By Kyle Kensing
Bronko Nagurski left an impression larger than his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame. His impact is still seen in today's college and professional football landscape, as well as in Sunday's professional wrestling spectacle, WrestleMania.
One of the most celebrated athletes in American history, Nagurski made an indelible impression on collegiate and professional football as a two-way standout for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and later, the Chicago Bears.
"Bronko Nagurski was The Man in Minnesota sports," said Mick Karch, a 30-year wrestling announcing veteran in Minneapolis. "He was a larger-than-life hero to Minnesotans and a source of pride."
Not long after leaving a "larger-than-life" impression in Minnesota, a nation of fans in two avenues, football and wrestling, soon learned of Nagurski's heroics.
University of Minnesota associate athletic communications director Paul Rovnak shared the following passage, written by Grantland Rice in 1947. The iconic sportswriter helped popularize college football in the 20th century's first half, covering the most prominent names of the post-reform era. He labeled Nagurski the greatest of that time.
In my book there is only one when it comes to the best all-around player ... Bronko Nagurski of Minnesota.
In my opinion, the final answer seems to lie in this question: Who would you pick to win a football game -- eleven Jim Thorpes -- eleven Glen Davises -- eleven Ernie Nevers -- eleven Red Granges -- or eleven Bronko Nagurskis? I honestly don't think there would be any contest. The eleven Nagurskis would be a mop-up.
A standout at tackle, fullback and end, his status as an All-American in 1929 at multiple positions -- in a one-platoon era -- puts him on another level from the stars of the 20th century's second half, as well as college football's best of today. Think of his performance in modern terms. Take Derrick Henry, former Alabama running back and 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, then add former Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich, named college football's premier defensive player in the past season. (Not coincidentally, the award Matakevich won bears Nagurski's name.)
Now, throw in Roman Reigns, currently one of professional wrestling's top stars. You've got Bronko Nagurski.
Reigns -- who faces Triple H Sunday at WrestleMania, WWE's flagship event -- exemplifies wrestling's connection with college football, as he won All-ACC honors as defensive tackle Joe Anoa'i at Georgia Tech in 2006. The night before the 32nd edition of WrestleMania, WWE inducted Stan Hansen into its Hall of Fame. Hansen became one of the most celebrated gaijin, or foreigners, in Japanese wrestling, employing the same smash-mouth techniques used as the lineman for West Texas A&M (formerly West Texas State).
From Reigns and Hansen, to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (North Texas) and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (Miami) to Tully Blanchard and Terry Funk (West Texas A&M), football's roots in wrestling run deep. But the lineage starts with Nagurski.
Nagurski began wrestling professionally during his days in the early NFL, moonlighting in the ring during the offseason to supplement his income during the Great Depression.
"His legacy in football translates into his legacy in professional wrestling," said Kyle Klingman, director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Nagurski was inducted into its professional wing in 2009. "Very few people have the ability to be a star in two professions, and Nagurski remains one elite athlete who had the rare skills to make a successful transition."
J.L. Huggins duplicated the level of praise Rice lavished on Nagurski's football skills in a 1937 poem about the two-sport star's wrestling accomplishments.
His name will ring/The World around/Until a better man is found.
The world may still be searching, based on at least one standard. Nagurski's induction into the College Football, Pro Football and George Tragos & Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling halls of fame makes him a rarity among two-sport stars. Even the most notable crossover performers are not often enshrined at the highest level in each of their chosen endeavors.
Now, using the terminology "two-sport" might raise some eyebrows for those unfamiliar with the history. Despite the athleticism necessary to perform, modern-day wrestling is known more for theatrics than for athletics, more spectacle than sport.
However, Nagurski stepped between the ropes in an era when professional wrestling served as a showcase for strength, agility and grappling ability, making it a true athletic endeavor with an entertainment twist.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in his rivalry with arguably the Father of Professional Wrestling, the man whose name graces the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame: Lou Thesz.
"To engage in a series of matches against a renowned athlete like Bronko Nagurski was incredibly important back in the day for both men," Karch said. "For Thesz, it was to solidify his claim that he was the best in the world. For Nagurski, it was to prove that he was not a one-trick pony, that he could transition from the gridiron to the ring and still compete at the very highest level with an elite wrestler. They truly fed off each other, and it was an in-ring matchup for the ages."
Nagurski's name recognition and renowned football ability brought an added intrigue to his bouts, particularly those with the mat technician Thesz.
The 9,000 people who filled Sam Houston Coliseum for their 1939 National Wrestling Association title tilt don't quite compare to the 90,000-plus WWE projects in AT&T Stadium for WrestleMania 32, but those Nagurski-Thesz matches headlined some of wrestling's first huge cards.
"Bronko's notoriety from his football career was a major factor in attracting fans to pro wrestling once he made the transition," Karch said. "When Bronko made his way into professional wrestling, he became a huge gate attraction for many years, not only in his own home state, but throughout the country."
The legacy of Nagurski vs. Thesz resonates in wrestling's top-flight attractions still today. To wit, the championship Nagurski won from Thesz ties into the most prominent wrestling title of the 21st century.
Later incarnations of the National Wrestling Alliance trace history to the version of the NWA title Nagurski held. It later became the "Big Gold Belt," which another former Minnesota Golden Gopher football player, Ric Flair, defended for much of the 1980s. The title Flair famously carried became the top prize of World Championship Wrestling.
WWE owner Vince McMahon's purchase of WCW in 2001 brought the former NWA title under his company's umbrella. It was defended in WWE from 2002 until merging with the current WWE World Heavyweight Championship in 2013.
The belt is a piece of Nagurski's remarkable legacy, featured on wrestling's biggest stage.
* * *
Kyle Kensing is a contributor to Sports on Earth. He is a sports journalist in Southern California and has covered college football and basketball for a variety of outlets in the last decade. Follow Kyle on Twitter@kensing45 for insights on sports, cinema and old Simpsons episodes.