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When $4,000 Was Big Money
John Garrity
December 04, 2000
George Gibson, 95, played with Nagurski and Grange in the early days of the NFL
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December 04, 2000

When $4,000 Was Big Money

George Gibson, 95, played with Nagurski and Grange in the early days of the NFL

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George Gibson's offices in I Midland, Texas, are like those of any successful oil-industry geologist, but visitors inevitably do a double take at the framed photos of Gibson in a leather helmet and three-point stance—particularly the publicity photo from 1926 that shows Babe Ruth snapping a football from the middle of the University of Minnesota line. It's also hard to ignore the old poster outside Gibson's office, the one for the 1930 Warner Brothers movie Maybe It's Love, starring Joe E. Brown, Joan Bennett and members of the 1928 All-America football team. Gibson, the star guard and captain of the '28 Minnesota Gophers and the Sigma Chi roommate of Bronko Nagurski, is pictured in uniform with the other All-Stars: third from the left, front row.

"I got $125 a week and expenses to help make that movie," says Gibson. "After three weeks in Hollywood, I told the producer that I had to get back to school to graduate. He said, 'We haven't started yet!' But he promised me if I'd stay another week, he'd send me back by 'transcontinental air transport.' " Gibson laughs. "That's what they called air travel in those days. L.A. to New York in 48 hours!"

Travel has sped up in the last 70 years, but Gibson, 95, is keeping pace. One of the oldest surviving veterans of the National Football League, he works in his office every weekday, lunches regularly at the Midland Petroleum Club and holds doors open for men and women half his age. Hearing aids allow him to have normal conversations, and a magnifying projector behind his desk lets him read newspapers and documents. "It's cumbersome," he says of the viewer, "but it's a lifesaver."

Gibson's memory of his college roommate and the early NFL doesn't need enhancement. He remembers Bronko's mother bringing a jar of homemade potato whiskey—this was during Prohibition—when she visited her son at Minnesota. "Nagurski was a very mild, quiet individual," Gibson recalls. "He was smart. I had a sociology class with him. I always thought he was kind of lazy, but that's the way a lot of those star athletes are. He never did too much in practice, but in a game he was quite an athlete."

Gibson was hired for the fall of 1930 to coach and play for the Minneapolis Red Jackets, a team of local stars augmented by four players from California whom he had met in Hollywood. "I got paid $3,900 for the season, and that was good money for 1930," Gibson says. "If we couldn't play, we didn't get paid."

Sometimes you would play and still not get paid. The morning after the Red Jackets lost 20-7 to the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field, management announced that the team was suspending operation. Gibson was immediately hired as player-coach of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, in Philadelphia, forerunners of the Eagles, with the understanding that his new team would play a full schedule plus, when possible, the East Coast games of the defunct Minneapolis team plus two charity exhibition games. "Every time we'd play on Saturday, we'd get the hell beat out of us on Sunday," Gibson recalls.

On Dec. 6 the Yellow Jackets played the New York Giants in Frankford, then got on a train in their uniforms for an overnight ride to Portsmouth, Ohio. On Sunday morning the smelly players piled out of their Pullman car and were bused to the stadium where they played the Spartans (forerunners of the Detroit Lions). "Got the hell beat out of us again," Gibson says.

In those days the game was different. The players were different, too. Many, like Gibson, were playing to pay for their educations. "No one complained about the pay or the conditions," Gibson says. "The Great Depression was on. We were tickled just to have a job."

Gibson made All-Pro in 1930, but the Yellow Jackets folded the next year, and he turned down offers to play for Green Bay and Portsmouth. He returned to Minnesota to earn his Ph.D., then embarked on a career as a petroleum geologist. "It doesn't sound as exciting as football," he says. "But it's a thrill if you've worked up the play for a field: You drill the first well and you hit."

The oil game provided Gibson with the means to endow the Gibson Chair in Hydro-geology at his alma mater and to contribute $600,000 for the school's Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. "I'm grateful to the university for pushing me along," he said before a recent trip to Minneapolis for homecoming. "My message to the scholarship kids is always, 'Be greedy. Suck up all the education you can.' "