Tommy Kalmanir, a starting halfback on the 1951 Los Angeles Rams team that won the National Football League championship, died Tuesday in Fresno of pneumonia. He was 78.
Kalmanir, called Cricket because of his small stature -- he played at 5 feet 8, 171 pounds -- had been ailing since suffering a stroke after bypass surgery 14 years ago, said Frances Kalmanir, his wife of 48 years.
Besides being a running back, Kalmanir was a kick-return specialist with the Rams. During the championship season, he averaged 17 yards on punt returns and scored two touchdowns, one on a punt and one on a pass reception.
Born in Jerome, Pa., March 31, 1926, Kalmanir set out to work in a coal mine near his home.
"When I went down in the pit the first day, I took one look at the water seeping through the rock and quit right then and there," he told The Times during his tenure with the Rams.
Instead, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, then, after his freshman year, enlisted in the Army Air Forces. When he was discharged, he enrolled at the University of Nevada, where he starred for three years.
"Tommy loved to tell about how he was recruited to Nevada by Jim Aiken," his widow said. "He and some buddies from the coal mines were trying to decide where to go to school when Coach Aiken came to town and said to follow him to Reno. He gave them a few silver dollars, real silver ones, and they went with him."
At the university, Kalmanir led the country in kickoff returns for two seasons. He had returns of 105 yards against the University of Montana and 75 yards against Loyola University in Los Angeles as a sophomore in 1946.
Two years later, with Stan Heath at quarterback, the Wolfpack went to the Harbor Bowl and played Villanova University.
Kalmanir was drafted 23rd by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Rams traded for him and signed him in 1949. He played three seasons with the Rams, a year in the Canadian League and in 1952 with the Baltimore Colts.
When his playing career was over, Kalmanir served as an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders for three years. He then opened a sporting goods store in Danville, near Oakland, and operated the business for 30 years. He and his wife later moved to Fresno.
He is survived by his wife; two daughters, Karen Escobar and Kathy Mitchell; and four grandchildren.
A rosary will be recited Monday at Holy Spirit Church in Fresno, with Mass at 10 a.m. Tuesday.