When the NFL came to Duluth: The story of the Eskimos

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A Duluth Eskimos jersey from 1926, which is on display now at the Minnesota History Center’s Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Minnesota has a long and rich history of professional football. For most of the state’s fans, the mention of pro football immediately conjures images of the icy breaths of the Purple People Eaters suspended in the chilly Metropolitan Stadium air, of Randall Cunningham firing off 60-yard touchdown passes, of missed kicks and four Superbowls. But the Minnesota Vikings are not the only team to have represented the North Star State in the NFL. One hundred fifty miles north of Metropolitan stadium, another team was competing on the gridiron in the National Football League from 1923 to 1927: the Duluth Eskimos.

The early years of professional football were rough-and-tumble and complicated. According to the NFL, in 1920 pro football was in a state of confusion from the dramatically rising salaries of players, players who were jumping from team to team seeking the highest offers, and from the use of college players still enrolled in school. In 1920, an organizational meeting led to the formation of the American Professional Football Conference in the hopes that a single league with a uniform set of rules would stabilize the sport. That same year the conference was renamed the American Professional Football Association, and again in 1922 when it was renamed the National Football League.

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A football helmet worn by Duluth Eskimos player Doc Williams on display at the Minnesota History Center’s Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame // Photo by Kevin Kramer

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A young Ernie Nevers // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society and Pro Football Hall of Fame

In 1922, a football team formed in Duluth officially named the Kelley Duluths after their namesake sponsor, the Kelley-Duluth Hardware Store. Wearing red and white sweaters, the team played their home games at the Athletic Park in West Duluth where Wade Stadium now stands. The Duluths played in just 16 games in three seasons from 1923 to 1925, due in large part to weather in their northern locale. In 1924 the team finished with a record of 5-1, which was good enough for fourth place in the league at the time. (By modern day standards, the team would have tied for the best record and a share of the NFL title.)

In 1926 the team lost their sponsor and adopted the new name of the Duluth Eskimos. As the Eskimos, and under the continued ownership of Superior, Wisconsin–born Ole Hausgrud, the team would enter a new phase of its history as a “barnstorming,” or traveling, NFL team. By traveling the country the Eskimos were able to play in more games than ever before, but as a result only played one home game in Duluth over their final two seasons. The team’s lone and final home game was a 7-0 win over the Kansas City Cowboys on September 19, 1926.

Hausgrud’s major success in 1926 was the signing of Willow River, Minnesota, native and Stanford University’s star player Ernie Nevers for a then-astounding $15,000 and 10 percent of ticket sales at the gate. The traveling Eskimos gained the nickname “Ernie Never’s Eskimos” after their new star player, who not only played running back but also kicked, played defense, and even coached the squad in 1927. “Ernie Nevers’ Eskimos” wore a distinctive white and midnight blue uniform featuring an igloo on the front as their logo, one of the first NFL teams to use a logo, as an homage to their northern home city. The team was also one of the first NFL franchises hold a “training camp” to prepare for the 1926 season, which took place just up Lake Superior in Two Harbors, Minnesota.

In describing the Eskimo’s “Iron Men of the North”-barnstorming nature Nevers was quoted as saying, “We went from September to January and from Maine to Texas to the Pacific Coast. In all we played 29 games and we had only 16 men on the squad. If the coach took a man out of the game for a substitution, he got mad. That’s how much we loved it.” According to the Professional Football Hall of Fame Nevers was on the field for 1,714 of the 1,740 minutes played in the 1926 season made up of 14 regular season and 15 exhibition games. In total the team traveled for 117 days in the 1926 season and covered over 17,000 miles whilst helping bringing the NFL’s brand and game to the attention of thousands of Americans.

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The Duluth Eskimos. Ernie Nevers is the fifth person from the left. // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society and Pro Football Hall of Fame

Nevers wasn’t the only notable player on the Eskimos that year. The roster featured players like St. John’s University (Collegeville, Minnesota) John “Johnny Blood” McNally and a two-way guard from St. Paul, Minnesota, named Walt Kiesling, both of whom would eventually be honored in the Professional Football Hall of Fame alongside Nevers. The Eskimos played 14 games in 1926 and finished eighth in the NFL with a record of 6-5-3

The following and final Eskimo’s season saw the club finish in the bottom of the league, recording one win and eight losses in nine total games. With slow ticket sales in 1927 coupled with financial crises across the nation the Eskimos owner Ole Haugsrud decided to sell the team rights in 1929 to an investment group from Orange, New Jersey for $2,000. The sale marked the end of the Duluth Eskimo’s who, along with their star Ernie Nevers, did not participate in the 1928 NFL season. While the NFL left Duluth for good, part of the deal stipulated that Haugsrud would have first rights to any future NFL franchises in Minnesota. This clause proved a wise and valuable one for Haugsrud when in 1960 he purchased a 10-percent share of the new Minnesota Vikings franchise.

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The Duluth Eskimos were one of the first NFL teams to use a logo // Photo by Kevin Kramer

After the Eskimos folded, Ernie Nevers went on to continue his NFL career in 1929 as a member of the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals. That season Nevers set the NFL’s record for points scored in a game (which still stands) when he scored 40 points by way of six rushing touchdowns and four extra points kicks.

His Eskimo teammate Walt Kiesling went on to play for the Chicago Cardinals and Bears, the Green Bay Packers, and coached the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers. John “Johnny Blood” McNally played on four of Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay Packers championship teams (1929–1931 and 1936), and went on to become the head coach of his alma mater St. John’s University. (Legend has it that at the end of his coaching career McNally informed his successor that “nobody could win at St. John’s.” The incoming coach was a man by the name of John Gagliardi, who amassed an incredible 489 wins—more than any other coach in the history of college football.)

While their time on the Duluth Eskimos was brief, the stories of these three hall of famers, Nevers, Kiesling, and McNally, serve as an enduring reminder that once—way long ago—the NFL called Duluth, Minnesota, home.

The Duluth Eskimos jersey and helmet worn by Doc Williams shown above, as well as the stories of the team’s three Hall of Famers, are on display until January 15, 2017 at the Minnesota History Center’s Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibit.

 
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