Our view: Ole Haugsrud 'saved the NFL' -- but isn't in hall of fame

The National Football League was in trouble. In 1926, college ball was revered and the pro game sneered. And not even Red Grange was going to help. The "Galloping Ghost" was galloping across the country, packing stadiums with fans eager to see th...

Ole Haugsrud

The National Football League was in trouble. In 1926, college ball was revered and the pro game sneered. And not even Red Grange was going to help. The "Galloping Ghost" was galloping across the country, packing stadiums with fans eager to see the gridiron phenom, freshly graduated from the University of Illinois. But Grange wasn't running to the NFL. He wanted to. He and his manager leased Yankee Stadium and petitioned the league for a new franchise. But with the Giants already in New York, the NFL turned away Grange -- who turned around and created his own league. It immediately started plucking talent from NFL rosters and signing the biggest names in college. The NFL was doomed. Until a savior emerged.

The savior was Ole Haugsrud. What the Duluthian was able to pull off would cause NFL President Joe Carr to embrace him and announce that, "Young man, you've just saved the NFL." And what Haugsrud was able to do after that would give the league momentum to carry it through the

darkest days of the Great Depression.

Inexplicably, however, Haugsrud is not a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He's been passed over by the game's highest honor, including in 1973, when he was a finalist.

But he hasn't been forgotten. This year, the News Tribune -- joined, we hope, by throngs of others from the Northland and elsewhere -- is nominating Haugsrud for induction in the hall as a senior member.


Let the campaign begin. Let's assure that selectors have a hard time ignoring the

contributions made by Haugsrud and his lifelong association with the NFL -- from its pioneering days to its era of Purple People Eaters.

If there was anyone who could fill stadium seats like Grange, Haugsrud decided that summer of 1926, it was Ernie Nevers, his old classmate and teammate at Superior Central High School. Nevers was the star. Haugsrud was the "tackling dummy" for the regulars, as he often described himself.

After high school, Nevers became an All-American at Stanford University in California. He nearly outrushed the entire Notre Dame team in one of the most thrilling Rose Bowls ever played. And he did it on two broken legs. He signed to pitch that summer of 1926 for baseball's St. Louis Browns. He also, according to Grange and his manager, signed to play football in the fall for their new league.

In Duluth, Haugsrud wasn't buying it. He had volunteered after high school to help run the NFL team sponsored by the downtown Duluth Kelley Hardware store. He had purchased the franchise for $1 from its players, who struggled to make ends meet. Haugsrud drove to St. Louis, and sure enough: Nevers had a contract from Grange but hadn't signed it. Haugsrud offered similar money and was able to land for the NFL the star it

desperately needed.

In Chicago, at the NFL owners' meeting, Haugsrud announced his coup, prompting the league president's proclamation and sparking cheers from around the room. Haugsrud renamed his team: "Ernie Nevers' Duluth Eskimos." And the league designated Duluth a traveling club. Why have the drawing power of Nevers fill Duluth's rickety Athletic Park when it could be filling Chicago's spacious Comiskey Park or New York's cavernous Polo Grounds?

And that's just what Nevers and the Eskimos did. They barnstormed the country for 117 days, logging 17,000 miles from Duluth to Milwaukee to Pennsylvania to Southern California. They played 29 league and exhibition games, only one of them in their hometown. They played as often as five times a week, lining up with broken noses, smashed fingers and torn muscles. Nevers once put himself into a game despite a bout of appendicitis. He had to, he argued. His team was behind.


A cross-country trek for the ages, the trip was sometimes so chaotic players had to hang their washed jerseys out train windows to dry. In one game, Nevers was penalized 15 yards for "slugging." He reportedly was retaliating for being choked. 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 outran a German shepherd to settle a bet with the owner of a speakeasy.

Duluth's gridders piled up stories -- and a following. Decked out in flamboyant knee-length Mackinaw jackets, they were met like rock stars at train stations. Uniformed in jerseys that featured large, unmistakable igloo logos, they were the center of curiosity and enthusiasm at every game.

Led by Haugsrud -- invented by Haugsrud, really -- the Eskimos gave the NFL the jolt it needed. The Grange league folded, and the National Football League thrived on its newfound legitimacy and notoriety -- and with its legions of new fans. The followers provided the foundation for what today is a religious-like fanaticism and multimillion-dollar industry.

And Haugsrud still isn't in the Hall of Fame -- not even after becoming a founder of the Minnesota Vikings 3½ decades later.

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