A larger-than-life bucking bronco is painted on the outside of Falls High, a symbol of the school’s proud sports history and homage to a hometown hero who made a name for himself in the National Football League and as a professional wrestler.
Bronislau Nagurski was born on November 3, 1908, in Rainy River, Ontario. “Bronko,” as he came to be known, moved to International Falls with his family when he was five years old. It was while plowing his father’s fields that he was discovered and by the University of Minnesota head football coach. According to legend, the coach asked Bronko for directions, and Bronko responded by picking up a plow to point the way.
While at the U of M from 1927 to 1929, Bronko played four positions and was named All-America at both fullback and tackle. He proved himself as a physical player not afraid of using his impressive size and strength to make big plays. "I always used my strength in football,” Bronko is quoted as saying on the Pro Football Hall of Fame website. “I liked to meet guys head-on when I was carrying the ball. Then I’d drop my shoulder, and catch him with that, and then brush him off with my arm. It worked - most of the time.” Bronko was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
Bronko continued his football career – and reputation for brute strength – by playing for the Chicago Bears from 1930 to 1937. During this time, he helped the Bears win several division titles and two NFL championships. A famous sportswriter of the day, Grantland Rice, wrote, "Who would you pick to win a football game - 11 Jim Thorpes - 11 Glen Davises - 11 Red Granges - or 11 Bronko Nagurskis? The 11 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 (98 kg) of authority to back him up."
The largest running back of his time, Bronko was bigger than most linemen of the day. He has the largest recorded NFL Championship ring size at 19½ and wore a size-8 helmet. A legendary tale of Bronko’s physical toughness holds that he charged through a group of defenders and hit the wall at Wrigley Field. On returning to the bench, he told Coach Halas, "That last guy gave me quite a lick!" Bronko’s pro career stats include 9 seasons; 4,031 combined yards; and 5 all-NFL selections.
In 1938, when Bronko was refused a pay raise to $6,500 he retired from football and became a professional wrestler. He was recognized as a multiple-time World Heavyweight Champion before returning to the Bears in 1943, at the age of 35, when the demands of World War II left the team short. In the NFL title game against the Washington Redskins that year, Bronko ended his career by scoring the game-winning touchdown. He was an inaugural inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1951.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame website says about Bronko: “Never fancy, he just ran straight ahead, over and through the opposition. Although he is best remembered for his bull-like running, he had no peer as a blocker and his tackling was as effective as any the game has seen. He was the complete player.”
After his retirement from wrestling, he returned home to International Falls and opened a service station. A local legend claims that Nagurski had the best repeat business in town because he would screw customers' gas caps down so tight after filling their tanks that no one else in town could unscrew them. He retired from that in 1978, at the age of seventy, and lived out a quiet life on the shores of Rainy Lake until his death in 1990.
Fall fishing on Rainy River, along the Minnesota/Ontario border, is considered a legendary North American fishing destination, especially for anglers who favor walleye. From the end of September into early October, millions of emerald shiners begin their run up the Rainy River from Lake of the Woods, and hungry walleye follow in droves. This influx of walleye makes for fun – and productive – days in the boat.
Walleye aren’t the only fish that draw autumn anglers to the Minnesota/Ontario border waters. Lower water levels and cooler temps make it an ideal place to catch feisty northern pike, crappie, perch, swift small mouth bass and huge lake sturgeon. Each fish brings its own bite, fight and challenge to the Rainy River fall fishing experience.
The ancient lake sturgeon cruising the river bottom are one of the most thrilling to catch on the river. The largest species of fish in Minnesota, some have been estimated to be up to 150 years old. Through September 30, anglers can keep one sturgeon within the size limit. October 1 through April is catch-and-release only, although most anglers hunt sturgeon for the sheer thrill of landing a prehistoric monster to brag about for generations. In fact, the Minnesota state record lake sturgeon was caught on Rainy River in 2018. The DNR certified fish was 73 inches long, just an inch over 6 feet!
Rainy River is easy to access, with multiple boat landings as you travel west along Highway 11. Be mindful that because the US/Canadian border is in the middle of Rainy River, it’s important to be aware of your position and prepared with the proper licensing and permits for both sides of the border. If you want to fish freely across the border on Rainy River, the Canada Border Services Agency has details.
The variety of fish, cool temperatures and fewer boats make Rainy River a premier Fall fishing destination. The river is a great spot to take in the changing fall foliage, between bites and to enjoy the beauty of the season.
Minnesota offers some of the best grouse hunting in the country with 11 million acres of public hunting land, 528 designated hunting areas in the ruffed grouse range covering nearly 1 million acres, more than 40 designated ruffed grouse management areas and 600 miles of hunter walking trails.
Koochiching Country and the area surrounding Rainy Lake is one of the few places where all three of the state’s native grouse species reside. Sharp-tailed, ruffed and spruce grouse are all plentiful here, making hunters’ chances of success high: even in down years of the grouse population's cycle, Kooch forests and fields fairly hum with grouse activity.
According to DNR records, Minnesota hunters annually harvest about 10,000 to 20,000 spruce grouse and an average of 500,000 ruffed grouse. In addition to a sturdy pair of waterproof boots, a blaze orange hat and vest and a shotgun, all you need to hunt grouse in Minnesota is a valid small game license. Check the DNR website for season information.