American Football League. Grange would play for his own team, the New York Yankees.

Losing their most marketable star and now having a rival league to deal with, the NFL needed to do something that would keep fans interested in the league.

In 1926, Ole Haugsrud assumed co-ownership of the Kelley-Duluth team. Haugsrud saw what signing a player like Red Grange could do to bring fans out to the games, so one of the first things he did as the new owner was to sign Ernie Nevers to a contract. Haugsrud and Nevers had been friends ever since they attended high school together in Superior, Wisconsin, just south of Duluth.

Nevers was a college football All-American out of Stanford who also appeared in Hollywood movies, mostly westerns. He played linebacker and running back and was also a kicker and punter. His coach at Stanford was Pop Warner, who had also coached Jim Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania years earlier. Warner considered Nevers to be an even better football player that Thorpe.

After announcing at the NFL owners meeting in Chicago in August of 1926 that he had signed Nevers to his team, Haugsrud had no trouble finding teams to fill out his 1926 schedule. He also changed the name of the team to the Ernie Nevers´ Eskimos. He left the meeting with a schedule that consisted of 14 league games. He also scheduled another 15 exhibition games against teams that were not members on the NFL at the time. (The NFL referred to the team as the Duluth Eskimos, but the team´s equipment cases and their sideline coats proudly featured the words, "Ernie Nevers´ Eskimos, Duluth.") The addition of a college superstar like Nevers was considered by many as a move that single-handedly saved the NFL.

Because of the bad reputation that pro football had in the 1920´s, many players used assumed names to play pro football. Some even played for their college team on Saturdays and then suited up for a pro team in another city on Sunday using their fictitious names. In fact, in one game, the University of Michigan team donned the uniforms of the NFL Detroit Heralds and took on the Toledo Mudhens, which was made up of players from Ohio State University.

The Eskimos had one such player on their team as well, John Victor McNally. He played under the name Johnny Blood so he wouldn´t lose the one year of college eligibility that he still had. McNally came up with the name after driving past a movie theater one day that was showing a new Rudolph Valentino movie titled, "Blood and Sand."