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Duluth Eskimos star player Ernie Nevers. | LOS ANGELES TIMES
Strange Tales

The Duluth Eskimos: NFL’s Trailblazers

Can you imagine the National Football League holding a Super Bowl in Duluth? While that is no longer possible, there was a Duluth professional football team in the NFL about a hundred years ago.

The team started out in 1923 as the Duluth Kelleys (sponsored by Kelley-Duluth Hardware Store) before it became the Duluth Eskimos. Joseph Carr, NFL’s president from 1921 to 1939, said the team “saved the NFL” and former Chicago Bears team coach George Halas called them “the greatest football team ever put together.”

The Duluth Kelleys played in the NFL until 1926 when Ole Haugsrud purchased the team from the NFL for a dollar, renamed it the Duluth Eskimos, and convinced his university football teammate Ernie Nevers to play for the team. Nevers was born in Willow Bend, Minn., in 1902 to Canadian parents who had immigrated to the U.S. from New Brunswick.

In 1926, the Eskimos, with Nevers as fullback, had a 16-man roster, played 26 games, had a 19-7-3 record, and only played one home game held on September 19, 1926, defeating the Kansas City Cowboys 7-0. During the total 1926 season, Nevers reportedly played 1,714 minutes out of a possible 1,740 minutes. The following year in 1927, in addition to his fullback position, Nevers became the team’s head coach; the Eskimos had a 1-8 record, finishing 11th in the NFL.

Playing in the NFL’s northernmost city, the professional football team in Duluth had a distinct disadvantage. Other teams didn’t want to travel to Duluth to play games during the winter months, so the Duluth Eskimos had to make a choice: become a travelling team playing games elsewhere or shorten their football season. In those early days as Duluth Kelleys, the team only played seven games in 1923; six in 1924 (their best season, ending in fourth place in NFL standing), and three in 1925.

Published in 2007, the book Leatherheads of the North, by Chuck Frederick, tells the interesting story of the NFL’s Duluth Eskimos. | SUBMITTED

In 1926, after changing the team name to Duluth Eskimos and becoming more of a travelling team, they finished in the middle of the NFL rankings, but with a big downside for their Minnesota fans—only one game was played in Duluth.

Then, a year later in 1927, things did not turn out well for the Duluth Eskimos. Barnstorming road trips across America, the Eskimos travelled 17,000 miles in four months winning only one football game out of 39 and playing just one home game. At the end of that season, Haugsrud withdrew the Duluth Eskimos from the NFL, selling it back to the league and buying 10 percent of the Minnesota Vikings. Eskimo star player Nevers moved on to play with the Chicago Cardinals where on November 28, 1929, he scored all 40 points, the most in a game by a single player in NFL history. That record stood for 91 years until December 25, 2020.

Carr credited the Duluth Eskimos with saving the NFL by travelling the U.S. to play football games at a time when the league was close to collapsing financially. Duluth News Tribune columnist Chuck Frederick, and author of the book Leatherheads of the North, told MPR News (September 19, 2019), “I definitely believe that if it wasn’t for the Duluth Eskimos, the NFL wouldn’t be around today. The NFL would have gone bankrupt like so many other upstart leagues. There was too much competition.”

Duluth’s professional football team only played five years in the NFL, yet it left a lasting legacy. It was one of the first NFL teams to use a logo (an igloo) and wear it on their uniforms, plus it was the first NFL team to hold a training camp and huddle before a play.

In the 21st century, there’s been a renewed interest—a sort of Duluth Eskimos renaissance—in media, books and even a movie. Frederick’s book, Leatherheads of the North: The True Story of Ernie Nevers & the Duluth Eskimos (2007), takes the reader on/off the field with the team, inside/outside the stadium from the early days as Duluth Kelleys, and past their Eskimos barnstorming years. And the 2008 movie Leatherheads by Universal Pictures—which was directed by and starred George Clooney with Renee Zellweger and John Krasinski—is a sports comedy about a fictional Duluth Bulldogs team that is loosely based on the Duluth Eskimos. Clooney later explained that, “We wanted to call them the Eskimos, but because we were drinking in the movie, the NFL said we couldn’t use the actual names.” (Bob Kelleher, MPR News, March 24, 2008.)

So, why do the Duluth Eskimos continue to attract such interest? Erin Swartz, the Minnesota Vikings Senior Director of Brand Creative & Project Management, is quoted in a MPR News article (How a Football Team from Duluth Saved the NFL long Before the Vikings Ever Played, September 19, 2019) written by Maury Glover, “What we love about the Duluth Eskimos story is that it tells the grit of football in Minnesota from the beginning. Players willing to put it on the line to create a great show for fans and play football.”

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