When the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers renew their border rivalry Sunday at Lambeau Field, it will mark the 94th meeting between the two teams, each with rich histories.
But if Duluth hadn't fielded an NFL team during the 1920s with its All-American superstar Ernie Nevers, it's quite possible that Purple People Eaters and Cheeseheads would not exist today. That's just one of the revelations in Chuck Frederick's new book, "Leatherheads of the North," named after the leather helmets football players wore back then.
Frederick, who is the deputy editorial page editor for the News Tribune, loves to dig into Duluth's history, so he jumped at the chance to write a book about one of his favorite subjects -- the Duluth Eskimos.
"It's just mind-boggling that Duluth had an NFL team," Frederick said. "It's a wonderful piece of Duluth's past."
Nevers and the fledgling Duluth Eskimos barnstormed across the country in 1926-27, playing an incredible 29 games (13 regular-season and 16 exhibition contests) in just four months. They logged 17,000 miles during their travels and played only one home game because of Duluth's reputation for frigid weather. Long before anyone invented fantasy football, Nevers would have been the top pick in every fantasy football draft. He once scored 40 points in a game -- still an NFL record.
Then-NFL president Joe Carr said that Nevers signing with the Eskimos as their showcase player "saved the NFL" when its existence was threatened by Red Grange's rival league. George Halas, the legendary coach/owner of the Chicago Bears, said the Eskimos were "the greatest football team ever put together."
This glamorous history attracted the attention of Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, who penned a screenplay based on that incredible team. The movie, starring George Clooney and Renee Zellweger, will hit silver screens early next year.
That prompted Tony Dierckins, owner of Duluth's X-Communication, to ask Frederick to write a book about the Eskimos, since no other comprehensive work about the team existed. And since Hollywood often takes artistic liberties with historical material, Dierckins and Frederick wanted to produce an authentic retelling of the team's tales.
"Once this fictitious [movie] comes out, the natural question is, "Well, what's the real story,'" Frederick said. "It's a fun story."
It's also a somewhat murky story. Although the NFL does a superb job of preserving and romanticizing its history, the Duluth Eskimos' chapter of the past occurred so long ago that you won't be able to find an NFL Films documentary showing Nevers scampering downfield for a touchdown with John Facenda's oration and Sam Spence's music setting the scene and instilling the nostalgia.
No, the memories of that team from the late 1920s are fading as quickly as the ink and paper that originally preserved those memories. The recollections are getting fuzzier than the photographs remaining from that time. That makes Frederick's work not only entertaining, but also important to Duluth's history buffs.
Much of Frederick's time researching the book was spent on the third floor of the News Tribune, studying miles of microfilm to read game stories and other first-hand accounts about the Eskimos. Frederick carefully double- and triple-checked the facts before they were included in the book. Along the way, he often encountered obstacles such as reporting errors, unreliable eyewitnesses, fuzzy memories and embellishments.
"One of the surprising things was how much misinformation is out there," Frederick said. "There was a lot of double-checking and verifying. As I say in the introduction, if it didn't meet the standard or stand up, I left it out."
But what does stand up for the record is a fascinating story.
"I didn't know a lot of these great stories -- like Ernie Nevers' Rose Bowl game against the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame," Frederick said of the Stanford standout. "He played on two broken ankles and nearly outrushed the entire Notre Dame team. His coach went into his garage and got some rubber tubing and plywood and made some makeshift casts for his feet so that he could walk."
Unlike today's NFL rosters that include players from all over the country, the Eskimos featured true Twin Ports talent. Team owner Ole Haugsrud and Nevers hailed from Superior. They attended and played on the powerful Superior Central athletic teams of the day. Duluth's Wally Gilbert earned his fame as a third baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he once drop-kicked a 61-yard field goal. Many other players also had Duluth-area roots.
Other gems in the book include:
* The Eskimo players used to hang their uniforms out of train windows to dry them because they were always in a hurry during their barnstorming days.
* "One fire department in another city hosed down the field to try to slow down Ernie Nevers," Frederick said. "They made the field sloppy wet."
* Three members of that team made the NFL's Hall of Fame: Nevers, Walt Kiesling and Johnny "Blood" McNally.
* McNally once fell head-over-heels for a gorgeous woman he met in a Cleveland hotel. She turned out to be Harpo Marx in drag.
* The Eskimos were the first NFL team to put logos on their uniforms or conduct a preseason training camp.
* The team originally was sponsored by Kelley-Duluth Hardware and called the Kelleys before becoming the Eskimos.
* An appendix of rosters and records for the Eskimos and Kelleys.
* Game photos
Frederick said he hopes readers will enjoy learning about the Duluth Eskimos as much as he did while working on the book.
"I hope they learn a little bit about Duluth and this chapter of Duluth's history," Frederick said. "And I hope they learn a little bit about the way the game has changed over the years. Football and the NFL is a huge business now, but it wasn't always like that. I hope they really appreciate the role Duluth played in keeping the NFL afloat."
Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (218) 723-5317.