Late in a game against the Green Bay Packers, the home team from Duluth, Minnesota—named for the hardware store that provided their red-and-white uniforms—trailed 0–6.
Time for a bit of trickery, the Kelley-Duluth team decided, even though anything other than a straight-ahead running play was considered reckless and unheard-of during the smash-mouth early days of the National Football League.
Quarterback Doc Kelly pulled aside one of his linemen, Howard Kiley, a native of Michigan. At 200 pounds, Kiley was considered a large man by early 1920s NFL standards. All day, he had been doing battle in the trenches against an even larger man, Green Bay’s Cub Buck, who weighed 259 pounds. Kiley had to have been at least a little puzzled by Kelly’s instructions.
“Line up eligible” to receive the ball, the quarterback said. “Cut in behind Buck [after he rushes in], and I’ll lob you a pass.” Kiley did as he was told, and the ball floated from the backfield and over the top of the charging Packers’ tackle just as Kelly promised.
Kiley “caught the ball and took off down the sidelines,” Duluth’s legendary team owner Ole Haugsrud said, telling the story nearly thirty years later to Duluth News Tribune sportswriter Bruce Bennett. If Kiley scored, the team could take the game.
“But that wasn’t enough for this big, good-natured guy,” Haugsrud continued. “In those days, fans used to line up right along the sidelines to watch the game. Space in the grandstands was limited. As Kiley ran, he spotted, among the sideline spectators, Scotty Macaulay, for whom he did some boxing and wrestling around Duluth in the off-season.
“Kiley was quite a character. The fact that it was a close game and he was bound with the winning touchdown was no matter,” Haugsrud said. “He paused momentarily, long enough to thumb his nose at Macaulay, before continuing on to score.” The Kelleys won 7-6.
A great story. The early days of professional football are filled with such tales. However, as occasionally happens, the story doesn’t completely jibe with official records. In the five years Duluth was a member of the NFL, from 1923 to 1927, its teams—Kelley-Duluth and later the Duluth Eskimos—played the Packers at home only one time, on September 28, 1924. Late in that game, Kelley-Duluth trailed 0–3, not 0–6, as Haugsrud recalled. Perhaps he was remembering some other exhibition or off-the-books non-league game between Green Bay and Duluth. Unofficial match-ups were common in those dizzying days of disorganization.
In the game of record, Kiley did not catch a long pass from Kelly. Rather, Jack Underwood, a hometown hero from Duluth Central High School, took a short pass near the sidelines from Cobb Rooney, another athlete bred in the forests and ore mines of the northern half of the Gopher State. According to the coverage of the game in the following morning’s News Tribune, it was Underwood who raced along the sideline, slipping past a tackler and shaking off the Packers’ famous Curly Lambeau before struggling over the goal line. He gave his Duluth “eleven” a 6–3 victory.
The paper didn’t mention anything about Underwood or anyone else pausing to thumb a nose at a spectator.
And therein was one of the chief challenges in writing about the legendary teams from Duluth: separating romance from records and distinguishing folklore from fact in retelling stories born during sports’ “golden age.” Every anecdote, every statistic, the spelling of every name, was verified. And along the way it became clear that the overall story of the Duluth Eskimos is the story of the NFL’s birth.
It’s a story the league considered important enough that in 1963 Dick McCann, director of the about-to-open Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, asked Haugsrud to fill a trunk of Eskimos mementos. Scouring his attic and the collections of fans and former players, Haugsrud gathered and donated pictures; papers; a replica No. 11 Ernie Nevers’ Eskimos jersey; one of the extra-long mackinaw coats the Eskimos wore on the sidelines and while traveling; a pair of mud-splattered football pants worn by hall-of-fame halfback Johnny “Blood” McNally; a pair of football shoes used in games by Eskimos’ center Bill Stein of Two Harbors, Minnesota; an old leather helmet; and other items.
“There’s a story in every piece,” Haugsrud said. He wrote that Stein “greased his elbows before every game so that opposing linemen would slide off without leaving a scratch.”
The pieces—the “most fantastic collection of memorabilia in sports history,” as McCann wrote shortly after the hall of fame’s opening—helped to recreate a locker room scene at the hall of fame. The trunk is open. Football gear is spilling out. An exhausted player sits, hunched over on a bench.
“The result is one of the most dramatic displays in all museum history,” McCann wrote. It “portrays the role that Minnesota and its mighty men played in the long-ago struggle to bring the game to its present great stature.
“The Duluth story captures the appreciation of every one of the thousands of visitors to this exciting new building,” he continued. The Eskimos, he said, were “the National Football League’s greatest road team…Ernie Nevers’ team—and Johnny “Blood” McNally’s first team—and Ole Haugsrud’s team. Pro football’s hall of fame has many interesting things to see,” he wrote. “But none better than the Duluth story.”
In 1963, around the same time a new football season was starting, the St. Louis County Historical Society decided to organize and host a ritzy reunion dinner for members of the old Eskimos teams. Haugsrud, former players, and others were invited to share their stories and their memories. The legacy of Duluth’s NFL teams, for the first time, was celebrated in one place and at one moment.
Haugsrud was then an owner of the Minnesota Vikings, who wore purple and gold from the start—the same colors of Superior Central High, home of the Vikings and the alma mater of Haugsrud, Nevers, and other Kelleys/Eskimos players.
Inside a packed Hotel Duluth ballroom, they reminisced about how the bigger-than-life Eskimos were treated like rock stars during their legendary barnstorming tour of 1926, how the crowds at the train stations were sometimes so large the team could hardly move, how their ranks included three future Pro Football Hall of Fame members, and how the team’s owner was once credited for saving the National Football League.
“The Eskimos are an important part of Duluth’s sports history and were among the [pioneers] of the National Football League,” Historical Society Director J. F. Robinson stated simply. “We feel that a preserved record of their days here is a must.”
More than 50 years later, Zenith City Online feels the same way. In 2007 Zenith City Press published Leatherheads of the North: The True Story of Ernie Nevers and the Duluth Eskimos. This month, as the Minnesota Vikings begin a new era and the Green Bay Packers are preseason favorites to make the Superbowl, Zenith City Online will begin serializing the book, one chapter a month. If you can’t wait that long to read the whole thing, you can acquire the book here.
Chuck Frederick is the Editorial Page Editor of the Duluth News Tribune and the author of Duluth: The City and the People (1994), Duluth, Then and Now (2005), Leatherheads of the North (2007), and Spirit of the Lights (2011).