Bears played La Crosse Lagers in 1934 exhibition game
La Crosse Tribune
Chris Hubbuch | firstname.lastname@example.org
Jan 22, 2011
The Chicago Bears are the only team standing between the Green Bay Packers and the Super Bowl.
Bob Skemp remembers a day when the Bears offered La Crosse’s own football team a shot at the best.
It was 1934, and the Heileman’s Old Style Lagers were coming off a 9-2-1 season against regional semi-pro teams. Skemp’s father, attorney Tom Skemp, had launched the Lagers five years earlier after many years coaching at Saint Mary’s College in Winona, Minn.
Coach Skemp contacted George Halas, owner-coach of the NFL champion Bears and convinced him to play the Lagers in a preseason exhibition game, guaranteeing them a reported $1,500. Because it was a night game and La Crosse’s field had no lights, the game was played on the Winona Teacher’s College field in front of an estimated 3,500 fans.
Bob Skemp was only 7 at the time, too young to attend the game but old enough to be jealous of his older brother.
“It was a big deal in La Crosse, let me tell you,” the 83-year-old attorney said this week from Arizona. “You’re talking about Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Bill Hewitt, all those old stars.”
They weren’t just big names. They were big. Every Bear on the line weighed more than 200 pounds. Nagurski, a “human battering ram” at fullback, was listed at 230.
The Lagers had only one player, tackle Corwin Halbert, over 200 pounds – and just barely.
Still, Skemp promised an offensive game, saying “the team will not go into a shell and hope for the best.”
“We feared no one,” he told a Tribune reporter in 1976.
That didn’t mean the players weren’t a little intimidated. Earl “Sparky” Lowe, the last known surviving member of the Lagers – he died in 2009 at age 99 – recalled the game in a 1997 interview.
The Bears scored three quick touchdowns before the Lagers dug in. The locals never crossed the goal line that day, but they held the “Monsters of the Midway” to only one more touchdown and a single extra point.
Lager’s backfielder Norbert “Steamy” Huennekens, who went on to be their all-time leading scorer, was the standout of the game, punting nine times for an average 43 yards.
Lambert “Pie” Duresky played middle linebacker. He stood just a little over 6 feet and somewhere south of 200 pounds, but he could hit.
This was smash-mouth football, played in leather helmets without facemasks.
“They were a bunch of rough, tough guys,” Neil Duresky said of his father’s team. “Dad’s last trip to the hospital, they tried to put a tube down his nose and couldn’t because it had been broken too many times.”
The Bears won the game 25-0, which the La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press reported was due to the Lagers’ “first quarter stage fright.”
“The Chicagoans used about everything they had, and there is little doubt about that,” the game story read. “They worked practically every imaginable sort of pass, hit the line from all angles, and must have been surprised when they bumped into a stubborn La Crosse defense in the last three quarters.”
The Lagers slumped later in the 1934 season, attributed to the strain of working regular jobs at the brewery, but went 9-2 the following year, losing only to two NFL teams, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cardinals.
Skemp stepped down as coach after the 1936 season to focus on his law practice. The Lagers played one more year, finishing second in the Northwest League, before the brewery withdrew support.
“Dad had a pretty heavy hand. He ran the show,” Bob Skemp said. “They needed that.”