Legends and lore

A ‘leatherhead’ football team from Duluth helped create the NFL as we know it today

Knute Rockne's Massillon Tigers Helmet
Knute Rockne’s 1919 Massillon Tigers Helmet

American professional footall got off to a rocky start in the opening decades of the 20th century.

Although college football captured the hearts of American sports fans, the pro game was disorganized, with players jumping from team to team, the rules of play changing from field to field, and no governing body providing oversight.

In 1920, in an effort to bring organization to the sport, the leaders of 11 pro teams met in Canton, Ohio, to form the American Professional Football Association; two years later they would change the name to the National Football League.

In Duluth, a team known as the Kelleys operated as an independent semi-pro club that played against Iron Range teams.

In 1923, the manager of the Kelley Hardware Store, M.C. Gebert, along with three players, signed franchise papers and joined the NFL.

They held their first game on Aug. 23, 1923, in front of a packed Athletic Park in Duluth, near today’s Wade Stadium. They ended the season 4-3.

By 1925, the NFL was struggling financially, and so were the Kelleys.

That year, Duluth posted a miserable record of 0-3, and with fan interest waning, the team rarely saw profits.

It didn’t help that the Kelleys had to pay other teams to come to Duluth to play.

By the end of 1925, the owners were fed up.

They sold the team to Ole Haugsrud, the team’s volunteer secretary-treasurer, for $1 in exchange for his commitment to assume the team’s growing debt.

Other NFL teams were also struggling.

In 1925, the Chicago Bears signed Red Grange, an All-American running back they hoped would command public attention.

He did just that, with 36,000 fans turning out for his first home game against the Cardinals and 73,000 fans turning out for his next game against the New York Giants.

Starting a second league

At the end of the season, Grange asked for more money, and when he didn’t get it, he and his manager, C.C. Pyle, decided to start their own league, the American Football League.

Looking for another marquee player, Pyle made an offer to All-American fullback Ernie Nevers.

The news of the new league and its potential to score a star player sent the NFL reeling.

But all was not lost: Nevers (who had played college ball at Stanford) had grown up in Superior, Wis.

And he went to school with Haugsrud. Haugsrud met with Nevers and bettered Pyle’s offer.

Nevers accepted!

After Nevers signed on, Haugsrud changed the team name to “Ernie Nevers’ Duluth Eskimos.”

He also added the first NFL team logo, an igloo, to the team jerseys and signature overcoats.

The league was ecstatic. Bringing in the talented Nevers, who was handsome to boot, instantly lifted the NFL’s reputation.

League president Joe Carr proclaimed to Haugsrud: “You’ve just saved the National Football League.”

Building a team

During the team’s first season as the Eskimos, Nevers had strong players in Doc Kelly, Walt Kiesling and Johnny “Blood” McNally.

Building on the team’s popularity, Haugsrud scheduled a 117-day, 29-game barnstorming tour that took the players across the country and back. They finished the tour 19-7-3.

Attendance was up across the NFL in 1926.

Meanwhile, the new AFL struggled to win fans, and teams folded, one by one, until the league shut down.

Its last remaining franchise, the New York Yankees, and its star player Red Grange, joined the NFL.

With fewer teams and stronger rosters around the league, the Eskimos struggled in 1927, finishing 1-8.

Nevers left the team to coach baseball with his former Stanford coach Glenn Warner.

A new franchise

Without Nevers, the Eskimos’ future prospects and profits seemed slim, and Haugsrud suspended the team from play in 1928 and sold it in 1929.

As part of the sale, Haugsrud stipulated he would get the first chance to bid for a team whenever a new franchise was granted in Minnesota.

In 1961, he bought into the Minnesota Vikings.

In 2008, a major Hollywood movie called Leatherheads, starring George Clooney and Renee Zellweger, was released.

Named for the leather helmets that players wore in the 1920s, the film was loosely based on the Duluth Eskimos.

The inaugural induction class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, included three men from the Duluth Eskimos: Nevers, Kiesling and McNally.

Fun Fact:

During pro football’s pre-NFL years, it was not too uncommon for players to jump from team to team, often under an assumed name to hide their identity.

One such player was a young Notre Dame assistant coach, Knute Rockne, who was a relatively well-known ringer with the 1919 Massillon (OH) Tigers.

Apparently Massillon wasn’t the only team for which he played.

A former member of the Columbus Panhandles once claimed the Rockne played against his team six times in one season – each time with a different team.

Jessica Kohen is the media relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.

See the exhibit

Fans can see Eskimo uniforms and gear in a recreated locker room in the new exhibit Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, opening Sept. 24 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. See mnhs.org.