Name: Bronko Nagurski
Year Inducted: 2011
There are football players turned wrestlers, and then there is Bronko Nagurski. For all the successes achieved by others on the gridiron, none were superstars in college — and the pros — like Nagurski was. His jump into the squared circle in 1933 did a lot to popularize professional wrestling as a legitimate career choice.
Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski was born in 1908 in the small border town of Rainy River, Ontario. He grew up an athlete in Minnesota, having to run four miles each day to school and back to the family farm, where he lived with his parents and three siblings. He loved wrestling and boxing as a teen, but his mother tried to dissuade him, frightened that he might get hurt.
But Bronko wouldn’t be stopped. He was an All-American at the University of Minnesota from 1927 to 1929, and was the only player in U.S. college history to make all-star at two positions — fullback and tackle. In 1930, he was signed by George Halas to the Chicago Bears, and helped the Bears to championships in 1932 and 1933. In 2010, he came in at No. 19 in the NFL Network’s 100 Greatest NFL Players of All-Time program.
New York Giants coach Steve Owen once said “The only way to stop him is to shoot him before he leaves the clubhouse,” and that “Bronko runs his own interference.” Another player, Ernie Nevers, once said, “Tackling Bronko was like trying to stop a freight train running downhill.”
“The Bronk” first tried wrestling in 1933 after the football season ended. For most of his career he was managed / handled by Minnesota’s Tony Stecher, brother and manager of former world champion Joe Stecher, and himself a lightweight wrestler.
As a grappler, Nagurski hit his peak during the late ’30s, early ’40s, when he held the NWA World title twice, beating Lou Thesz June 23, 1939 for his first win. Nagurski would lose the title to Ray Steele March 7, 1940, and regain it from Steele a year later on March 11, 1941. Sandor Szabo finally took the gold from Nagurksi on June 5, 1941.
Stu Hart remembered Nagurski. “He was a pretty big draw. He was pretty tough to bring down in wrestling. He wasn’t that fancy a wrestler either. But he was good enough to be recognized as world’s champion.” In action, historian James C. Melby wrote that he couldn’t always control himself. “Bronko chewed people up in the ring, often hitting them so hard that men such as Abe Kashey almost had their careers ended legit after getting hit with a Nagurski shoulderblock.”
Nagurski retired from wrestling in 1960 a physical wreck, and for the last years of his life, he ran a gas station in International Falls, Minnesota. He died January 8, 1990.
— Greg Oliver