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Ellard Becomes a Reception to the Rule : Ram Receiver Closes In on Longtime Records Under Revamped Offense

Times Staff Writer

Tom Fears doesn’t attend many games anymore, but he was watching from the stands Monday night as receiver Henry Ellard continued his assault on Fears’ 38-year-old Ram record for single-season receptions.

It was one great pair of hands, generations removed, admiring another’s.

“I think he’s a hell of a receiver,” Fears said.

One of the game’s greatest receivers, Fears has charted Ellard at a distance over the years. He has admired Ellard’s patience and growth in an offense that was once ruled by the run.

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Fears, who retired in 1956, still has team press releases sent to his home. He was amused recently while reading that Ellard had come close to breaking Jim Phillips’ single-game Ram reception record of 13.

Fears caught 18 passes in a game in 1950, still a National Football League record.

“I just threw the letter in the trash,” Fears said.

Above an exit door in the Rams’ cafeteria, a door Ellard has passed through a thousand times, there’s a faded picture of Fears in a helmet with no face mask, grasping for a balloon-shaped white football, colored only by two dark stripes around the nose.

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Next to Fears on the wall is another studio-posed, bubble-gum card shot of teammate Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch, his torso twisted in a manner hardly suitable for catching passes.

Fears still holds the Rams’ single-season reception mark with 84. Hirsch holds the single-season yardage record with 1,495. Ellard has 2 games left and a decent chance to break both records. He’s 10 catches away from tying Fears’ mark and 247 yards from Hirsch’s record.

Until Wednesday, though, Henry Ellard had never heard of Tom Fears. Or Elroy Hirsch. When told that Fears was a Hall of Famer, Ellard’s eyes widened.

“From what you told me about him, I think it would be a great honor,” Ellard said of breaking the record. “Him being one of the great receivers in history, to be able to break a record like that would be something in itself.”

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Fears said not to bother with asterisks. Yet, it would be unfair not to mention that Fears and Hirsch set their records in 12-game seasons; Ellard has 16 games to break them.

“I don’t lose any sleep over it,” Fears said. “It doesn’t bother me a damn bit.”

And Fears doesn’t mind knowing more about Ellard than Ellard does of him.

“Most kids have never heard of us,” Fears said. “That’s the truth.”

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Ellard had his idols growing up in Fresno, but his memory didn’t extend back to the days of Fears and Hirsch.

Ellard, in fact, was a Dallas Cowboys fan.

“Bob Hayes was the first I remember,” he said. “When I first turned the TV on, he was running down the sideline with the ball for a touchdown. I said I’d like to do that.”

He finally is, although there were times here when Ellard admitted cutting his pass routes short just to watch Eric Dickerson run.

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“He ran so effortlessly,” Ellard said.

Ellard came to the Rams in 1983, the same year as Dickerson. It wasn’t the best time to be a receiver. But Ellard’s time has finally come with the restoration of the Rams’ pass offense under offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese.

Fears said he’s glad Ellard has been released from the chains of the old ways, which once schooled its receivers in the art of staying out of Dickerson’s way.

“Ernie Zampese is like a breath of fresh air,” Fears said. “He brought a good passing game here. You can’t go 3 downs in the dirt like they used to do.”

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Spoken like a receiver.

In fact, what Zampese has done most is raise the expectation level of his receivers. He considers Ellard’s season no big deal in the context of the offense, perhaps not realizing that the Rams haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver in 23 years.

“Four and a half catches a game should put you at 70 receptions and 1,000 yards,” Zampese said matter-of-factly. “That’s a good season. We certainly knew he could do that.”

Zampese is also given credit for hiding Ellard from opposing defenses, lining him up in as many as five different positions to keep Ellard out of double coverages.

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“He’s being used really well,” Coach John Robinson said. “The coaching involved on a weekly basis is outstanding, in terms of where he’s placed and how hard it is to double-cover him. You simply can’t zero in on him because he’s playing so many different positions.”

What does it all mean? That Ellard may be headed to his first Pro Bowl. He leads the NFL in receiving yardage with 1,248 and is tied for the conference lead in receptions with 74.

Being mentioned in the same breath as Jerry Rice and Anthony Carter has taken Ellard by surprise.

“I guess it just hasn’t hit me yet,” he said. “It’s still hard to believe I’m up on top, that things are going so well. I don’t know the reasons for it. It’s all something new and a little different.”

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It’s enough to make Ellard reach for another bag of French fries. Ellard’s success is even more remarkable when you consider his eating habits. He’s known on the team as the junk-food king, a man who rarely passes a drive-through window without a look.

The Rams have tried to curb Ellard’s appetite. Earlier this season, Robinson brought in a nutritionist to speak to the team. It was intended for players such as Ellard.

“I never went to that meeting,” Ellard said.

Ellard has encouraged children at community functions to live clean lives, yet he lives with his own addiction.

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OK, kids, you want to grow up to be a star receiver like Ellard?

Remember, then, never eat breakfast. If you do, make sure it’s just a few doughnuts. Skip lunch if you can. Don’t eat your first meal of the day until after 6 p.m. After that, all foods that begin with Mc are preferable.

Drive-throughs?

“They’re all the same to me,” Ellard said. “If I’m hungry, I’m going to stop at whatever one I find first. . . . I’ve been doing it so long my body’s used to it. It’s been like that for 10, 11 years. I’ll eat anything. Junk, period. I get the midnight munchies. I’m always getting up and eating chips.”

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Anything else?

“Pizza is my favorite, and any kind of sweets. It doesn’t matter. Once I retire, I’ll really have to watch out.”

Ellard never eats before a game, though. He said he plays better when he’s starving.

In the meantime, he chases the records of legends he has never known.

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Maybe someday Ellard and Fears can meet over some fast food.

After all, reception and eating records were made to be broken. Fears thought his mark would have been eclipsed long ago.

“Yes, I am surprised because teams are passing so much,” he said. “But you tell (Ellard) I think he’s doing a hell of a job.”

Ram Notes

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Tight end Eric Sievers, the newest Ram, arrived in Anaheim Thursday and practiced. He’ll wear uniform No. 82 Sunday and play on the kickoff return team. How glad was Sievers to leave San Diego? “Yesterday, I had to ice my face down to relax the muscles because I was smiling so much,” he said. Or, this one: “It was like (John) Robinson threw me a life preserver off a sinking ship.”

Asked if he had requested a locker near former teammate Pete Holohan, Sievers said: “I’d dress in the middle of the floor if I had to. I just can’t believe this happened.” . . . Add Henry Ellard: He’s averaging 5.3 catches a game. Tom Fears averaged 7 catches a game in 1950, the year he set his reception mark.


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