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The colorful Johnny 'Blood' McNally

Few nicknames in NFL history have captured the on-field and off-field essence of a player as well as the "Vagabond Halfback" moniker of Johnny Blood McNally.<p>

The premier pass catcher of the league in the late 1920s and 30s, his blend of speed, athletic ability and gift for the big play was unparalleled and helped the Packers claim four championships from 1929 to 1936. In his seven seasons with the team, the 6-foot, 190 pounder scored 37 touchdowns, mostly receiving, and still holds 19th place in team scoring six decades after his departure.

McNally was a drifter during his 15 year career going from the Milwaukee Badgers to the Duluth Eskimos and Pottsville Maroons before making his mark with the Packers. He eventually ended his career as a player-coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates (who became the Steelers in 1940). His off-seasons were also a wandering adventure, spending time as a miner, dock hand, gambler, bouncer, seaman and farm hand, among other callings.

And while his gridiron exploits more than warranted his entrance into Pro Football's Hall of Fame, his actions away from the game were also of champion proportion in an outlandish, if not legendary, sort of way.

Johnny McNally was born in New Richmond, Wis., the son of a mill plant operator and a school teacher. It was a combination that had an early impact on him, as he once explained.

"My mother was a school teacher who got a hold of me early and pumped a lot of myths into me," the late McNally said. "Grecian myths, Irish myths, King Arthur stuff. That part of me was going to be adventure. My father was a small town businessman and athletic fan, but a left-handed, curly-haired Irishman, which explains a lot."

McNally was a prodigy with a knack for economics who graduated high school at the age of 14. After studying at home for several years, his academic endeavors led him to River Falls (Wis.) Teachers College and then St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. It was there that his athletic talents caught up with his intellect. Aside from football, he was a standout in baseball, basketball and captain of his track team.

His football savvy led him to Knute Rockne and Notre Dame, but it was a short stay after he was "asked" to leave campus following one of his wild-eyed impulses which, in this particular instance, led him to "borrow" a motorcycle on St. Patrick's Day.

Following his brief stint at South Bend, McNally took his first step toward infamy when he decided to make a little extra money away from the college playing field.

College football was king at that time but there was a small earning to be made in the professional ranks. McNally knew his ability could put money in his pocket. There was, though, the matter of college eligibility and players not being able to accept payment for their services. But rules were not the type of thing to keep McNally from doing something and he had an easy way around this particular one.

It was a movie marquee that ultimately provided the McNally with his inspiration.

"We're figuring on changing our names and we hadn't made them up yet," McNally said. "And we're driving by a theater in Minneapolis and the title on the theater was "Blood and Sand," it was a (Rudolph) Valentino movie, so it just popped through my head, well, I'll take the name of Blood and you take the name of Sand. And that's how it came out and I had a lot of luck with that name so I never happened to change it."

The name Johnny Blood would come to be one that was cursed by opposing defenses and occasionally his own coaches, cheered by fans and sighed breathlessly by female companions. And it was a name whose reputation grew over time.

There was the six story high leap to a ledge outside Packer coach Curly Lambeau's Los Angeles hotel room window to collect an advance on his paycheck and the time he went 10 days with a ruptured kidney and played nearly an entire game before collapsing at State Fair Park in Milwaukee. He even commandeered a cab in St. Louis during an emergency to protect the reputation of a young lady.

He was a free spirit who would travel cross-country by motorcycle or by hopping aboard a train, like a hobo. He ran across the tops of them as they sped down the tracks, once escaped an angry mob of Chicago Bears while trying to collect on a bet after the Packers had beaten them and even parked his car on the tracks in front of a train carrying a Green Bay squad that had left the station without him.

"It was simply on obligation I had to a young woman," he explained. "She was a late riser, which puts great demands on chivalry. Anyhow, the Packers' train was leaving at 10 a.m. for the West Coast, from where we were going to sail to Hawaii for some exhibitions.

"I got a late start for the depot and discovered the train had left without me. There was really no choice. Either I stopped the train, which was then just pulling out of the yard, or I got fined for missing it."

So Blood put the pedal of his car to the floor, got several hundred feet ahead of the train, and swung the car across the tracks forcing the train to stop. WIth that, Blood turned the wheel over to his fair-haired passenger, kissed her good-bye and boarded the train.

His antics continued on the ship ride over to Hawaii when he had to be rescued by his teammates who found him hanging out on the ship's flagpole beyond the stern.

Blood was also fond of having an occasional drink. He was once caught with a case of whiskey in his hotel room and there were even times when Blood and his teammates would take a swig during the game to help "fortify" the flimsy light-padded uniforms and leather helmets they wore during their $100 a game confrontations.

"I guess I could drink with any man," he said. "I had the reputation and sometimes I'd drink the night before a game. I was the manic type."

But his drinking also got him fired from the Packers. The football intellectual and poetry reader showed up to practice one day "groggy" and fell on his backside while attempting to punt. That was the last straw, but after playing for Pittsburgh in 1934, Blood returned to Green Bay in 1935 and helped them win a fourth title in 1936.

The wild night life followed Blood back to Pittsburgh as a player coach between 1937 and 1939. Alcohol would cost him that job before a 6-19 coaching record could. He was dismissed for missing a team train with only a hangover to blame. Art Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner, once said that while on most teams, the coaches worried about where the players were at night, on that team the players worried about where their coach was.

But if there was a place where his behavior was beyond reproach, it was between the sidelines. While his antics were unpredictable, the outcome could almost always be counted on to be successful. And when something extraordinary was needed, when only an impossible play could ensure victory, that's when Blood was at his best.

In one instance, the Packers were trailing the Detroit Lions in the final minute of a game. Blood asked quarterback Arnie Herber to throw a 60-yard bomb into the end zone and didn't disappoint him when he elevated above three defenders to pull down the game winner. While the easy grab sometimes eluded him, the tough ones never did.

On another occasion, Green Bay was stalling near the goal line when Blood called a "69XX" play. An unusual selection since it didn't exist in the Packer playbook.

But the always charismatic Blood assured his teammates to just run through the normal "69" sequence and he'd take care of the rest. Blood took the snap and faked a hand off on an end-around, much to the surprise of the end. He did the same with the fullback, only to hang onto the pigskin and scamper into the end zone on a play he'd just created.

His flair for the dramatic could occur at anytime. On a basic running play, Blood sprinted from the pack on an 80-yard score, but before he crossed the goal line, he stood nearby and waited for the defenders to catch up with him – he said it was more interesting that way.

And even at the age of 32, his athletic prowess was rarely matched. When the Packers had selected fleet-footed receiver Don Hutson out of the University of Alabama, the NFL's next great receiving threat, Blood outran the rookie in the 100-yard dash.

"I don't know what my speed was. Nobody timed you scientifically," Blood said. "I do know that every now and then we'd get a guy in camp who was supposed to have run the 100 (yard dash) in 9.6 (seconds). It was 9.6 in those days, not 9.1. They must have lost a few decimal points on the train because I could always outrun them when we put the shoes on."

Blood's fists were as fast as his feet and he tried his luck at the "sweet science" of boxing, despite no formal training -- just bar room brawls. After only a week in gloves, he begged for a fight with semi-pro champion Johnny Anderson, who had 50 victories and no losses to his name. Anderson was pummeled in the four-round fight, but awarded a draw much to the boos of the crowd. It seemed another career was waiting with open arms, but Blood had no interest in it, saying he just wanted to see what it was like.

The gridiron career of Johnny Blood McNally eventually came to an end in 1939. The "Vagabond Halfback" had traveled five cities in his NFL career since 1925. Some reports had him playing 20 or 22 years as well as having been a member of the Chicago Bears at some point, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which inducted him as a charter member in 1963, has no such proof of the latter claims. There is also some dispute as to whether he attended Notre Dame before or after he attended St. John's. But there is no doubt surrounding his four NFL championships and all-pro selection in 1931.

While there was not much else he could have accomplished athletically, Blood "the scholar" still had some unfinished business, namely graduating. So 26 years after leaving St. John's for professional football, he returned and finished his degree before going on to earn a masters in economics at the University of Minnesota. He even returned to St. John's to lecture and coach.

His post-football ambitions also saw him serve overseas as a staff sergeant in the Air Force during World War II and campaign for former Supreme Court Justice Byron R. "Whizzer" White, an old teammate from Pittsburgh, to become president. Additionally, he headed up a group seeking pensions for old-time pro's and spent time operating several small businesses in the St. Paul area later in life. He was married twice.

Johnny Blood McNally died in 1985 at the age of 83. The Vagabond Halfback was again on the move, this time roaming a much larger playing field. Gone from this world, his memory remains strong whenever tales of the NFLs early years are told and passed down. Blood lived his life on his own terms and enjoyed it for everything it had to offer, whether it be reading a poem, sneaking aboard a train or scoring a touchdown. He will never be forgotten for there were none quite like him while he played, and surely none like him any time after.

Note: Sources for this story included the Minneapolis Star, the New York Times and the Green Bay Packer and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

Editor's note: This story was published the November 4, 1996 issue of Packer Report.


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