In 1943 everything was scarce—beef, tin and football tackles, too. So George Halas lured the old man down from International Falls as a defensive replacement. It made a nice story for the dailies, and it thrilled me, for though I had never seen him I was a Chicago Bear fan and he had been the greatest Bear of all—the legendary Bronko Nagurski. I was 10 then, so legends came easy.
The season began, and he played tackle as advertised—well enough, I suppose, and the Bears did well enough, too, but they were expected to win (it was that era) and win easily. But they were not winning easily. The last game of the season was against the old Chicago Cardinals, and the Bears had to win it. If they did, they would be division champions. There were rumors before the game that Nagurski might play fullback, but for part of the first half he played tackle. It was not for Bear fans, that first half. The Cardinals were splendid; not so our side, and at the end of the third quarter the score was 24-14 against the Bears.
I was fumbling through my program when the sound began.
"Bronko," the sound said, "Bronko." And as he moved slowly from the bench into the offensive backfield, the sound grew louder and louder. The man to my left yelled at me, "Now you'll see something—you wait—now you'll see," and I nodded and smiled, because I never wanted to see something so much in my life. Nagurski joined the huddle, and when the Bears broke and approached the line the sound abruptly died.
" 'Course, he's old," the man to my left muttered. "You gotta remember that. But even if he does badly, he was the best."
"He won't," I said. "He won't!"
"He's awful old," the man said.
Sid Luckman was quarterback. That is a statement of fact. All the others—Cecil Isbell, Bob Waterfield, even Sammy Baugh—they only played quarterback. And in all the years that I watched him Luckman called only one stupid play, and this was that play. Because everyone knew the ball was going to Nagurski, everyone was ready for it, particularly the Cardinals. He should have tried a pass, old Sidney, or a halfback around the end—anything but the obvious. But no. The ball was snapped, and he turned and he gave it to the Bronk, and no hole opened. So there he was, Nagurski with the ball, Nagurski at the line of scrimmage, with only the Cardinals for company. They met him, caught him, lifted him high in the air.
Furious, I looked away.
I hated the Cardinals for smearing him, and I hated Luckman for turning suddenly stupid after all those years, and I hated Halas for sending the old man in to play. But most of all I hated the old man for playing. What right did he have, doing this to me? Wasn't I a worshiper? Didn't I blindly believe? Hadn't I treasured the legend? Nagurski in college, considered for All-America at both tackle and fullback; Nagurski the pro, leading the Bears to an undefeated season in 1934, blocking so fiercely for Halfback Beattie Feathers that Feathers swept around end for 1,004 yards in 117 carries; Nagurski breaking into tears late in a game after his fumble had put the Bears behind with only seconds left to play and begging in the huddle for one last chance to carry the ball, and then, tears streaming down his face, running 75 yards through the mud for the winning touchdown as the final gun sounded. Oh, I knew the legend, all right, but that legend had been born in the '20s, reached full size in the middle '30s and it was the '40s now, and I hated him for mocking it, destroying it before my eyes, for making me a fool.