History in the Movies, “Leatherheads”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois; she writes a syndicated column on historical films.

“Leatherheads,” George Clooney’s affable film, now available for viewing on DVD, opens on a shot of a huge football stadium, packed with cheering fans. “College Football, 1925,” reads the screen. The scene then shifts to a handful of fans, along with a bored cow, who watch a motley group of guys scrabbling over a football in a muddy field. This, we’re told, was “Professional Football, 1925.”

An exaggeration, of course, but there’s more than a kernel of truth here. While college ball in the 1920s (and earlier) attracted the best players, the most talented coaches, and the massive crowds, professional football was its disreputable cousin, known for its bankrupt teams and brawling, blue-collar players. Most “respectable” players — and fans — stayed away.

But all that started to change in the 1920s, when the fledgling NFL began to lure the best college students into its ranks. “Leatherheads” chronicles this transformation, offering a lighthearted take on how professional football made its first steps toward respectability — and big bucks. Here’s some of the real history behind this entertaining story.

Q. Were the Duluth Bulldogs a real pro team?

A. They were, though they weren’t the “Bulldogs.” They were called the Kelley-Duluths, after the local hardware store that sponsored them (and paid for their uniforms). Although not quite as hardscrabble as the film shows, the team did struggle to stay afloat in the early 1920s. But in 1926, the Duluth team (now called the Eskimos) got a new lease on life when Ernie Nevers joined their ranks.

Nevers was the most exciting college player of 1926, a Stanford fullback who could run, pass and punt. The Duluth Eskimos enticed to him to chilly Minnesota with the princely sum of $15,000, plus a cut of the gate receipts. Eager to cash in on their new attraction, the team scheduled an ambitious barnstorming tour, designed to bring Nevers to the (paying) masses. The Eskimos played twenty eight games on the road and only one at home that season. But it paid off, as Nevers packed stadiums around the country for the Eskimos.

Q. So, is Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) actually Ernie Nevers?

A. In part. The Rutherford character seems to be a composite of Nevers and Red Grange, two college stars who helped popularize professional football in the mid-1920s.

Grange, the star running back from the University of Illinois, joined the Chicago Bears in 1925. Like Nevers a year later, Grange immediately attracted huge crowds. The Bears went from pulling in a few thousand spectators per game to packing stadiums around the country. Thirty-nine thousand people showed up for a game in Chicago, 35,000 in Philadelphia, and 70,000 packed the Polo Grounds in New York City to see the “Galloping Ghost.”

So lucrative was the tour that the team tried to milk every last cent from the arrangement. During one punishing twelve-day stretch, Grange and the Bears played eight games in eight different cities.

But despite the hectic pace, Grange enjoyed his status as professional football’s first wealthy star. And like the film’s Carter Rutherford, Grange got quite good at promoting himself as well. He made a killing in advertising, hawking everything from sweaters and shoes, to cigarettes, dolls and ginger ale.

Q. What about Dodge Connelly, George Clooney’s character? Was he a real person?

A. Connelly is loosely based on Johnny “Blood” McNally, who played with Nevers on the 1926-’27 Duluth team. A great pass receiver, McNally was also a flaky free spirit with a fondness for booze. Chuck Frederick, a journalist with the Duluth News Tribune, and author of “Leatherheads of the North,” tells a story of McNally in 1929, when he played for the Green Bay Packers. The Packers gave McNally a choice. He could get $100 a game, or, if he chose, $110 per game, provided he prepare for the weekend game by stopping his drinking by Wednesday nights.

McNally elected for the $100.

Q. How long were those funky leather helmets in use?

A. Football players started wearing them around 1900. They cut down not only on concussions but also on torn ears, a common problem in the rough and tumble play of football. By the 1940s, plastics helmets had largely replaced the leather ones.

Besides the leather helmets, the film offers some other nice moments of verisimilitude, according to journalist Frederick. Laundry really was hung out to dry from the train windows, especially during the busy stretches of the barnstorming tour. And since many stadiums lacked good facilities, players often did get cleaned up after games by having buckets of water thrown on them, uniforms and all.

Q. Did 1926 bring a football commissioner and tougher rules?

A. That part is kind of exaggerated. Rules and referees had been a part of the game for decades, though enforcement varied. And the NFL owners had elected Joe Carr as league president back in 1921. Carr was no pushover. He reigned over the league’s schedules and standings, and cracked down on teams breaking his rules. So, in all likelihood, the film’s loveably wacky Leatherheads wouldn’t have stood a chance against him.

Q. Where can I find more information on football’s early day?

A. For Duluth and Nevers, look at “Leatherheads of the North” by Chuck Frederick. For a broader look at early football, check out “Pigskin,” by Robert Peterson.

You can reach Cathy Schultz at cschultz@stfrancis.edu.

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