Thursday, March 13, 2008

Minnesota's other NFL team

There's a new movie coming out next month about the very early days of the NFL. It's called Leatherheads, and it stars George Clooney and Renee Zellweger. The synopsis from IMdB reads:

A romantic comedy set in the world of 1920s football, where the owner of a professional team drafts a strait-laced college sensation, only to watch his new coach fall for his fiancée.

Now, I'm not one for romantic comedy, but romantic comedy combined with 1920s professional football? That I could go for. (And on a side note, why does Renee Zellweger always wind up in the pro-football-romantic-comedy movies?)

I try not to read spoilers about a movie that I plan to see before it comes out, so I don't know what team Clooney will play for. It's possible that it will be a team that will be familiar to everyone today, like the Green Bay Packers or New York Giants. To lend it a more exotic feel, it might be a team virtually unknown today, like the Dayton Triangles, Providence Steam Roller, or the powerhouse Canton Bulldogs, who went 26-2-6 from 1921-23 while winning two NFL titles. Looking at the IMdB page, some of the teams mentioned appear to be fictional, so it's possible they won't use real teams at all. That said, my hope is that the movie will center around, or at least feature in some way, one of the most interesting and unique teams ever to play pro football: "The Iron Men of the North," a.k.a. the Duluth Eskimos.

The Eskimos weren't the first NFL team in Minnesota, or even the first in Duluth. The Minneapolis Marines operated, in some capacity, from 1905 to 1924. (The NFL was founded in 1920.) Then came the Duluth Kelleys, which operated from 1923 to 1925 (so that for two seasons, there were actually two NFL teams in Minnesota -- take that, New York!), before giving way to the Eskimos, who operated in 1926 and 1927.

With no less talents than future Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Ernie Nevers (who still holds the record for most points scored in a game, with 40), Walt Kiesling, and Johnny "Blood" McNally on the roster, the Eskimos called Duluth home in name only -- of the team's 29 games (exhibition and league, as in those days, teams often played against non-NFL foes), 28 were on the road. A look at the team's 1926 schedule -- which likely only includes games against NFL teams, which counted in the standings -- shows how brutal the schedule was.

From October 3 to November 28, a span of 56 days, the team played 12 games, all of them on the road, including a brutal week in early October, where they played four games in a week, from the 7th to the 14th. Remember, too, that these totals include games against NFL teams -- according to some sources, the Eskimos played 29 games in 117 days in 1926 -- about one every four days -- with 27 of those games being on the road. Unfortunately for the Eskimos, the innovation of bye weeks were still 64 years distant.

But hey, at least the money was good, at least if you were Ernie Nevers. As the star of the team, he made about $50,000, through a combination of salary and gate receipts. The other 15 players on the team? They received just $75 per game for their many bumps and bruises. If ever a group of players needed Drew Rosenhaus, it was here.

Despite all the hardships, the team managed a respectible 6-5-3 record in NFL games. The 1927 season, however, wasn't nearly as successful. After finishing a 1-8 campaign with a 27-14 loss to the Chicago Bears, and with Nevers leaving the team, owner Ole Haugsrud sold the team but got an unusual concession from the NFL: They promised him that, if the NFL ever returned to Minnesota, he would get the first crack at being the owner of the new franchise. Fast forward 30-some years and there's the 60-year-old Haugsrud, on the scene when the NFL does, in fact, return to Minnesota in the form of the Vikings. And Haugsrud would remain a 10% owner of the team until his death in 1976.

The Duluth Eskimos, like the Kelleys and the Minneapolis Marines before them, stand as little more than an interesting footnote in the history of the NFL. I hope that Leatherheads, even if it doesn't feature the Eskimos directly, makes some allusion to the standards and practices of the NFL in the 20s, bizarre as they would seem today.

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