We continue our “Sunday Storytime” with chapter 3 in a series examining the history of the NFL, the Green Bay Packers and professional wrestling. The introduction to the series can be read here. Chapter 1 can be read here and Chapter 2 can be read here.
Remember when pro wrestlers had barrel chests and round bellies instead of bulging biceps and chiseled physiques? Remember when wrestlers looked like larger and meaner versions of your dad’s drinking buddies? Remember when old ladies used to sit in the front row at wrestling events and swing their purses at the bad guys?
If you do, then you also probably remember Dick the Bruiser. Dick the Bruiser’s wrestling career began in the mid 50s and lasted until the late 80s. He won multiple titles in the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and started his own promotion in Indianapolis called the World Wrestling Association.
The Bruiser used his wrestling career to become a cross-media star and local celebrity in the Indianapolis area. But the first step on his rise to fame came with the Green Bay Packers.
Scary, Heroic and Goofy
Dick the Bruiser was born William Richard Afflis and played on the Packers offensive and defensive lines from 1951-54. Titletown was a ways off in Green Bay’s future as the Packers went 15-32-1 in Afflis’s 48 games. This group of Packers were more interested in drinking beer than winning. And Afflis fit right in.
The 6-foot, 251-pounder left Purdue after clobbering his line coach with his helmet and was kicked out of Miami after bookmaking allegations. He lasted a couple of weeks at Notre Dame and Alabama before settling at Nevada-Reno. The Packers drafted him in the 16th round (somewhere along the way, he also officially changed his first name to Dick).
Afflis was a decent lineman, but most people remember him more for his colorful personality than his on-field play. Some Afflis stories are scary, some are heroic, and some are goofy. All of them are entertaining.
Scary: In Afflis’s era, many Packers fans would take the train to Chicago and back for the Bears game. Sometimes fans would mix with players in the dining car. During one trip, a fan got in Afflis’s face on the ride home and nearly paid the price. Instead of ignoring the heckler, Afflis broke off a beer bottle on the bar and challenged the fan to a fight. Afflis had a 52-inch chest and a face that intimidated everyone. The site of Afflis raging while brandishing a broken beer bottle was enough to get the pesky fan to stand down. Who can blame the fan. Would you want to fight this guy if he was angry and had a broken beer bottle?
Heroic: Bob Mann was the Packers first black player and was on the team from 1950-54.
According to an Oct. 24, 2006 story by Mike Vandermause of Packers.com, the Packers once stayed at a Baltimore hotel that did not allow black guests. Afflis accompanied Mann out of the hotel and tried to get a cab to a different hotel. A cab driver pulled up, but said he couldn’t take Mann because he was black. Afflis grabbed the cab driver by his shirt and demanded that he drive Mann where he needed to go. The cab driver obliged. Again, would you argue with this man?
Goofy: After signing with the Packers, Afflis arrived at the Northland Hotel in Green Bay, pulled two .45s from a shoulder holster under his jacket, and asked the clerk to check them at the desk. Later teammate Hawg Hanner got Afflis riled up by telling him that fellow lineman Jerry Helluin was bragging that he was stronger than Afflis. Afflis found Helluin and challenged him to a series of contests that involved smashing beer cans on each other’s foreheads. After one smash, blood began pouring down Afflis’s forehead, yet he refused to end the contest. Helluin conceded victory. Most reasonable people would do the same if they saw blood running down this man’s face.
Entering the World of Wrestling
In Afflis’s era, many football players supplemented their incomes by wrestling during the offseason. San Francisco 49ers lineman Leo Nomellini was one of these part-time wrestlers. Nomellini thought Afflis’s attitude, look, size and demeanor were a perfect fit for the wrestling word.
Nomellini’s eye for talent was spot on. Afflis morphed into Dick the Bruiser and was the most hated wrestler in the world. And if you’re the most hated wrestler in the world, you’re also one of the richest wrestlers in the world. Before long, Dick the Bruiser was selling out arenas throughout the country and living the good life.
Part of the Bruiser’s appeal was his voice, which was gravelly and gargled because of a throat injury he suffered with the Packers. There were no pay-per-views in the Bruiser’s era. If you wanted to see big-time matches, you had to buy a ticket and go to the local arena whenever wrestling was in town.
It was up to the wrestlers to drive ticket sales through interviews (aka promos) on weekly syndicated television programming. Wrestlers developed their personalities and built excitement for upcoming matches at the local arena on the weekly television shows. If a wrestler could wrestle, but had trouble cutting good interview, he was usually given a manager to speak for him.
The Bruiser didn’t need a manager. His gravelly voiced matched his haggard face and bulky body. After one of his promos, fans couldn’t wait to buy tickets to see the legendary Bruiser live and in-person.
The Bruiser didn’t disappoint in the ring either. What he lacked in speed and agility he made up for with pure mayhem. The Bruiser’s matches were often wild brawls that involved chairs, blood and shenanigans behind the referee’s back. According to www.wrestlingmuseum.com, the Bruiser personified wrestling’s “beer guzzling, cigar chomping, tough-as-nails Bar Room Brawler toughguy character.” Over his 30-year career, he faced off against virtually every well-known wrestler in the world.
Wrestling’s decision-makers tried their best to make the Bruiser a bad guy, and it worked for a while. But soon many fans began cheering whenever the Bruiser stomped to the ring with a cigar in his mouth and talked about drinking all night at the local tavern. Finally, the wrestling powers that be told the Bruiser to keep his beer-drinking, cigar-chomping schtick and began booking him against more hated villains. Dick the Bruiser was now a good guy.
His popularity rose even higher when he teamed with The Crusher from Milwaukee, Wis. Da Bruiser and Da Crusher dominated the tag-team division for over 10 years, taking on the likes of Dick Murdoch and Dusty Rhodes, Baron von Raschke and Ernie Ladd, and the Vachons.
As successful as the Bruiser was in the ring, he knew there was even more money to be made in promotion. He purchased and ran the World Wrestling Association (WWA) in Indianapolis from 1964-1989. After Vince McMahon raided most of the talent from all of the regional territories, the WWA folded and the Bruiser retired after 30 years in the business.
He died on Nov. 10, 1991 after his morning workout. Some reports say he died from a heart attack, others indicate it was from internal bleeding.
While compiling this post, one thought kept entering my mind: I wish Afflis played for the Packers today.
Imagine the NFL’s reaction if he would’ve rolled into training camp, pulled out two .45s, and asked the hotel clerk to keep an eye on them for the next month. What would Mike McCarthy do if he asked Afflis why his head is bandaged and Afflis told him that he hurt himself smashing beer cans on his forehead? Would Ted Thompson draft a guy that whacked a college coach with his helmet and was accused of being a bookie? His Twitter account would be an absolute goldmine.
A couple of teams might have taken one look at Afflis and immediately forfeited the game. Who in their right mind would want to try and block this guy?
The Packers have a rich history filled with colorful characters. Afflis is not a big part of Packers history, but he’s definitely one of the franchise’s most colorful characters.
*Additional information for this post came from a story authored by John Maxymuck in “Packers by the Numbers.”——————
Adam Czech is a a freelance sports reporter living in the Twin Cities and a proud supporter of American corn farmers. When not working, Adam is usually writing about, thinking about or worrying about the Packers. Follow Adam on Twitter. Twitter .