[From Leatherheads of the North, copyright © 2007, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota.]
Few linemen in the history of the NFL blasted open running lanes the way Walt Kiesling did. He was the big, burly man up front, the one leading the charge when Ernie Nevers became a star with the Duluth Eskimos—and when Nevers scored his record 40 points in Chicago. In fact, during an illustrious five-year career, the blocker Nevers often followed through the enemy line was “Big Kies,” a six foot two, 245-pound legend.
After the Eskimos folded Kiesling played for the 1928 Pottsville Maroons. He then played five seasons for the Chicago Cardinals, earning All-Pro honors in 1929, 1930, and 1932. In 1934 he played with the undefeated Chicago Bears team, one of the best ever in the National Football League. Unfortunately, that team lost the championship to the New York Giants. Kiesling, injured, did not play. The St. Paul native who snubbed Notre Dame for his hometown College of St. Thomas, went to Green Bay in 1935 and in 1936 won an NFL championship with the Packers.
The following season, when Blood McNally went to Pittsburgh as a player-coach for the Pirates, Kiesling went along as an assistant coach. The position launched an unusual twenty-year coaching career for Kiesling. He took over as head coach of the Pirates in 1939 when, according to the Hall of Fame, the always-unpredictable Blood McNally “literally walked off the job.” Kiesling continued as coach the following season when Pittsburgh changed its name to the Steelers. In 1941, Steelers’ new president Bert Bell made himself head coach. He couldn’t win a game, nor could his replacement. Kiesling was back at the helm for the final four games and stayed there—the team’s only win coming under Kiesling in the season’s final game. In 1943, with their roster depleted due to the war effort, the Steelers merged with the Philadelphia Eagles. The “Steagles,” led by co-coaches Kiesling and Earl “Greasy” Neale, finished the 1943 season 5-4-1—just one game out of first place. The following year Pittsburgh merged with the Chicago Cardinals, but with disastrous results. Led by co-coaches Kiesling and Phil Handler, the team lost all ten of its games.
Curly Lambeau then wooed Kiesling to work for him in Green Bay. Kiesling was a Packers assistant for four seasons, returning to Pittsburgh in 1949 as an assistant coach under John Michelosen. In 1954, Kiesling was named head coach of the Steelers once again. Poor health forced his retirement in 1956 with a 40-83 record that did not reflect his coaching skills. “The thing about Walt was that he preferred to be an assistant,” Haugsrud once said. “He was available whenever the Steelers needed somebody, yet he would much rather be an assistant than the boss.”
Kiesling was a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 1966. His involvement with professional football—as a player, head coach, and assistant coach—spanned an incredible thirty years. “The hallmark of Kiesling’s career is that he participated in the growth of pro football from its rag-tag days of the mid-1920s to the early 1960s when the sport was bursting with newly won popularity,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame boasted. Dick McCann, the hall’s first director, agreed. “Walt Kiesling didn’t just watch pro football grow from the rocky sandlots. He shoved it along the way. He was one of the game’s truly remarkable pioneers.”