Note: This review is by my husband Jim (as if you won’t be able to tell….), who is a crazed sports fanatic, and who posted this today in honor of the birthdate of Bronko Nagurski on November 3, 1908.
We have a saying in our family, “Never let truth constrain a good story.” Jim Dent might have learned his craft from my father, whose version of any particular historical event always improved with its retelling. In any event, Dent’s version of “the Greatest Comeback Ever,” starring Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski and the 1943 Chicago Bears, is a ripping good tale, related in the exaggerated style of early 20th century sports writing, roughly equivalent to my father’s fourth or fifth telling of a story.
Bronko played fullback and line backer for the Bears at a time when men were really men — players played both offense and defense, and two of his teammates even distained helmets (!), not that the leather versions of the time provided all that much protection. And Bronko was the baddest (and nearly the biggest) member of the rough gangs recruited and exploited to play pro football by the likes of George Halas (Bears), Curley Lambeau (Packers), and George Preston Marshall (Redskins).
Although not nearly as “nifty” a runner as his teammate Red Grange, Bronko was very tough to bring down once he got going. [A “nifty” runner is a “term of art” that means “tricky,” “elusive,” or “subtle,” as opposed to “powerful.”] Dent relates an incident when Nagurski broke several tackles, ran out of bounds, and then collided with and knocked down a policeman’s horse that happened to be standing along the sideline! Bronko himself remembered the hardest hit he sustained as a runner as the time he broke several more tackles, burst over the goal line, only to be stopped short by the brick wall at Wrigley Field’s north end. On returning to the huddle for the extra point try, he reportedly said: “That last guy hit me awfully hard.” Nagurski seems to have run with his head down much of the time.
The NFL players of the 1930’s did not make much money, and Bronko retired from football after playing from 1930-37 to pursue a professional wrestling career. Wrestling wasn’t much of a career either in those days, and so when the Bears called the Bronk in 1943 to supplement their war-depleted roster, he decided to give it another shot. Because his knees and back had undergone substantial deterioration, he felt unable to play fullback, but was still up to contributing as offensive and defensive tackle. The Bears won most of their games that year, but needed a victory against their cross town rivals (the Chicago football Cardinals) in the final game to qualify for the league championship.
The Bears were trailing in the second half, and desperately needed some spark on offense. In the “Greatest Comeback Ever,” Bronko switched back to playing fullback, and ground out the yardage for two winning touchdowns. The following week, he was still at fullback and still unstoppable, leading the Bears to a 41-21 victory over Sammy Baugh and the Washington Redskins for the league championship.
Dent frequently resorts to hyperbole (maybe he forgot that Michael Jordan “came back” to win three championships), but it is all in good fun. I enjoyed reading about some of the not quite star players (Mainiaci, Manders, Osmanski, Musso, and Turner), whose exploits had been the subject of some of my father’s regaling. Most especially, I enjoyed reading about Bronko’s chief rival for best fullback of the era, Clarke Hinkle, who was my father’s college football coach. A perfect book for a 10-16 year old sports nut, and not a bad one for us older fans.
Published by Thomas Dunne Books, 2003