The New Bedford Origin of “Leatherheads”

NOTE: Former Standard-Times Sunday magazine editor Ralph Hickok recently discovered a hitherto unknown link between one of his freelance Sports Illustrated stories and the George Clooney movie, “Leatherheads.” We’re not certain, but we think Hickok could claim royalties! Here’s the story from Ralph himself below. New Bedford Bookfest is pleased to host Ralph Hickok (bio here) on Saturday, April 22 and Sunday, April 23, 11:00 am – 4pm both days; free and open to the public at Groundwork!, 1213 Purchase Street, New Bedford. Come meet him and dozens of other regional and local authors.

By Ralph Hickok

I recently found that something I wrote 30 years ago inspired a George Clooney movie that was released nine years ago. Even in this age of virtually instant communication, sometimes it takes a while for news to get around.

And I have to go back more than 40 years to furnish the whole back story.

In 1976, I finished the biography of Johnny Blood McNally that I’d been working on for about four years, in collaboration with the subject. For the record, John Victor McNally Jr. played pro football for 15 seasons under the name of Johnny Blood. He spent seven of those seasons with the Green Bay Packers and was a member of their first four championship teams, in 1929, 1930, 1931, and 1936.

In the course of working on the book, which involved many interview sessions and two trips together, we had become friends. I was surprised and disappointed when he suddenly told me that he didn’t want the book to be published until after his death.

However, I respected his wishes and put the manuscript aside until John died in November of 1985. Then I sent it to my agent, but he had no luck selling it to publishers for two reasons: First, John had never played for the Giants or Jets and, second, his career was in the dark ages of pro football, which no one is interested in—at least, according to New York acquisition editors.

I wasn’t terribly surprised by that and I thought I could salvage a little something by rewriting the chapter about the Duluth Eskimos and selling it to Sports Illustrated. In 1926, the Eskimos played 29 games in 117 days, which works out to a game every four days. All but two of those games were played on the road, and they did it with a roster that never had more than 16 players and, at times, was down to 13 because of injuries.

The editors at SI liked my proposal and asked me to send the article for publication. Then I got a couple of phone calls from a fact-checker named Duncan Brantley. Evidently I answered his questions satisfactorily, because the article appeared in Sports Illustrated’s special NFL pre-season issue on September 9, 1987. (Pictured above.)

What I didn’t know until quite recently was that Duncan Brantley was captivated by the Eskimos and the exploits of Johnny Blood that were featured in my article—so much so that it thought there ought to be a movie. He talked to Rick Reilly, then SI’s backpage columnist, and Reilly agreed. They put together a screenplay with a fictional character named Dodge Connelly patterned, more or less, after Johnny Blood.

I won’t go into all the details, because they’re covered in an article that Brantley wrote for SI in 2008. The upshot was that, nearly 20 years after they had finished their screenplay, George Clooney decided he wanted to direct and star in the movie, which was called “Leatherheads.”

Something that really made me laugh in Brantley’s account is that the team is called the Duluth Bulldogs in the move because the NFL refused to let them use the name of the Duluth Eskimos. The reason was that the movie is set during Prohibition and some of the players are shown drinking alcohol

That brought to mind a quote from Ole Haugsrud, the owner-manager of the Eskimos: “Some people will tell you that Prohibition was in effect in the United States at that time. If so, it was mighty hard to tell. For a dollar, you got all you could drink, and these guys drank plenty. They served it up in regular tubs and in big ten gallon pitchers. Johnny and the rest of them drank from the time the game was over almost until the next one started.”

That quote didn’t appear in the Sports Illustrated article, but it is in my biography of Johnny Blood, which will be published very soon. I’m just waiting for the cover design to be finished.

One final note to illustrate the often circular nature of the writing business: The movie inspired a book called “Leatherheads of the North,” by Chuck Frederick. It’s about the Duluth Eskimos.


Here are links to my original article about the Eskimos and Brantley’s article about the movie.

On the road again and again

The Ballad of Johnny Blood