I looked back on the field, and he had gained four yards.
I wasn't quite sure how, but evidently his weight had been too much and the Cardinals had fallen backward, carrying him with them as they dropped, tangled, to the ground. Nagurski finally stood up and shook himself once before rejoining the huddle. It was second and six. That wasn't so bad. You couldn't complain about second and six. "Well," I said to the man on my left. "Shut up," he told me. I did.
Then it began.
There is a special way that a skilled woodsman attacks a tree. He works, it appears, without effort, and when he swings his ax, he swings it slowly, so slowly that there is a moment, as metal touches wood, when it almost seems as though the wood stands a chance; as though the ax, instead of cutting, might bounce away.
So it was as the old man attacked the Cardinal line. He worked, it seemed, without effort. And when he ran, he ran slowly. And when he met the line there was that moment when it almost seemed that the line stood a chance, that the old man might bounce. He didn't, of course. For the Cardinals parted, and the old man battered through, lunging into the secondary, going down after five or six or seven yards beneath that many men. Always it went that way. Time after time, Luckman gave him the ball, and time after time he met the line and the line held for a moment, but then, because they had to, they parted, letting the old man through.
The Bears marched slowly down the field. There was almost quiet in the stands. Occasionally I would look at the man on my left and we would nod, and once I said, "He's very good, Nagurski," and the man said, "Yes." We both knew he was more than very good—he was inevitable.
A powerful legend
Again and again the old man gained. Nothing subtle about him, nothing cute—no cuts, no hip fakes—just power. Just legend trying to get along. The Cardinals dropped him on their 11 and waited, kneeling at the scrimmage line. This time as he charged them they dropped him at the eight, and the play should have been over then. But it wasn't. The old man started to crawl. Clutching the ball, he crawled forward—from the eight to the seven to the six to the five to the three. At the one-yard line they all jumped on top and they stopped him. They piled off wearily now as the old man stood, shook himself and went back to the huddle.
The Cardinals dug in, slapping each other, shouting, building up confidence as they bunched at the center of the scrimmage line, waiting for him, for Nagurski. And he came, and they tried, holding him for that moment before they parted, and he was through, free and clear in the end zone.
After that it wasn't much of a game. The Bears won 35-24, but I doubt that anyone, even the most devout Cardinal fan, was offended. Because Nagurski had performed for us. And for me, at least, he had done a good deal more than perform. He had given me a buffer, mine for the using whenever Spahn blunders or Sugar Ray falls. It isn't easy, being a sports fan; we nurture them, we build them up with care and then the quick young men always betray us. They slow, they age, they cause us pain. But not Nagurski. Not old Bronko. Not then, on that good day.