Locals cheer movie stars

At the far end of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, a wall opened and a train car screeched inside, crawling slowly toward reporters and others who had gathered at least an hour earlier. On the car's back platform stood two people, and there was...

At the far end of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, a wall opened and a train car screeched inside, crawling slowly toward reporters and others who had gathered at least an hour earlier. On the car's back platform stood two people, and there was no question about the precise moment Monday morning when the crowd recognized who they were.

A roar went up at the arrival in Duluth of Hollywood Elite's -- George Clooney and Renee Zellweger, stars of "Leatherheads," a movie based on and inspired by the real-life story of Duluth's 1920s National Football League team, the Eskimos.

The cheers didn't just come from the "others" either. The reporters -- sworn to be impartial and to demonstrate professional modesty at every turn, mind you -- clapped right along. And later posed for pictures with the stars and asked for their autographs and otherwise gushed.

Forgive them -- forgive us. We're human, too.

And this wasn't any ordinary press conference. For one thing, tickets were available for anyone to attend. Tickets to a press conference: Whoever heard of such a crazy thing? Some people won their spots inside Duluth's old Union Depot by calling in to radio stations that don't even have news departments.


And these weren't just any stars, either. They were Oscar-winning bigwigs, cover darlings for countless magazines, regulars on most-gorgeous-ever lists, and the central figures in some of our favorite movies: "Jerry Maguire" and "Ocean's Eleven," among them.

And here they were, in Duluth. All because 82 years ago a scrappy group of Duluth players barnstormed across the country, helping to bring legitimacy and a few bucks to the NFL, which then was struggling for survival. The Eskimos in 1926 were credited by NFL President Joe Carr for having "saved the NFL."

Decades later, a Sports Illustrated writer dug into the Eskimos' history and wrote a screenplay, a fictitious story Clooney tweaked and filmed last year, casting Zellweger as a romantic interest. In the fast-paced, sharp-witted movie, the team is the Duluth Bulldogs and a hotshot college player named Carter Rutherford (played by John Krasinski of TV's "The Office") is recruited to Duluth to help save the team. In real life, a hotshot college player named Ernie Nevers was recruited to Duluth to help save the league.

"When you look at films, it's hard to find things new and different," Clooney said at the press conference after being asked what it was about the real story that most appealed to him.

Without even being asked, he addressed why the movie was shot in the Carolinas: "We actually came to Duluth. We thought about shooting here, but it was February. And apparently here, from what I understand, it's cold in February. So we ended trying to find someplace a little warmer. But the spirit of it all was about [the Duluth story]. We wanted to represent the town."

The movie does a good job of that. But why change the name of the team?

"We wanted to call them the Eskimos, but because we were drinking in the movie the NFL said we couldn't use the actual name," Clooney explained. "They don't drink in the NFL? I was shocked to hear."

There's "such a rich history here," Zellweger added.


Reminded that her character, Lexie Littleton, seemed to regard Duluth as the end of the Earth, Zellweger replied: "I didn't write (the script). I've been here for 12 hours and I like what I've seen so far. The people seem nice." Added Clooney: "Are you talking about Duluth being the end of the Earth? No."

At the press conference there was a moment or two where it may have seemed that way, however. A woman from the "others" area gave the stars hand-knitted mittens. Another woman invited them to rub her pregnant belly. And I forced on them copies of a book about the Eskimos.

"Is this your book? Oh, you just gave me your book," Clooney said, looking around and finding a football from the movie taped to the table in front of him. He pried it up and tossed it my way. "Here," he said. "Keep that."

Perhaps not the end of the Earth, but Duluth is still small enough to cheer when the stars come to town and to not be shy about exchanging gifts. Duluth was and remains typical of the many small towns from the NFL's early years.

"I sort of know about small towns," said Clooney, who grew up in a small town in Kentucky. "That's why it was important for us to come back here to say thanks for letting us play a part with this town.

"There's something really fun about the small towns (of the early NFL)," he said. "This one just seemed to have much larger, deeper roots, and I think that's why the original screenplay was written (about here)."


Chuck Frederick is the Duluth News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor and the author of "Leatherheads of the North: The True Story of Ernie Nevers and the Duluth Eskimos." The News Tribune and the Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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