denis gullickson | talking titletown | june 2016
The chants rocked City Stadium. Coach Curly Lambeau could hear them.
“We Want Blood! We Want Blood!”
The din was a mix of adoring boys, rambunctious men and swooning females who mostly cooed.
Lambeau had benched Blood for some tomfoolery a bit earlier in the game.
In a lopsided exhibition against the East Podunk Athletics, Lambeau didn't really expect Blood to sport a straight game-face, did he?
Maybe not, but there was also that little matter of Blood's latest off-field escapade when he'd stopped the departing team train by parking his lady friend's car on the tracks. Late again.
Reluctantly, Lambeau barked, “Blood, get back in there. And none of your clowning!”
Early NFL Star …
Tales of Johnny Blood's antics abound. Heck, embellishments are still added whenever fans of football and the human spirit discuss the “vagabond halfback.”
Some stories are true: He did entertain crowds in the wee hours by reciting Shakespeare under a streetlamp. He did crawl out on the prow of an ocean liner cutting through the night. And, yes, he did cut his wrist slightly before a game so as to provide an autograph in blood to an admiring female fan.
Other stories, not so much: He did not out-emote John Barrymore in a nightclub or play three pro football games in a day. As a self-promoter, however, John never strained himself straightening out the curves.
At the heart of most “Blood Stories” are quick-wittedness, panache and a joie de vivre that knew few bounds. Most reflect a keen intellect and a knowledge of history, literature and philosophy that was professorial.
You see John McNally — the man behind the myth — was much, much more than a smart-lipped jock with a swashbuckling streak of derring-do. His first-grade teacher said he was “far and away the brightest kid” she'd ever had in her classroom.
By second grade, he was reciting Kipling's “Gunga Din” at the local opera hall. At 14, he had graduated from high school — both the mascot and the target of his eighteen-year-old classmates.
Throughout his life, he would walk away from careers as an attorney, businessman and newspaper publisher — each there for the asking.
Meanwhile, he would embrace quirky diversions. He worked as a stickman in a Catalina Island casino; enlisted in WWII in his forties as a code breaker; schlepped in his later years as a nondescript late-night hotel desk clerk; and taught economics at St. John's, his alma mater, because, as he put it, he had “a lot to learn about economics.”
And then there was that football thing. At a time when playing pro football was less-respectable than hitting the road as a circus freak, John McNally decided to play ball. And, boy, did he! So well, in fact, that he became an early football megastar and one of the first men inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Skilled? Obviously. Much of it, however, seemed to be in that moniker — Blood. It was an alias he'd grabbed on from the marquis of Minneapolis' Garrick Theater on his way to try-outs for a Twin City semipro team.
… And Brilliant Gadfly
Fans of pro football from all across the nation turned out to see Johnny Blood play — he had the physical skills of other guys plus a presence and dramatic flair that marketed those skills to the masses.
It often looked effortless; that effortlessness sometimes came off as irreverence.
Borne, perhaps, out of a certain swag gained from his prominent family, Johnny McNally balanced along the nearby railroad tracks, like a tight wire, with both a sense of adventure and a sense of permission (though not the boorish kind).
Thanks to a father who was equal parts raconteur, businessman and sports enthusiast and a mother who was an acknowledged horse trainer and dedicated connoisseur of the fine arts, his bent on life was different than most.
In his twenties, that framework defined most of his escapades — whether it was leaping across a hotel courtyard several stories up to purloin a bottle of whiskey from Packers Coach Curly Lambeau's room, or climbing onto the roofs of moving trains when the mood struck him.
Alcohol — especially scotch and especially Cutty Sark — seemed to be a frequent sidekick during John's escapades.
On the field, John was often observed messing around when the Packers had a game well in hand, but doggedly-driven when a contest was close or his team was behind.
The great Don Hutson said that no one could change a game the way Blood did — that when he came into the huddle, his teammates knew that the impossible was possible. High praise from an NFL player many consider the prototype of the modern receiver — a man who affected the outcome of more than one game.
Still, Johnny Blood did it with aplomb that his teammates and opponents could only marvel at. Besides, it was usually good for a win and a laugh all-around afterward. Sometimes, the laugh would come years and years later at reunions of the early NFL stars.
The Packers had run a successful play all during the 1930 season where fellow back Red Dunn would fake a throw downfield and then pitch the ball to Blood behind the line of scrimmage. In an All-Star exhibition game in Memphis at season's end, however, several of the opposing players recognized the play and were about to quash Blood into the turf.
So, John ad-libbed.
He cracked a broad grin and then tossed the ball back to a completely-unprepared Dunn who was creamed for a loss. Blood wasn't the only player on the field caught chuckling as Dunn crawled to his feet from beneath the pile. Eventually, Dunn would laugh about the play too.
In the huddle in a wintry 1936-contest against the Chicago Cardinals, John called a play, “Forty Double X.” Now the Packers had a “Forty” and they had a “Forty X” — two of their signature plays. But not one player in that huddle recalled a “Forty Double X.”
One teammate, wingback George Sauer, looked at John and said, “What's that?” John told him, “Just do what you do on the Forty.”
Blood took the snap, faked a couple of handoffs, and then followed Sauer around the end for a sizeable gain and a first down.
“On a good field,” John said afterward, “I would have had a touchdown. But I slipped on the ice and then somebody pushed me out of bounds.”
In essence, John's sharp mind had designed a successful play on the fly. In essence, he had “double-crossed” the Cardinals and — to some extent — his own teammates.
Reflecting on his playing days years later, John McNally said that football had provided him with the “emotional income” he was looking for. The game, he said, had “fit his style.”
His “style” — a combination of brain power, athletic prowess and conscious choice to live a life outside the normal bounds — prompted this author to tell his story in the 2006-biography “Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally.”
In 2014, that evolved into a stage play project that moves from script to stage this summer. As I told publisher Frank Hermans recently, there's no way Johnny Blood would stay trapped in a book, he had to bust out of there and onto the theater stage.
And so it is that Johnny Blood will make his appearance at historic East High School August 5 - 7 — a return to the game, despite a far-too-long benching. The curtain will open and there he will be — atop the 20th Century Limited moving down the railroad tracks.
From there, the drama unfolds:
There's a scene in the Northland Hotel elevator, another in an East High School classroom where Curly Lambeau diagrams a play that Johnny Blood redraws. There are the rich and famous at New York's Stork Club and the quaint décor of Kellaher's Irish Bar in tiny New Richmond, Wis. There are actual football games at Wrigley Field and the Polo Grounds.
That Polo Grounds game, by the way, will be remarkable: street kids throwing fat footballs, cops chasing street kids, vendors passing flasks of whiskey down the rows so that Prohibition-era football fans can bolster their drinks. Oh, and real, live football — 1929-style.
Want to be a part of all of this? See the ad on this page for details.
“The Vagabond Halfback” comes to theater stages this summer — beginning with a World Premier at historic Green Bay East High School August 5-7. Produced by newly-founded Green Bay Theatre Company, “The Vagabond Halfback” celebrates colorful Packers Hall of Famer Johnny Blood McNally and the Packers own unique story as the team traveled by train from small-town sandlots to the gridirons of the early NFL. It's a historically-accurate depiction of life, love and football set against the backdrop of the tumultuous Roaring Twenties in the face of the Great Depression. Gullickson also continues as an educator, author, farmer and horseman.