On Super Bowl day, remember Duluth’s role in football

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On Feb. 5, millions across the nation will tune into Super Bowl LI, including fans in the Twin Ports area who have one thing to remember:

They could have been watching the home team.

From 1923-27, Duluth was a member of the National Football League and for those five seasons, area fans had a taste of pro football. The Duluth squad played its home games near the ore docks at Athletic Park in West Duluth, now the site of Wade Stadium.

Unlike the NFL of today, the league was a primitive affair in its infant days, with low salaries, sporadic attendance and no television. Most road trips were by train and players routinely had day jobs.

“Pro football was definitely low-profile,” said Chris Willis, head of the research library at NFL Films. “Fans paid more attention to boxing, golf, college football, baseball, even tennis.”

The birth of the NFL was equally humble. In the summer of 1920, representatives from teams in several states met at an auto dealer in Canton, Ohio to lay the groundwork for the American Professional Football Association. The APFA was renamed the National Football League in 1922.

The early NFL consisted mostly of midsize cities such as Rock Island, Ill., Dayton, Ohio and Pottstown, Pa.  Only two charter members remain: the Chicago Bears, who played that first season as the Staleys in Decatur, Ill., and the Chicago Cardinals, who later played in St. Louis (1960-1987) and Arizona (1988-present). Green Bay joined the NFL in 1921.

The origins of pro football in Duluth reflect the establishment of many early NFL franchises.  Semi-pro football teams were on the scene as early as 1910, but the professional version in town was born in the Kelley Hardware store on Superior Street, thanks to the efforts of Marshall C. Gebert, the manager of the store’s sporting goods department. Gebert joined with three pro football players to contribute $250 each for the admission fee to the NFL.

Kelley Hardware sponsored the team’s jerseys, which were red and white in color. Like many other early NFL teams, Duluth took the name of its sponsor and called itself the “Kelleys.”

One of the investors was quarterback Joe Sternaman, a product of the University of Illinois, who served as head coach. The Kelleys opened their season with a home game against Akron in front of 3,000 on Sept. 30, 1923, and Duluth held off a rally for a 10-7 win.

The Kelleys stayed within the state for their second game, a date with the Minneapolis Marines before 2,500 fans in the Twin Cities the next week. Duluth prevailed 10-0 and also knocked off the Marines 9-0 in a rematch three weeks later, part of a 4-0 start to the season. However, the Kelleys then lost in Milwaukee before dropping contests against the Cardinals in Chicago and in Green Bay to finish their inaugural season at 4-3.

Hopes were high in 1924 despite mounting financial woes, and only six games were played. Gebert withdrew from his role, but the Kelleys continued in a most unusual manner: as a sort of co-operative. Players paid for the right to play, kicking in up to $30 each, and hoped to receive a cut of the gate receipts in return.

The facilities were certainly primitive by today’s standards. Seating at Athletic Park was deemed “inadequate” and the field was described as an “uneven, coal-dust surface.” Taking over for Sternaman as head coach was Dewey Scanlon, a West Duluth product who was one of the team’s original investors.

The season opened at home on Sept. 28 against heavily favored Green Bay, and the Kelleys thrilled the crowd of 3,000 with a late touchdown for a 6-3. Among the stars of the game for the Kelleys was Doc Kelly, a Superior dentist nicknamed “Old Tooth Carpenter.”

Like the previous season, Duluth ripped off four straight wins for a 4-0 mark, which stood until a 13-0 loss in Green Bay on Nov. 9. The season ended on a high note, though, with a 9-0 win in Rock Island, Ill., whose roster included the legendary Jim Thorpe.

Though their 5-1 record placed them fourth in the NFL, the Kelleys continued to struggle financially and the 1925 season only featured three games, all losses. The hardware store dropped its sponsorship and it appeared the NFL was done in Duluth.

The rights to the franchise were then sold for one dollar to Ole Haugsrud, a promoter and sports enthusiast from Superior who assumed all financial obligations for the team. Haugsrud completely remade the team, christening it the “Eskimos” and switching the team colors to dark blue and white. An igloo adorned the front of the uniforms, one of the earliest examples in NFL history of the use of a team logo.

Haugsrud built his hopes around one player, Willow River native Ernie Nevers, a Stanford star who signed for the astronomical sum of $15,000 plus 10 percent of ticket sales. Local fans, though, saw little of Nevers. Haugsrud took his team on the road as a barnstorming effort and even called the outfit “Ernie Nevers’ Eskimos.”

The team prepared for the season by working out in Two Harbors, one of the first NFL teams to hold a pre-season training camp.

The Eskimos only played one home game in their two years, a 7-0 win over the Kansas City Cowboys in the 1926 season opener. However, there was plenty of action on the road. The team left Duluth in September and did not return until February, playing 14 league games and 15 non-league contests. They fashioned a 6-5-3 record in league action against a schedule including Green Bay, the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants.

In all, the Eskimos traveled over 17,000 miles. Nevers was on the field for all but 26 of the team’s 1,740 minutes of game action in 1926.

The 1927 season was more of the same, as Duluth played all nine of its games on the road, struggling to a 1-8 record. Nevers, who also kicked and played defense, served as head coach for the season, replacing Scanlon.

The Eskimos featured three Pro Football Hall of Fame members on its roster, including two from Canton’s inaugural class in 1963. One was Nevers, while another was halfback Johnny “Blood” McNally, who is best known for his integral role on four NFL title teams in Green Bay. The third was offensive lineman Walt Kiesling, a 1966 inductee who later spent nine years as head coach in Pittsburgh.

But pro football did not survive in Duluth. No games were played in 1928 and the following year, Haugsrud sold the franchise to investors from Orange, N.J., where it was renamed the “Tornadoes.” The team failed after one season, then moved to Newark for the 1930 campaign before folding for good.

Some, including Haugsrud, believe the Boston (later Washington) Redskins franchise was created from the defunct Newark franchise. Many, however, dispute any tie of the old Duluth teams to the Redskins.

As part of the terms of his sale, the NFL allowed Haugsrud to buy into any team that later played in the state. As a result, he became a 10-percent owner of the Minnesota Vikings when the franchise entered the league in 1961. Two years later, he donated a trunk of Eskimos memorabilia to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where some of it is displayed.

The 2008 Hollywood film “Leatherheads,” starring George Clooney and Renee Zellweger, is based in part on the story of the Eskimos as the legacy of the NFL in Duluth lingers, some nine decades later.


Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at (217) 710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.