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.
Rainy Lake and Rainy River offer a host of activities for outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year, from fishing and boating to snowmobiling and skiing. The following are some basic – and more obscure – facts about Rainy Lake and the surrounding area.
Rainy Lake is home to Minnesota’s only National Park, Voyageurs, which was established in 1975.
Rainy Lake is a remnant of Lake Agassiz, which was formed as the glaciers retreated north during the last ice age 50,000 to 10,000 years ago.
If International Falls sounds familiar it’s most likely because of a national weather reports referring to the city as “The Icebox of the Nation.”
Impress your friends with these lesser-known facts:
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While fishing, boating and other water activities are often the main attraction on Rainy Lake, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the area by bike. A 12-mile paved trail runs adjacent to Highway 11 from International Falls to the Voyageurs National Park Visitors Center and offers diversions such as ice cream stops, wildlife viewing and even a dip in the lake!
The trail is located just east of the Convention and Visitors Bureau office (301 2nd Avenue), roughly where highway 53 meets highway 11/71 in downtown International Falls. You can park there to begin your eastward journey. This area of the trail features river views on your left, which overlook the community of Fort Frances, Ontario. Note the paper mill at the falls, as well as the wood chips and logs that are piled along the highway before being sent to the mill. Make a stop at the Voyageurs National Park Headquarters (360 Highway 11), where you can enjoy the river views.
Approximately 3 miles west of International Falls is the community of Ranier, marked by a 25-foot statue affectionately known as “Big Vic.” Plan to take time for a detour here. Ranier is a charming village with restaurants, a bar and brewery, as well as an ice cream shop. Chances are good you will see a train, as the Canadian National Railway border crossing in Ranier sees the most railroad cars of any crossing between the U.S. and Canada. This is also where the Rainy Lake flows into the Rainy River, which you can see from the Spruce Street dock. From here, you can either head back to the highway, or bike along County Road 20, which wends through a residential area and past City Beach, where you can cool off with a swim or enjoy a picnic.
Here the bike trail merges with highway 11 for a few miles, while the landscape begins to change. You’ll see some of the only farmland – watch for cranes, geese and deer – as well as an unobstructed view of Rainy Lake at the Jackfish Bay Wayside Park. The trail then turns left at County Road 103 to become enveloped in the wooded landscape.
This part of the trail crosses Tilson Bay, where you can see wild rice growing in the wetlands on the right and Rainy Lake to the left. Stop here to rest on the dock or get in some cross training with a trek on the hiking trail.
Here the trail is on the shoulder of Highway 11, which challenges bikers with a long, gradual uphill climb before again turning to the left and into the woods. Gradual hills make for a fun, not-too-hard ride, while grouse are known to peak out from the underbrush. At the end of the trail, cross Highway 11 to the Rainy Lake Recreation Trail, a wide, paved path that welcomes runners, walkers and bicyclists. Leading to the entrance of Rainy Lake Visitor Center the 1.75-miles include benches for taking a breather while taking in the views of Rainy Lake.