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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Van Nuys' Bob Waterfield was a quarterback, defensive back, punter and kicker during Hall of Fame career.

December 25, 1999|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After watching Bob Waterfield lead the Cleveland Rams to the NFL championship in 1945, Rams Coach Adam Walsh didn't hold back in assessing the rookie's impact on the game, played in freezing temperatures in Cleveland.

"Bob Waterfield is the greatest T-formation quarterback in the world," Walsh announced in the victorious locker room.

More than 50 years later, Waterfield's football exploits still resonate in the memories of those who witnessed his storied career.

A Valley boy who starred at Van Nuys High, Waterfield's life reads like a Marvel comic book. He was Captain America and the mighty Thor rolled into one, a real-life superhero who rewrote the record book, won the big game and got the girl--a movie star, no less.

As a quarterback, he probably ranks behind John Elway as the best ever from the region. As an all-around football player, he has no peer.

During his eight-year NFL career with the Cleveland and Los Angeles Rams, Waterfield was a quarterback, kicker, punter and defensive back.

Upon Waterfield's death at 62 in 1983, Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: "Man and boy, Bob Waterfield was the best football player you or I ever saw. What could be done with a football, he could do--run, pass, kick, tackle, bat down, catch. He had gifts that were not given to the rest of us."

It was said Waterfield could pass a football 60 yards and kick it just as far. The record books support it. He still holds the UCLA and Rams records for longest punts--91 and 88 yards, respectively--and he kicked five field goals for the Los Angeles Rams against Detroit in 1951, also a club record.

But he was best known for what he did with a football in his hands. His quarterback skills, passing and running, were instrumental in helping UCLA reach its first bowl game and sparking the Rams to two NFL crowns, including their only title in L.A.

Waterfield honed his considerable athletic abilities at Van Nuys, where he developed into an outstanding football player and gymnast. Born in New York, he grew up on Hartland Street, less than a mile from the Van Nuys campus, when the Valley was still wide-open spaces.

"When I was a kid in Van Nuys," Waterfield recalled in 1976, "I used to go dove hunting with my shotgun, right across the street."

Although he wasn't highly recruited out of Van Nuys, Waterfield distinguished himself at UCLA. He led the Bruins to the 1943 Rose Bowl, where they battled No. 1-ranked Georgia to a scoreless deadlock for three quarters before the Bulldogs prevailed, 9-0.

Waterfield was in the Army later that year when he married Jane Russell, his high school sweetheart who by then was a movie star and a popular pin-up girl. Discharged from the Army because of a knee injury, Waterfield returned to UCLA, but was better known for his wife than for his play until a most-valuable-player performance in the annual East-West Shrine game in San Francisco on New Year's Day, 1945.

Waterfield was a third-round draft pick of the Cleveland Rams, and he promptly led them to the championship, defeating Sammy Baugh and the Washington Redskins, 15-14, in the title game and becoming the only rookie quarterback in NFL history to start and win a championship game.

After the 1945 season, Waterfield signed a three-year contract at $20,000 a year, making him the game's highest-paid player, and Rams owner Dan Reeves moved the team to L.A., a defection that some Clevelanders blamed on the star quarterback from California and his Hollywood wife.

Back playing in his hometown, Waterfield and the Rams took the city by storm. An astounding 95,000 spectators showed up at the Coliseum for the team's first home game--a preseason contest against the Redskins in a rematch of the 1945 title game.

The Rams were the first major professional sports franchise to play on the West Coast, and Waterfield became their first superstar. In 1946, he led the Rams in passing, scoring, punting and interceptions, proving his defensive prowess.

"Waterfield led the Rams with the surety of Churchill, and the quiet dignity of Ed Murrow," wrote the Los Angeles Examiner.

Reserved and introverted, Waterfield nonetheless thrived in the limelight--on the field and at home. He and Russell built a house in Sherman Oaks overlooking the Valley and adopted three children. They enjoyed entertaining, and their parties attracted a who's who from the sports and entertainment worlds.

"I remember Waterfield had a party at his house and he invited me along with some of the players," said Pete Rozelle, who was the Rams' public relations director before becoming NFL commissioner. " I ended up playing pool in the garage with Jane Russell, which was a great thrill for me--a little PR man at that time. I forgot 1/8who won 3/8. I was watching her too much."

Years later, Russell was asked by Larry King what it was like to be married to a sports star.

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