The History of the Rams: Hall of Fame WR & General Manager Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch

by Jake Ellenbogen
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What if I told that before the explosive Odell Beckham Jr.’s or Tyreek Hill’s of the world came into the league, there was a man in the 1950s that did something none of them have done today? That was the late great Los Angeles Rams Hall of Fame wideout Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. He was something the NFL had never seen before when he came into their league and torched it.

The man dubbed “Crazy Legs” – Elroy Hirsch was given the name by a news reporter that called him Crazy Legs in his story, ever since then it stook and went on to become one of the most iconic nicknames in football history. Hirsch was very fast which is part of the reason why he was called that but in the NFL All 100 team video, an audio clip of Hirsch was played explaining how one foot was abnormally longer than the other which caused him to run in an odd fashion. Hirsch didn’t have any problem making a man miss in space like the top RAC-kings do today but he was the first of his kind.

College Career and Military Service

Hirsch started off at the University of Wisconsin in 1941 but two years later was transferred to the University of Michigan after enlisting in the United States Marine Corps in correspondence to the V-12 Navy College Training Program that was being held there. Hirsch was discharged from the military in 1946 and the Cleveland Rams drafted him during his time in the military a year before being discharged. He didn’t intend to sign with the Rams due to the fact he wanted to go back to Wisconsin and play football in college. That didn’t end up happening and he decided to go to the All-America Football Conference to play for the Chicago Rockets who were actively being coached by Dick Hanley, Hirsch’s football coach when he played for the El Toro team back when he was in the marines. Hirsch would go on to dominate the AAFC but injuries (most notably a skull-fracturing kick to the head) would hurt his consistency and ultimately send him out of the league and bolting right back to the NFL.

Hirsch in 1949 felt the now-Chicago Hornets, had breached a bonus obligation in his contract and so he demanded his release to pursue signing a contract with the Green Bay Packers in the NFL. The NFL, however, was not about to allow that as Crazy Legs had already been drafted by the Rams four years prior and the Rams now in Los Angeles still held Hirsch’s rights. It’s exactly why after all, the Rams decided to draft Hirsch when he was in the U.S. military. Hirsch ended up agreeing to terms with the L.A. Rams in 1949 and was now ready to play in the league. Initially, Hirsch was supposed to be a running back but the Rams made sure to convert him entirely to being a wide receiver after his rookie year. His whole playing career up to this point he had been known as the versatile do-it-all type but the Rams knew they had something special in him and wanted him to hone in on one job and that was to catch passes for a living.

His NFL ascension

Hirsch’s first year with the Rams, he finished with just three starts, 22 receptions, 326 yards receiving, four touchdowns receiving to go along with 68 carries, 287 yards rushing and a touchdown. It was an introductory year for Hirsch to get him acclimated to the NFL style. The Rams ended up losing the NFL Championship against the Eagles after winning the West division. The next year in 1950, the Rams implemented Hirsch as a true starting wideout in which he started 10 games, caught 42 balls, 687 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. It was a great year for Hirsch as he started alongside fellow Hall of Fame wideout Tom Fears. Fears led the whole league that season in receiving yards, the Rams fell short in the Championship game again this time to the Browns and lost the title game in back-to-back seasons.

The Rams had come close but no cigar since arriving in Los Angeles in regards to winning a title. However, in 1951, the league was about to see Elroy Hirsch unleashed in the Greatest Show on Grass offensive attack. Hirsch, in year three, had one of the greatest years in NFL history. In addition, he also took part in one of the greatest performances in NFL history as he caught four touchdowns in the game that saw Norm Van Brocklin set a single-game passing yards record of 554 that still stands today. That year, in general, he hauled in 66 receptions, a record-setting 1,495 yards receiving and 17 touchdown receptions. He surpassed the league-leading receiver Tom Fears that year as the favorite target for the platoon QB duo of Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. Hirsch’s 17 touchdowns put him tied for the all-time record with Don Huston which now is good for fifth all-time for a single-season. He accumulated 22.7 yards per reception that season but what is most important with this stat is the fact that in his era, this was unheard of aside from Don Hutson and what he did a decade ago with the Packers. Hirsch didn’t play in the passing era that we see today and more importantly, he only played 12 out of the 12 games. The record that sits today for a single-season receiving yards record is Calvin Johnson’s 1,964 from the 2012 season which came in 16 games. Hirsch would have only needed 470 yards to break that and he played in four fewer games than Johnson and nowhere near the same era as Johnson who had been thrown the ball 204 times that season alone. Hirsch had half as many catches and still only need 470 yards to have more than Megatron did. On top of that, Hirsch averaged 124.6 yards per game which means that if he had played all four games, the average projects him to add 498.4 more yards to his total which doesn’t get him to the 2,000 mark but it does make him the all-time leader in a single-season.

The point to take away from this is that Hirsch was a man amongst boys back in his era and those guys had one place to go and that was Canton. More importantly, Hirsch’s dynamic playmaking ability combined with Fears and the Bull Elephant backfield (Dan Towler, Dick Hoerner and Tank Younger) helped lead the Rams to their first championship since their move to Los Angeles as they beat the Browns in a rematch to claim their second-ever NFL Championship. One can’t forget about the Head coach behind all of this success either, while the Rams certainly had the pieces and Hirsch was one-of-a-kind, their coach Joe Stydahar put everyone in the best position to win. Stydahar didn’t follow the other teams, his offense set the tone and they led the league with an elite running game and passing game.

A slight change in trajectory and introduction to Hollywood

In the following 1952 season, the Rams owner Dan Reeves bought out Stydahar’s contract after tension grew between Stydahar and the running back coach Hampton Pool. Pool took over following the first game of the season which ended in a loss and Pool led the team to a 9-2 record. Despite having a pair of Hall of Fame wideouts and quarterbacks on the roster, Pool went more with a balanced attack that would put more of an emphasis on running the football than Stydahar wanted to do. This, of course, led to a serious dip in production from Crazy Legs as he finished with just seven starts, 25 receptions, 590 yards and four touchdowns. Of course, he averaged 23.6 yards per reception so it’s not to say his ability disappeared. His opportunities did and it became clear as day that season as the Rams fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Detroit Lions 31-21 even in a game where the defense forced four interceptions including one of which came from Hirsch himself.

The 1953 season came and went, Hirsch had himself another great season after racking up 61 catches, 941 yards and four touchdowns but Pool’s Rams fell out of the playoff cutoff after finishing third in the West division. That same Lions team led by Bobby Layne and Doak Walker had taken over the West. During that season, an unprecedented release that is still mindblowing to this day was dropped in the film industry. Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch starred as himself in the motion picture “Crazylegs” told the story of his football life. The craziest thing besides the fact he played himself was that this took place during his playing career which speaks volumes with just how popular a Hollywood star he had become while playing for the Rams. The following season in 1954, Pool’s Rams had lost it and officially had fallen off from a three-time NFL Championship appearing team to not making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons after falling all the way down to a 6-5-1 season. Hirsch still put up 720 yards on only 35 receptions for three touchdowns but the season was a failure and it was beginning to look like the Rams Greatest Show on Grass era had officially ended.

It was beginning to look that way until the Rams hired legendary Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman. Gillman came directly from college and led the Rams from 6-5-1 to 8-3-1 and back to the NFL Championship in 1955. Hirsch’s role was no longer to be the guy and he was no longer the superstar on the field as he was earlier in his career. However, that year, Hirsch starred in his second motion picture and his first original film “Unchained” which displayed Hirsch’s multi-faceted talents. The Rams, unfortunately, that season fell short of winning it all against the Browns in a game they fell 38-14 in. Van Brocklin threw six interceptions in that game which led to a quarterback downhill trajectory. The Rams 1952 first-overall pick was waiting on deck, quarterback Billy Wade. The Rams felt the next season they should give him a good hard look with the impending decline of Van Brocklin. Unfortunately, Gillman and the Rams fell right off a cliff going 4-8. Hirsch was still kicking but the Rams saw the 33-year-old coming with age and drafted wideout Leon Clarke in the second round of the 1956 NFL draft. That season, Hirsch no longer was duos with Tom Fears, it became a three-way wide receiver attack with Clarke, Hirsch and Bob Boyd. Still, trouble was on the horizon after the Rams’ worst season in quite some time.

The 1957 season had started with Gillman on the hot seat and in need to make something happen. The Rams decided to roll with Van Brocklin again after Wade’s disappointing season and the team went for a monster 474 carries per game. The offensive premium was put on the running game and the receiving production once again fell off for Hirsch. Hirsch was 34 years old at this point and had his third motion picture released during that same year. Hirsch had a decent-sized role in the movie “Zero Hour!” which was famously parodied as Airplane! On the football front, the Rams finished the season at 6-6 which was good for fourth in their division. Gillman came back the next season to coach the Rams but Crazy Legs did not return.

Retirement and next career chapter with the Rams

Elroy Hirsch did retire after the 1957 season. He announced his retirement and finished his playing career with 343 receptions,m 6,299 yards, 53 receiving touchdowns and even adding seven interceptions, seven forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries on the defensive side of the ball. All of which eventually landed him in Canton as a Pro Football Hall of Famer. However, Hirsch’s story doesn’t end here and it doesn’t go where you think it was going. At first glance, you might have expected Hirsch to land in Hollywood and pursue his acting career. While he did have the success that wasn’t what he ultimately decided to do. Instead, Hirsch waited a couple of years and in 1960, the nine-year Los Angeles Ram decided to come back to the Rams…as the general manager. Rams GM Pete Rozelle had to be replaced following his departure to the be the NFL’s commissioner, so Dan Reeves brought in the star wide receiver to run things in the front office.

In Hirsch’s first year as acting general manager, he drafted USC Linebacker Marlin McKeever in the first round who went on to the Pro Bowl. In round four, Hirsch drafted three-time Pro Bowl tackle, Charlie Cowan. In the tenth round, Hirsch drafted All-Pro tackle Joe Scibelli but he followed those picks up in the fourteenth round with the monster draft pick of legendary Hall of Fame defensive end David “Deacon” Jones. Hirsch did end up trading away resurging QB Billy Wade to the Bears in what became at first looked like a lopsided trade that hurt the team on the field that year. However, there was a method for Hirsch’s madness as he sent away Wade, WR Del Shofner and LB John Guzik not because he wanted QB Zeke Bratkowski or DB Lindon Crow, it’s because he wanted an additional first-round pick that he knew was going to be big in the next draft.

After enduring a brutal 4-10 record in the 1961 season behind quarterbacks Bratkowski and Frank Ryan, the Rams were set up to make a serious push towards building a dynasty. The 1962 draft happened and because of Hirsch’s mastermind, the Rams were able to draft their new franchise quarterback Roman Gabriel and with the next pick select Hall of Famer and legendary defensive tackle Merlin Olsen. The play, however, did not translate to the field yet because the Rams were determined to stick with Bratkowski and let Gabriel develop. The Rams ended up firing Bob Waterfield who was very highly respected among the organization for his production as a player but did not, unfortunately, work out as a head coach.

The following 1963 draft was pretty much what had Dan Reeves move Elroy Hirsch out of the general manager role and into the role of assistant to the president. It was disappointing for Hirsch who many would soon find out, had drafted dynamic franchise difference-makers in Jones, Olsen, Gabriel, Cowan, Scibelli among others but the play on the field didn’t reflect it and it didn’t show the Rams were trending towards a dynasty that they were hoping for. The draft pick of Terry Baker first overall after enduring a hellacious season was beyond questionable since the Rams had just selected Gabriel second-overall the year before. New head coach Harland Svare who took over for Waterfield halfway through the 1962 season had put together another down season for the Rams.

While Hirsch was no longer the go-to general manager, he still had some big-time input in the decision making along with owner Dan Reeves. The 1965 draft Hirsch helped the Rams draft towering 6-foot-3 starting cornerback Clancy Williams and then the year after the team added Hall of Fame guard Tom Mack to the fray via the first round. Svare was out as coach and George Allen was in. The Rams had their first legitimate winning season for the first time since before Waterfield was named the head coach. Two big moves were made to inject life into the offense including the trade of which the Rams sent a first-round pick and backup defensive tackle Gary Larsen to the Vikings in exchange for dynamic first-round wideout Jack Snow. As well as the trade that saw the Dallas Cowboys trade Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald in exchange for kicker Danny Villanueva. This signaled the beginning of the Fearsome Foursome era of football and the buying into Roman Gabriel as the franchise quarterback. Allen would lead the Rams to an 8-6 record that year.

The following season in 1967 the Rams were officially back and it was even more important now due to the fact the NFL had merged with the AFL creating a much bigger league and a lot more competition. Allen had the Rams at 11-1-2 in a season that saw the work of Hirsch finally paying off. The team was fierce, the gamble he made on Gabriel was paying off, the moves he helped make to acquire players like Jack Snow was paying off and of course, the draft picks of Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Joe Scibelli and Charlie Cowan were most definitely paying off. The 1968 season saw the Rams maintain the consistency and Gabriel was emerging into the league’s best quarterback. This same year, Hirsch was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The year after, he would end up leaving and Gabriel would end up with a league MVP award.

His Final Chapter; where it all began…

Hirsch moved on from the Rams and moved back home with the University of Wisconsin Badgers. In 1969, Hirsch became the school’s athletic director as his football story came full circle. He improved the Badgers program greatly which included bringing in national titles in ice hockey, crew and cross country. Hirsch would keep this job until 1987 in which he would finish his career as a radio color commentator for Wisconsin football. Hirsch would end up being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1974 and in 2004 at the age of 80 Hirsch’s incredibly successful life came to an end as he passed away.

His lasting legacy as a Ram

Elroy Hirsch had left the NFL and the Rams for good. He spent 19 years with the Rams combined as a player and as a coach. While it’s disappointing he missed the early part of his career due to his desire to play in a different league, you cannot take away the career this Hall of Famer had with the Rams. He not only helped bring a championship back to the Rams while he played on the field. He helped put together a championship-caliber team from the front office. He was directly responsible for adding star power to the offense just as he was directly responsible for making trades like the one he made to acquire Roman Gabriel and the draft picks he made to secure Deacon Jones, Joe Scibelli, Charlie Cowan, Merlin Olsen and others. The simple thing to say is that without Crazy Legs, the Rams probably don’t win the 1951 championship which leaves them championship-less in Los Angeles. Without Crazy Legs, the Rams might never have had the guts to trade away Billy Wade and would have potentially missed on the better player in Roman Gabriel. Without Crazy Legs, the Rams might never have drafted players like Charlie Cowan, Joe Scibelli, Deacon Jones and they probably never trade for Jack Snow. History would be altered forever if you took Crazy Legs and found a way to go back in time and place him on another team or removed him from the NFL history. Crazy Legs helped the Greatest Show on Grass explode and the Fearsome Foursome era Rams recover from the post-Waterfield/Van Brocklin era. Crazy Legs meant more to the Rams than anyone probably realizes. That is why we decided to delve into his story and tell it. There’s a reason why the NFL put him on the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, he was beyond special and perhaps maybe his number should have been retired at some point long ago.

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