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Determination pays off, for Eskimos and 'Leatherheads'

They barnstormed across the country for 117 days, logging 17,000 miles and playing as many as five games in a week. They lined up with broken noses, smashed fingers and torn muscles. Their star player threw himself into one game despite a bout of...

They barnstormed across the country for 117 days, logging 17,000 miles and playing as many as five games in a week. They lined up with broken noses, smashed fingers and torn muscles. Their star player threw himself into one game despite a bout of appendicitis.

And in 1926, the Duluth Eskimos saved the National Football League.

If NFL players think they have it rough today, they could consider the true story that inspired George Clooney's movie, "Leatherheads," co-starring Renee Zellweger, which is set in Duluth and opened in theaters nationwide Friday.

On the silver screen, a hotshot college player is recruited to play for Duluth to help save a struggling team. In real life, a hotshot college player named Ernie Nevers was recruited to play for Duluth to help save a struggling NFL.

In those days, teams from places such as Pottsville, Pa., or Rock Island, Ill., would join the league and play for a few years or a few games. Many seasons would end with little matters like who had won the championship under dispute.

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Duluth joined the NFL in 1923, borrowing pigskin balls and leather helmets from local high schools and wearing wool pullover jerseys from the downtown Kelley Hardware store. The "Kelleys" went 9-7 in three seasons, including a home victory over Green Bay that so infuriated the Packers' Curly Lambeau he refused to return to Duluth. But they lost money. Players kicked in as much as $44 each per game to cover expenses. Imagine the Randy Mosses and Terrell Owenses of today being asked to pay to play.

The league wasn't faring much better than the teams, and in 1926 its end seemed imminent. All-American Red Grange graduated from the University of Illinois and helped create a rival league. He and a manager pillaged NFL rosters and signed away college's biggest names, including Notre Dame's famed Four Horsemen. The new league also signed Nevers, a Stanford All-American. Or so it claimed.

In Duluth, Kelleys' owner Ole Haugsrud didn't buy it. He decided to pay a visit to Nevers, his old high school chum from Superior Central. Nevers confirmed he had been offered a contract, but said he hadn't signed it. Haugsrud convinced him to sign with Duluth instead.

Contract in hand, Haugsrud went to the NFL's league meeting and announced the signing. The room erupted with joy. NFL President Joe Carr grabbed Haugsrud's hand, shook it with vigor and announced: "Young man, you've just saved the NFL!"

Haugsrud changed the name of his team to "Ernie Nevers' Duluth Eskimos," and the league, needing to capitalize on Nevers' star power and his ability to fill stadiums, designated Duluth a traveling team. Before Haugsrud left the league meeting, he had lined up a schedule of 29 games -- one in Duluth and 28 on the road, from Portland, Maine, to southern California.

The cross-country trek was so chaotic that players took two showers after games -- the first with their uniforms on to get the mud off. They hung their jerseys out train windows to dry.

In one game, Nevers was penalized 15 yards for "slugging" (he was reportedly retaliating for being choked earlier). Halfback Cobb Rooney spent an evening in a hotel bar in Cleveland wooing a young "lady" -- only to find out she was Harpo Marx in drag. Halfback Johnny "Blood" McNally -- who years later agreed to play for the Packers for $100 per game, despite being offered $110 if he didn't drink after Wednesdays -- outran a German shepherd to settle a bet with the owner of a speakeasy.

"[There's] such a rich history here," Zellweger said in Duluth last week during a whistle stop to promote the film.

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"There's something really fun about the small towns [of the early NFL]," added Clooney, who also directed the movie. "This one just seemed to have much larger, deeper roots, and I think that's why the original screenplay was written [about Duluth]."

Those may have been words to promote a movie, but don't just listen to the actors. The Eskimos -- called the Bulldogs in the film -- were the NFL's "greatest road team," according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Chicago Bears' George "Papa Bear" Halas took the accolades further, calling them "the greatest football team ever put together."

However great their legacy, they brought legitimacy, attention and much-needed gate receipts to an NFL in its infancy.

And whatever happened to Red Grange's league? It folded after one season. Does anyone even remember the Philadelphia Quakers, the league's lone champion?

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor and the author of "Leatherheads of the North: The True Story of Ernie Nevers and the Duluth Eskimos."

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