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Bronko Nagurski’s family impressed by Gophers’ Antoine Winfield Jr. at award events

Minnesota Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. poses with Ron and Jane Nagurski at an event for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in Charlotte, N.C. on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (Courtesy of University or Minnesota)

An indulgence in Ron Nagurski’s retirement comes each December with a trip to Charlotte, N.C., where the former University of Minnesota student represents his family for a prestigious college football award bearing his father’s name — the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

Ron, a former Bismarck, N.D., semi-trailer salesman now taking it easy in Palm Desert, Calif., keeps his dad’s legacy alive 90 years after Bronko was an All-America fullback and defensive end for the Gophers.

Ron serves as steward at luncheons, socials and dinners, but the festivities this year, his sixth, are more special because the Gophers were represented.

Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was one five finalists for the award given out to the best defensive player in the country since 1993. Minnesota has had one previous finalist — Tyrone Carter in 1999 — while Wayzata, Minn., native James Laurinaitis of Ohio State won it in 2006.

Ohio State's Chase Young ended up winning the award at a banquet Monday night, Dec. 9.

Still, Winfield made a lasting first impression on Ron Nagurski when they sat down for a visit on Sunday.

“He appears to be solid gold as an individual,” said Nagurski, 69. “I just really enjoyed our time.”

Nagurski thanked Winfield for the joy he and the Gophers brought to fans this season.

“I had to thank him for putting the Gophers back on the football map,” Nagurski said. “That is kind of fun. One of the things I said to him is, ‘You guys have no idea of the impact that you’ve had on Gopher football fans all over the country.’

“It’s been such a long time since they’ve had this type of success that it sure is fun to see that.”

The 18th-ranked Gophers (10-2) will face Auburn (9-3) in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. Minnesota was ranked in the Top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings after beating then-No. 4 Penn State to improve to 9-0 on Nov. 9.

Nagurski has reconnected with a former college roommate in Austin, Texas, via text message this season. They moved on to sending each other commentary on play-by-play during games.

Winfield has a better understanding of Nagurski’s legacy than any other finalists. For years, he walked into the U’s old practice facility, which was named after Nagurski.

“I don’t have that connection with any of the rest of them,” Nagurski said. “Most of them have probably never heard the name Bronko Nagurski until the coach told them they were up for an award. Then they pulled out their phone and Googled it.”

Ron said the family’s home on Rainy Lake in International Falls, Minn., didn’t have a lot of memorabilia of Bronko’s career with the Gophers or the Chicago Bears, two stops that led to inductions in the college and pro halls of fame.

“If it wasn’t for a few of of my dad’s friends coming up to visit and maybe go fishing, (who) would share stories about their previous life, you really wouldn’t have known what my dad had done for a living in his early life,” Ron said.

For the six Nagurski kids, life was pretty good — if they did their chores.

“To us, he was just dad,” Ron said. “He just made sure you kept the driveway shoveled and the grass cut and got your homework done and after that, things were OK. If that didn’t happen, then life could get pretty tough.”

Ron wears a name tag in Charlotte to let outsiders know who he is, but Winfield got to know him and his father’s story a little deeper.