Whenever he hunkered over the football, as he did for 12 seasons as center for the Los Angeles Rams, Rich Saul had a way of being not only ferocious but folksy.
"Rich would get down over the ball, and there's the nose guard, and Rich is talking to him, wanting to know how his family and kids are doing," recalled former Rams guard Dennis Harrah with a laugh. "Next thing you know, Rich would be holding them up in the air, and I'd be cutting their legs out from under them.
"This guy's wanting to kill us, and Rich comes up on the next play and he's wanting to talk to the guy about his family again. Rich couldn't figure out why the guy was ticked off."
Saul, who made six Pro Bowls between 1976 and 1981, died Sunday of complications from leukemia at his home in Newport Beach. He was 64 and had battled various forms of cancer for more than 10 years.
The centerpiece of the only L.A. Rams line to reach the Super Bowl, it was Saul who correctly called the coin flip on a sunny Jan. 20 in 1980. Years after the 31-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV, Saul would joke that, well, at least the Rams won the coin toss that day.
Born Feb. 5, 1948, in Butler, Pa., Saul was an all-conference linebacker at Michigan State, where he played with his identical twin brother, Ron, who would also play several years in the NFL. In 1969, the Sauls became the first brother duo to be named Academic All-Americans in the same year. Their older brother Bill also played in the NFL.
Rich Saul was converted to a center in the pros, yet maintained the attacking, aggressive mentality of a defensive player.
"I knew better than to go near him when we were practicing," said Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood, Saul's longtime roommate on the road. "He was way inside, and I didn't want to go in there. I knew that if I went in there, I was going to get hurt.
"He played with a passion, like I think I played with a lot of passion too. That's part of that connection that we had for so long."
His Rams teammates nicknamed Saul "Supe" — as in super — for a couple of reasons. For one, he could play just about any position on the field. But it was a tongue-in-cheek nickname, too, as Saul came out sounding like a superhero when he'd recount a story.
"When Rich Saul told a story, he never lost one battle," Harrah said. "And you had to love him for that. Because when Rich would start telling a story I'd say, 'Hey, I'll tell you what, Rich is going to come out being super on this one.' God love him, he just made you laugh."
Of Saul's nickname, longtime friend Robert Harrell joked: "I twisted that around and called him 's-o-u-p' because he ain't never missed a meal. And, buddy, if you've got one you're throwing out there for free, you better watch out for first in line because he's going to be there.
"We lost a real good one there."
Saul was also deeply religious and approached his job with a meticulous sense of purpose. Fellow Rams lineman Jackie Slater considered him a mentor and remembers Saul pulling him aside in 1976, as Slater was beginning his rookie season. In a newspaper interview, Slater had mentioned his dream of reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Saul told him not to approach his goal casually, pointing out the long odds of a player getting that far and the unyielding dedication that would require.
"That kind of lit the fire in me," said Slater, enshrined as a Hall of Famer in 2001.
"He challenged me. He knew what a grand dream that was, and that it was going to take a lot of work. Obviously, he had been around a lot of people who ultimately became Hall of Famers — Merlin Olsen, Tom Mack, people like that — and he knew the work that these guys had put in. He didn't know anything about me, but he knew that if I was dreaming this way, I'd better be aware of the work that went into becoming that kind of a guy."
Saul, who retired after the 1981 season, dealt in real estate and worked for a title insurance company in Newport Beach.
In addition to his twin, Saul is survived by his wife, Eileen; their daughter, Jaime, and son, Josh, and five grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times