During the early years of pro football’s ‘golden age,’ Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch was a receiver with few equals.
His play on the field led to numerous records, accolades and a championship.
After his playing career ended, Hirsch excelled as a television and radio pitchman, NFL general manager and college athletic director.
His legacy as a player has lived on as one of the greatest to have ever played the game.
This is the story of “Crazylegs” Hirsch.
3x Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch was born today in 1923! 🎂 pic.twitter.com/am3AzKiPPH
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) June 17, 2017
Early Years and College Choice
Elroy Leon Hirsch was born on June 17, 1923 in Wausau, Wisconsin.
According to his parents, Hirsch was always athletic and showed traits of his innate ability as a child.
He quickly took to the game of football and thrived as a player for Wausau High School.
Under their aptly named coach, Win Brockmeyer, Wausau won the conference championship during Hirsch’s junior and senior years.
Hirsch was a standout as a prep player, earning all-state honors in football and basketball.
He was so talented, in fact, that in 1988, Hirsch was inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.
As expected, numerous colleges came calling for his services.
To the surprise of almost no one, he chose to stay in-state and play for the University of Wisconsin.
Triple Threat Badger and Birth of a Nickname
As hard as it is to fathom today, college freshmen in Hirsch’s day were not permitted to play with the varsity team.
In 1941, Hirsch played with the Badger freshman team before moving up to the varsity as a sophomore in 1942.
Coach Harry Stuhldreher clearly recognized Hirsch’s talent and used him in nearly all phases of the game.
That season, Hirsch had 767 rushing yards, 226 passing yards, punted four times for an average of 48.8 yards, intercepted six passes and returned 15 punts for 182 yards.
At the end of the year, Hirsch was selected by the Associated Press as a first-team halfback for the 1942 All-Big Ten Conference football team.
— Coach Riley (@BadgersRiley) July 26, 2021
His play helped lead Wisconsin to an 8-1-1 record, which was good for second in the Big 10 conference and third nationally.
During a game against the Great Lakes Naval Station in October of 1942, a sportswriter would bequeath Hirsch a nickname that would stick.
Watching from the press area that day, Chicago Daily News sports writer Francis J. Powers made an observation about Hirsch.
“His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions, all at the same time; he looked like a demented duck.”
Readers of the paper enjoyed Powers’ take on Hirsch’s running style and the moniker stuck. From henceforth, he was known as “Crazylegs” Hirsch.
According to his father, Hirsch always had an unorthodox running style, though that came primarily through practice.
“We lived two miles from school. Elroy ran to school and back, skipping and crisscrossing his legs in the cement blocks of the sidewalks. He said it would make him shiftier,” said his father.
When Hirsch learned of his new nickname, he took to it quickly.
“It’s better than Elroy,” he quipped.
He also elaborated on why he thought his running style looked odd.
“I’ve always run kind of funny because my left foot points out to the side and I seem to wobble.”
Military Service Leads Hirsch to Michigan
By the time Hirsch finished the 1942 season, the country was in a period of upheaval.
WWII was in full swing and Hirsch wanted to do his part.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps and was assigned to the University of Michigan’s V-12 officer training program.
— Jon M Stevens (@bigjonstudio) May 31, 2016
Only months after starring for the Badgers, Hirsch was now a member of the Michigan Wolverines.
As he worked out with the team before the 1943 season, Associated Press writer Jerry Liska watched a number of practices and couldn’t believe Michigan’s good fortune.
In a story about Hirsch, Liska referred to him as “squirming Elroy Hirsch” and boasted that he was “Wisconsin’s gold-plated wartime gift to Michigan.”
The 1943 Wolverines were deep and talented, finishing the season with an 8-1 record.
Hirsch kept busy and became the only athlete in school history to letter in four sports (football, track, baseball and basketball).
In the spring of 1944, Hirsch displayed feats of athleticism rarely matched in collegiate history.
As a jumper for the Michigan track team, Hirsch broad jumped 22’5” inches during the preliminary round of the Big Ten Outdoor Track Championships.
He then traveled over 100 miles to Bloomington, Indiana to pitch the second game of a doubleheader.
Hirsch would throw a four-hitter in a 12-1 Wolverine victory.
Remarkably, even though he wasn’t on hand to finish his day at the Big Ten track meet, Hirsch’s broad jump mark was good enough for third place.
“He was an outgoing, fun-loving, popular guy,” said Don Lund, who played football, basketball and baseball with Hirsch at Michigan. “Everything about him as a man and an athlete was outstanding.”
The Marines then stationed Hirsch at the El Toro Marine Base in California where he played football in 1944 and 1945.
Hirsch signs with the Chicago Rockets
Although it had been two years since Hirsch played for a college football team, his playing exploits for the Badgers, Wolverines and El Toro were known far and wide.
With the first pick of the 1945 NFL Draft, Hirsch was selected by the Cleveland Rams.
However, he didn’t sign with the club as he intended to return to the University of Wisconsin after his military discharge.
Months later, Hirsch and a few of his teammates from El Toro instead signed with the Chicago Rockets of the All-America Football Conference that would begin play in 1946.
— Rick Brutti (@Rbrutti) June 17, 2017
The group made the decision because the Rockets would be coached by their El Toro coach, Dick Hanley.
In the meantime, Hirsch led the College All-Stars team to an upset victory over the Rams 16-0.
He was named MVP for the contest after scoring the game’s only touchdown on a 68-yard scamper.
It didn’t take long for Hirsch to realize he made a mistake signing with Chicago.
Even with Crazylegs and a few talented players, the Rockets were mostly awful.
Struggling behind a porous offensive line, Hirsch was pounded early and often.
He was injured frequently and missed time during his three years with Chicago.
Hirsch’s best season with the Rockets came in his rookie year when he contributed 1,445 yards total yards on 384 kickoff return yards and one touchdown; 347 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns; 235 punt return yards and one touchdown; 226 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown; 156 passing yards and one passing touchdown; and 97 return yards on six interceptions.
However, Chicago’s three-year record with Hirsch was 7-32-3.
1948 Chicago Rockets (AAFC) including Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch pic.twitter.com/9bskpgIMwz
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) March 30, 2018
In 1948, his third year with the club, Hirsch sustained a severe skull fracture and it looked like his playing days were finished.
He would later call his signing with Chicago the worst decision he ever made.
Hirsch joins the Rams
Thankfully, Hirsch healed from his injuries and he proposed a release from Chicago so he could play in Green Bay with the Packers.
The Los Angeles Rams still held Hirsch’s rights from their selection of him during the 1945 draft (the Rams had relocated to LA).
That meant Hirsch would have to play for Los Angeles instead of the Packers.
His relocation to the west coast couldn’t have gone better for Hirsch.
This is Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. His legs don't look that crazy. pic.twitter.com/iX268OtuRY
— Stephen Spurling Is… @Drangula (@Drangula) September 6, 2015
He was moved to receiver and was part of the Rams “three-end offense” which deployed a heavy passing scheme.
Also, in order to protect his head from further injuries, the Rams designed a plastic helmet for Hirsch to wear during games.
The material used for construction of the helmet was the same type used to build fighter planes.
Hirsch would be one of the first players in the league to wear a plastic helmet.
During his first game of the 1949 season, Crazylegs caught two touchdown passes to lead the team to a 27-24 win over Detroit.
He would start three games that year and tallied 22 receptions for 326 yards, four touchdowns receiving, 287 rushing yards and another score.
Hirsch also played defense and returned two picks for 55 total yards.
The Rams ended the year 8-2-2 and lost to the Eagles 14-0 in the NFL Championship game.
Heaven Birthday, "Crazylegs"….PFHOF end Elroy Hirsch.
Crazylegs was a key cog in the L.A. Rams' prolific pinball machine offense of the early 1950s. He would later become the Rams' GM.
In 1951, Hirsch caught 17 TD passes, six which were 70 yards or longer.
Born OTD in 1923. pic.twitter.com/7NnTMUooN1
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) June 17, 2020
In 1950, Hirsch started ten games and caught 42 passes for 687 yards and seven touchdowns under new head coach Joe Stydahar.
After a 9-3 regular season, the Rams beat the Bears in the conference playoffs before losing to the Cleveland Browns by two points in the NFL title game.
A Record-setting Year and a Championship
By 1951, Hirsch was a full-time receiver and would only rush for 17 total yards for the remainder of his career.
In the first game of the ‘51 season, LA quarterback Norm Van Brocklin threw for an unprecedented 554 yards against the New York Yankees.
173 of those yards were directed at Crazylegs who also accumulated four touchdowns for the day.
Van Brocklin and Hirsch, along with fellow stars Tom Fears and Bob Waterfield, would lead the team to an 8-4 record.
5 future hall of famers
scored an avg of 33.7 offensive pts/gm, other teams averaged 19.6.
scored 107 offensive tds, other teams averaged 61.
threw 57 passing tds, other teams averaged 32.
crazylegs hirsch caught 24 td passes, other top 10 wr averaged 11. pic.twitter.com/o2lXRMC1MD
— roberto clemente (@rclemente2121) November 11, 2021
Crazylegs caught a career best 66 passes for 1,495 yards (22.7 yards per reception average), 17 touchdowns (including a 91-yard score) and a 124.6 yards per game average.
During one game in particular, Hirsch caught an astounding 18 passes.
Each of the stats led the NFL that season and would continue to remain league highs for several years.
Hirsch would also be named to his first Pro Bowl after the year and voted as a First-team All-Pro for the season.
Opponents marveled at Crazylegs’ ability to catch passes, especially those thrown over his head.
”He doesn’t fake a lot and he doesn’t look around to tip off the defense. He must have eyes in the back of his big ears,” said former New York Yankees coach Jimmy Phelan.
The Rams returned to the NFL title game and defeated the Browns 24-17 for their first championship since 1945.
In 1952 and ‘53, Hirsch would return to the Pro Bowl on the strength of a league leading 23.6 yards per reception average in ‘52 and 61 catches for 941 yards and four scores in ‘53.
He would also be named First-team All-Pro after the 1953 season.
The Rams brought a 9-3 record into the ‘52 postseason, but were unseated by the Lions in the Conference playoff 31-21.
For the next two seasons, LA missed the playoffs despite winning records.
In 1954, Hirsch had 720 receiving yards on 35 receptions and added three touchdowns.
In 1955, Hirsch had 25 receptions for 460 yards and three scores for the 8-3-1 Rams.
The team returned to the title game where they were waxed by Cleveland 38-14.
That would be the last year the Rams traveled to the postseason until 1967.
During the next two years, LA would only win ten total games.
Crazylegs was slowing down, though he still hauled in a combined 67 passes for 1,080 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Your flashback Ram of the night is Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. 1949-1957.
His condition wasn't understood in the 50s. We now know it as "Very Special Legs Syndrome." pic.twitter.com/CsAlDJtb6a
— Bryan Suits (@darksecretplace) January 21, 2019
After the 1957 season, Hirsch decided to call it a career at 34 years old.
In 12 years, he accumulated 387 receptions, 7,029 receiving yards, 60 touchdown receptions, 687 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.
Hirsch was voted to the Pro Bowl three times, was named a First-team All-Pro twice and was a world champion in 1951.
He would later be named to the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade Team and the league’s 50th and 100th Anniversary teams.
Of his success as an athlete, Hirsch would be remembered for being deferential, calling himself, ”a busted down, retreaded halfback who happened to get lucky.”
Second (and Third) Careers
While he was still playing ball, Hirsch appeared in several movies including Crazylegs, a film about his life, in 1953; Unchained, a film where Hirsch played a prisoner in a jail without bars or guards, in 1955; and Zero Hour!, in which he played a pilot who became sick after consuming bad fish.
Born on this date: Professional football player turned brief actor, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch (June 17, 1923 – January 28, 2004).
Here with Chester Morris and Tom Duncan in UNCHAINED (1955). pic.twitter.com/fwrFWg23Cf
— The Tinseltown Twins (@TinseltownTwins) June 18, 2021
He also appeared in television shows during the 50s and 60s.
After retiring from football, Hirsch’s next two careers kept him busier than his first.
Soon after leaving the Rams, he signed on with Union Oil to become the new sports director of that company’s Sports Club television show.
Hirsch also hosted a daily sports commentary show on KNX radio from 1961-1967.
As if he didn’t have enough on his plate with his television and radio work, Hirsch signed a three-year deal in 1960 to become the Rams general manager.
He would surpass his initial contract length by working for the team until 1968.
During his tenure as GM, Hirsch would scout and draft such LA stars as quarterback Roman Gabriel and defensive linemen Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen.
In 1968, Hirsch was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
HOF HB/End Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch was born OTD in 1923. Hall of Fame Enshrinement Class of 1968. He received his nickname for his unusual running style. pic.twitter.com/TJYehrZQkT
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) June 17, 2018
He had been already been inducted into the University of Wisconsin Hall of Fame in 1964 (where his jersey number 40 was also retired) and would be inducted into the University of Michigan’s Hall of Honor in 1984.
In early February 1969, Hirsch was lured away from the Rams to become the new athletic director for the Badgers.
During nearly two decades as AD, Hirsch would be credited with raising home attendance from 43,000 in 1968 to more than 70,000 per game in just four years.
Before he retired in 1987, the Wisconsin athletic department doubled the number of sports it offered and saw the Badgers win national championships in hockey, men’s and women’s crew, and men and women’s cross country.
After retiring as AD, Hirsch was hired to do color commentary for Badger football games.
Death and Legacy
On January 28, 2004, Hirsch passed away at an assisted living facility in Madison, Wisconsin.
He was survived by his wife, Ruth, and two children, Winn and Patricia.
After his passing, numerous football luminaries commented on Hirsch’s legacy.
“Elroy Hirsch was a big star in a town of stars,” then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement. “He was an electrifying player who brought a lot of glamour to the NFL.”
“There has never been a more loved and admired ambassador for Wisconsin sports than Elroy Hirsch,” then Wisconsin AD Pat Richter said. “He loved life, loved people and loved the Badgers.”