At the Pro Football hall of Fame's 10th anniversary celebration, in August 1973, charter members Ernie Nevers and Johnny Blood agreed that owners shouldn't be enshrined—at least not on the same footing as players and coaches. "But," Blood said, "if they are going to include owners, Ole Haugsrud should be here. He did more [for the NFL] than Dan Reeves, Charlie Bidwill and Lamar Hunt combined."
"Amen," said Nevers.
Just a year earlier, Haugsrud—a white-haired, gnomish man with a perpetual twinkle in his eye—had reminisced with Blood about the saga of " Ernie Nevers's Duluth Eskimos," a team whose 1926 season started in October and stretched into '27. The Eskimos played 29 games in 117 days, and 27 were on the road. They had a 6-5-2 NFL season record, and their overall record (including exhibitions) was 17-9-3. In one eight-day period they played in five different cities, from St. Louis to New York. And they did it all with a roster of just 16 players.
Nevers was the star of the Eskimos, and he earned more than $50,000 for that endless season—a base salary of $15,000 plus a share of gate receipts. The other 15 Eskimos were paid $75 per game.
Since its beginning in 1923, Duluth's NFL franchise had been a kind of cooperative. The players chipped in to pay expenses and hoped to share profits. But in 1925 the players lost up to $33 apiece per game, so they asked Haugsrud, the team's secretary/treasurer/volunteer bookkeeper, to take over as owner along with Dewey Scanlon, the player/coach. To make it legal, the two men paid a dollar for the team.
The entire NFL faced its first big threat at that time, from the American Football League, which had been organized in 1926 by C.C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle, Red Grange's manager. Grange, who had drawn big crowds on a barnstorming tour with the Chicago Bears in 1925, was the headliner for the AFL's New York Yankees. During the summer of '26, Pyle spread the word that he had also signed All-America fullback Nevers, of Stanford, the only player who could possibly draw as well as Grange.
Nevers was pitching for the St. Louis Browns at the time, and Haugsrud went to visit him. They had been high school classmates in Superior, Wis., Duluth's sister city. Nevers said he hadn't signed Pyle's contract and would rather play for the Eskimos, if Haugsrud would match Pyle's offer. Haugsrud agreed.
When Haugsrud unveiled his contract with Nevers at the NFL's scheduling meeting, league president Joe Carr rushed over to shake his hand. "Young man," Carr said with emotion, "you've just saved the National Football League."
While owners were now eager to play the Eskimos, they didn't want to take their teams to Duluth, where the cold weather and the lack of a good stadium would dilute Nevers's appeal. Scanlon and Haugsrud agreed that their team would play just two home games, and they got a stiff price in return—a guarantee of $4,000 a game, plus a cut of gate receipts over $8,000. To their regular schedule they added 10 postseason exhibitions on the West Coast, where Nevers was especially popular.
The Eskimos were the first professional team to have an out-of-town training camp, at Two Harbors, about 25 miles northeast of Duluth. They were also the first to have a distinctive emblem: A large white igloo and the team name were emblazoned on the players' coats and luggage.