Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, who parlayed a Hall of Fame football career with the Los Angeles Rams into a brief movie career, died Wednesday of natural causes at an assisted living facility in Madison, Wis. He was 80.
Hirsch, a 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pounder with a trademark crew cut, played halfback and receiver for the Rams from 1949 to 1957 and was one of the most important players on their only NFL championship team, in 1951.
His nickname, "Crazy Legs," became one of the most familiar names in sports. It was given to him by a Chicago sportswriter who had seen Hirsch, playing for the University of Wisconsin, run 65 yards for a touchdown against Great Lakes Naval Station in 1942. "His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions, all at the same time; he looked like a demented duck," wrote Francis Powers in the Daily News.
The name stuck.
"It was better than being called Elroy," Hirsch said many times. "The nickname was good for me."
After All-America years at Wisconsin in 1942 and Michigan in 1943 as a Marine Corps trainee, and three years with the Chicago Rockets, Hirsch joined the Rams in 1949 and played sparingly as a halfback. In 1950, Coach Joe Stydahar installed a three-end offense and Hirsch began to display his spectacular receiving ability as a flanker. He caught 42 passes for 687 yards and seven touchdowns.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 30, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Hirsch obituary -- The obituary of Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch in Thursday's California section incorrectly stated that the All-America Conference, a professional football league, folded after the 1948 season. The league folded after the 1949 season.
That served as only a prelude to 1951.
Catching passes from Hall of Fame quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin, Hirsch had an average touchdown reception of 47.8 yards. The long pass was the hallmark of Stydahar's Rams as Hirsch caught 66 passes for 1,495 yards -- a 22.7-yard average -- and 17 touchdowns. He led the NFL in each category and, although it was not chronicled in those days, his feat of catching touchdown passes in 11 consecutive games in 1950-51 was an NFL record.
Hirsch was named Pro Player of the Year after a season in which the Rams defeated the Cleveland Browns, 24-17, to win the NFL championship.
"Crazy Legs was not only a great Hall of Fame receiver, but also a Hall of Fame teammate," Harland Svare said Wednesday after hearing about Hirsch's death. Svare played with Hirsch in 1953-54 and later was coach of the Rams when Hirsch was general manager.
"He was already Crazy Legs when he got here, but his style of catching passes was so unique. He used to swing underneath the pass and take it in over his head. It made it very difficult for anyone to defend him."
Hirsch loved to explain why his nickname fit his running style.
"Ever see a woman run? The way they point the toes in and throw the legs wide -- that's the way I run in the open," he said during his Ram career. "I wobble. I picked it up as a kid. I love to run. I used to run home from the movies at night and raced my shadow under the streetlight. They thought I was crazy."
Although he played nine years with the Rams, Hirsch said his greatest athletic thrill came against the Rams.
In the 1946 College All-Star game, Hirsch scored both touchdowns and won the Outstanding Player award as the collegians upset the Rams, 16-0. The Rams had won the NFL title in 1945 while in Cleveland, but moved to Los Angeles before the All-Star game.
In a widely publicized retirement after the final game in the Coliseum in 1954, Hirsch tore off his uniform, piece by piece, and threw it to an adoring public. The Rams presented him with a pastel-tinted Oldsmobile.
But Hirsch was back in a Rams uniform the next season and played until a second retirement in 1957. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
From 1960 to 1969 he was general manager of the Rams before leaving to become athletic director at Wisconsin.
Before he left, however, he dabbled in movies, playing himself in "Crazylegs, All-American," and later starring in "Unchained," a 1955 prison movie, and "Zero Hour," a 1957 airliner disaster movie.
"Hirsch as an actor is both likable and believable," Times reviewer John L. Scott wrote about the movie "Crazylegs." "He does very well in his first film assignment."
His athletic career began at Wausau (Wis.) High School, where he lettered in basketball, baseball and football and earned a scholarship to Wisconsin.
Although he played only one year there, Wisconsin sportswriters in 1969 named him the third best football player in the school's history.
"There has never been a more loved and admired ambassador for Wisconsin sports than Elroy Hirsch," Wisconsin Athletic Director Pat Richter told the Associated Press. "His charismatic and charming personality brought smiles to so many Badger fans."
At Michigan in 1943-44, he became the Wolverines' first four-sport letterman. Although he attended two Big Ten schools, Hirsch received his bachelor's degree from Baldwin-Wallace University in 1951.
After leaving college, he played football with the El Toro Marines for Coach Dick Hanley. He was drafted by both the Chicago Rockets of the All-America Conference and the Rams of the NFL, but chose the Rockets because Hanley was the coach.
When the AAC folded after the 1948 season, Hirsch joined the Rams.
He married his high school sweetheart, Ruth, in 1946.
In addition to his widow, survivors include a son, Winn, of Lake Arrowhead, and a daughter, Patty Malmquist, of Verona, Wis.
Services are pending.