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.
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International Falls, Rainy Lake and Ranier Convention and Visitors Bureau
301 2nd Avenue
International Falls, MN 56649
(800) 325 5766
Select photography by Kallie Kantos