If you ask members of the University of Minnesota-Duluth football team what they know about the history of football in Duluth, you’ll get answers like “Not much,” or if you’re lucky, a name or two of the six UMD players who made it to the NFL.
And that’s understandable. The UMD program has plenty to celebrate, from its origins as Duluth State Teachers College in 1930 to its Division II national championship in 2008. This year’s team, undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation, carries on the tradition.
City has rich football heritage
But meaningful football goes back a little farther — to the 1920s, when this port city on Lake Superior had a team in the National Football League. The Duluth Eskimos never won a championship but played a significant role in the survival of the league.
The next time you complain about Brett Favre, a head coach’s clock management, or the seven-layer dip at your Super Bowl party, thank the Eskimos.
For the historic detail, park on Superior Street and walk uphill to the offices of the Duluth News-Tribune, where editorial page editor Chuck Frederick greets you in a new Green Bay Packers hat (he’s originally from Wisconsin), offers a seat in his office and produces a copy of his book about the Eskimos, “Leatherheads of the North.”
The book, based on Frederick’s columns and stories for the newspaper, came out in 2007, just ahead of the George Clooney movie “Leatherheads” about the escapades of a fictitious football team inspired by the Eskimos.
With Ernie Nevers of Stanford, who was born in Minnesota and played high school football in Wisconsin, as the star attraction, the Eskimos became the NFL’s ultimate barnstorming act. The Eskimos played 28 of 29 games on the road from September 1926 through January 1927, travelling 17,000 miles by train and drawing big crowds almost everywhere. Those hefty gates enabled the struggling NFL — with 22 franchises in cities ranging in size from Pottsville, Pa. and Rock Island, Ill. to New York and Chicago — to fend off a challenge from the rival American Football League and its star, Red Grange.
“It’s not overstating it to say Ernie Nevers and the Duluth Eskimos saved the NFL,” Frederick said. “The NFL president at the time, Joe Carr, said that.”
Frederick’s research showed the Eskimos were the first team to use a huddle, and the first to hold training camp. But the team never made a lot of money. It suspended operations in 1928, and owner Haugsrud sold it to a New Jersey group the following year. Eventually, the franchise folded.
Its legacy included three NFL Hall of Famers — Nevers, who went on to star for the Chicago Cardinals and also pitched three seasons for the St. Louis Browns; McNally, a St. John’s product who returned to Collegeville to finish his degree and coach the football team (John Gagliardi succeeded him in 1953); and St. Paul’s Walt Kiesling, a dominating two-way lineman and, later, the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Seeing how big the NFL is today, and the idea of having an NFL team in the city I grew up in and lived in … Times have certainly changed since then,” said Garth Heikkinen, a sophomore offensive lineman for UMD. “How many teams were in the NFL back then? Not many, right? It was kind of cool that one of them was in Duluth, which is still a town of 80,000 people.”
Football heritage barely visible
Unfortunately, little in Duluth celebrates that history, which may be why the UMD players aren’t aware of it.
In the West End, east of Grand Avenue and south of the elevated Duluth Missabe Iron Range Railway tracks leading to the ore docks, four softball fields stand on the site of Athletic Park, where the Eskimos played their lone home game in 1926. Wade Stadium, which replaced it, was built adjacent to the site. There is no historic marker, just a sign for the Duluth Softball Players Association.
“I heard people talk about the Duluth Eskimos,” said Heikkinen, who played at Duluth Central High School. “But I didn’t know too much about it until they came out with that movie with George Clooney, ‘Leatherheads.’ That’s when I learned the most about it.”
The team in “Leatherheads,” like UMD, is called the Bulldogs. The similarities end there.
About 7-1/2 miles north of where Athletic Park stood, UMD practices and plays on a beautiful wind-swept field with artificial turf — James A. Malosky Stadium, named for its former coach.
The 2008 NCAA title topped off a 15-0 season and established the Bulldogs as a national power in Division II. Last year, UMD lost in the second round of the NCAA playoffs to finish 11-2.
But UMD returned even stronger this year, ending the regular season 11-0 and earning a first-round playoff bye.(The UMD football program isn’t the school’s only successful athletic team. Its hockey programs are excelling, too, with the men’s team ranked No.1 nationally this week in Division 1, and the women’s team No. 3 in polls compiled by the U.S. College Hockey Online website, known as USCHO.com.)
The Bulldogs host Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference rival St. Cloud State (10-2) in the second round on Saturday.
No one has yet figured how to stop the Bulldogs’ explosive offense. UMD led Division II in scoring with 514 points in the regular season and was ninth in total offense, despite losing dynamic running back Issac Odim after six games with a torn meniscus in his left knee. Odim, who scored 19 touchdowns, is done for the year. Nevertheless, UMD has won every game by at least 20 points.
And by setting a home attendance record of 4,415 per game, the football team is challenging men’s and women’s hockey as the biggest thing in town. UMD expects a sellout crowd of 4,500 on Saturday.
“Part of what we’ve been able to get back is the excitement about football in this community,” said UMD Coach Bob Nielson. “Obviously, when you have a professional franchise, there’s a lot of excitement about football. As hockey grew here, it’s still a big thing here in Duluth and here at UMD. But we revitalized the interest in football in our community through the success of our program here over the last three years.”
Coach Nielson continues winning tradition
This is Nielson’s second stint as UMD coach. Malosky, who won 255 games in 40 seasons — then an NCAA Division II record — retired after suffering a mild stroke in May 1998, and Nielson took over for the 1999 season.
Nielson led UMD to in its first bowl game in 2001, and to the NCAA playoffs for the first time in 2002. Promoted to athletic director after the 2003 season, Nielson returned to coaching in 2008 while keeping the AD post when Bubba Schweigert resigned to become defensive coordinator at Southern Illinois.
Since Nielson’s return, UMD has been 37-2, winning three NSIC titles and 30 consecutive games in conference play. Nielson’s teams have been so dominant and disciplined that some Bulldogs boosters think the University of Minnesota should hire him to replace Tim Brewster. Want to talk halftime adjustments? UMD has outscored opponents in the third quarter, 139-7.
Odim, a speedy senior from Rochester, has been a big part of it. Odim was fourth last year in the voting for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman, and made a strong case for it this year before undergoing knee surgery Oct. 16. He finished as UMD’s career leader in scoring (492 points), all-purpose yardage (5,593) and rushing (4,245).
“We miss him,” Nielson said. “He’s the kind of the guy who’s capable of taking the ball and making a touchdown every time he had it. But we’ve had some players who have had to step up.”
Like sophomore quarterback Chase Vogler of Inver Grove Heights, who threw only one interception in 11 games (along with 16 touchdowns) and is 21-1 since becoming the starter last season. Junior wideout/returner D.J. Winfield of Mountain Iron contributed a team-leading 1,531 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns. Senior running back Brad Foss of Mahtomedi became the primary ball carrier, running for 911 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“The fact that I’ve gotten hurt, and the offense has still been able to drive and the team has still been able to win by large margins is very encouraging,” Odim said. “It really speaks to the depth, and the fact we really play as a team. I’m pretty hopeful for the playoffs.”
Odim may get a shot in the NFL as a free agent. If not, he’ll go to graduate school. A mechanical engineering major with a 3.86 cumulative grade point average, Odim was one of 16 players nationwide named as National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award winners, which carries a $18,000 postgraduate scholarship. Odim and running back Ben Wartman of St. Thomas were the only recipients from outside Division I.
Two years ago, Odim scored the winning touchdown in the second overtime as UMD stunned top-ranked Grand Valley State, 19-13, on its way to the national title. “Judging by the regular season, we’re definitely as good [as the 2008 team],” Odim said.
In comparing that team with this one, Nielson said, “We’ve a little younger, which is a good thing. That team had a big group of senior leaders. The similarities are in their personality. They’re a pretty matter-of-fact group.”
Up here, that’s called continuing the tradition.