On Prayer and a Pass, a Title Came to Town : History: Forty years ago, the Rams won Los Angeles’ first NFL championship.
Can it really be 40 years since the Rams brought Los Angeles its first professional football championship?
Forty years since the Rams defeated the defending champion Cleveland Browns, 24-17, to end the Browns’ domination of both the NFL and the Rams?
Forty years since Norm Van Brocklin fired “the most perfect pass I’ve ever caught” to Tom Fears for 73 yards and the winning touchdown in the championship game Dec. 23, 1951, at the Coliseum?
Forty years since Norb Hecker smacked Dub Jones for a two-yard loss on fourth and two to stop what the Rams feared could be another patented Otto Graham-led march similar to those that had haunted them so often?
Forty years since Joe Stydahar, a big ol’ boy from West Virginia in only his second year as a head coach, finally found a way to beat the master, Paul Brown?
Forty years since Buckets and the Dutchman--Bob Waterfield and Van Brocklin--proved that a two-quarterback system could win in pro football, especially when it had targets such as Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch and Fears, and runners such as the three-fullback Bull Elephant backfield of Deacon Dan Towler, Tank Younger and Dick Hoerner?
The calendar says it’s so, which means that Crazylegs and Tom Terrific are 68 this year, and Deacon Dan and the Tank are 64.
The ’51 Rams were an unusual team in that 11 of the 35 players were home-grown.
Six were from Los Angeles City schools: Waterfield from Van Nuys High, Fears and halfback Woodley Lewis from Manual Arts High, linebacker Don Paul and guard Harry Thompson from Los Angeles High and guard Jack Finlay from Fairfax High.
Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis was from Claremont and played for Bonita High in San Dimas. End Bob Boyd was from Riverside, tackle Tom Dahms from San Diego, center Leon McLaughlin from Santa Monica and running back Vitamin T. Smith from Ventura.
The blue-and-gold colors seemed appropriate, too, because Waterfield, Fears, Finlay, McLaughlin, Paul and Thompson were former blue-and-gold UCLA Bruins. There was not a USC alumnus on the team, but Loyola was represented by Boyd.
There were high expectations when the Rams gathered for preseason work at Redlands. They had broken all offensive records in 1950 and were denied the NFL championship when Cleveland’s Lou Groza kicked a game-winning field goal with 28 seconds remaining. That 30-28 loss stuck in their craw, but it seemed that they couldn’t beat a Paul Brown-coached team.
In an exhibition before the ’51 season, Cleveland won, 7-6, in the last 42 seconds on a Graham-to-Horace Gillom pass and a Groza extra point. In an All-Star game between the National and American conferences--with the Rams and Browns loading the lineups and Stydahar and Brown as the coaches--Brown won, 28-27.
In three games, Brown had won them all, by a total margin of four points. When the teams met at the Coliseum in the second game of the regular season, Cleveland came from behind to win again, 38-23.
“It’s no hex, it’s just bad luck. We could have won them all, they were that close,” Waterfield said after the fourth loss. “We won’t meet them again until the playoff. We’ll get them then.”
For the Rams to make the playoff game took a bit of doing. Their record was only 8-4, and going into the final week of the season against Green Bay they were half a game behind Detroit. If the Lions had beaten the San Francisco 49ers in their final game, the Rams would not have made the playoff, but the 49ers upset the Lions, 21-17.
Curiously, the Rams were not that depressed when Detroit beat them, 24-22, in the next-to-last game, which had knocked them out of first place. In that game, Waterfield kicked five field goals.
“We always had the feeling that we were going to get in the playoffs against the Browns, like that was where we were supposed to be all along,” Towler said recently while reflecting on the season. “There was a tremendous amount of confidence among the team, and I don’t think there was a player who didn’t think we’d face the Browns again.”
Towler, who was attending the USC School of Religion during the season, now heads the Dan Towler Educational Foundation to assist deserving and needy students. While with the Rams, he initiated having the players join in prayer before each game.
“I asked Coach Stydahar if I could have the players pray, and he said, ‘It sure wouldn’t hurt anything, and who knows, it might help.’ We were the first professional team to pray before each game. Now it’s a common thing. I think it helped with the team’s camaraderie and fellowship, bringing us together.”
The Rams had an easy 42-14 day in the season finale against the Packers. Hirsch caught three touchdown passes from Waterfield to equal Don Hutson’s NFL season record of 17. Waterfield also threw scoring passes to Hoerner and Fears. Safety Jerry Williams scored the other touchdown when he raced 99 yards after a missed Packer field goal.
The biggest excitement in the Coliseum that day came as fans, players and the newspaper corps listened for sporadic reports on portable radios from the game in San Francisco.
Stadium announcer Frank Bull got so carried away after the 49ers’ score was announced that he said, “The Rams have the ball on the 49ers’ 22-yard line.”
Earlier, when the 49ers, trailing by three points, made a first down on the Lion two, players on the Ram bench cheered so wildly that their teammates on the field drew a delay-of-game penalty while they joined in the celebration.
Stydahar paced the sidelines with his hands clasped, as if he was praying for the 49ers, all the while cocking an ear toward the public address system speakers keeping fans abreast of the happenings 400 miles to the north.
At a party that night celebrating the Rams’ National Conference championship, Stydahar said: “We ought to have the 49ers in here with us.”
The Rams had one of the most explosive offenses in pro football history and, despite having to thank San Francisco, it was their third consecutive year in the championship game. In 1949, playing in a steady downpour at the Coliseum, they lost the championship to the Philadelphia Eagles, 14-0.
Waterfield and Van Brocklin, both named to the Hall of Fame, were the quarterbacks of the 1951 team, which gained a record 5,506 yards, 1,495 of which came on the receiving of Hirsch, another future Hall of Famer.
One reason for his success was that he did not play favorites with his quarterbacks. Hirsch started the season against the New York Yanks by catching four touchdown passes--all from Van Brocklin--and ended it with the three scoring catches against Green Bay, all from Waterfield.
“The secret to that team’s success,” Younger said, “was its togetherness. It was the greatest team ever put together when it comes to players coming together with love and understanding and compassion for one another.”
Much of the credit for putting the team together, halfback Tom Keane said, belonged to chief scout Eddie Kotal.
“There was no such thing as draft combines in those days,” Keane said. “Kotal was the guy who found players like Andy Robustelli at Arnold, Tank Younger at Grambling--he was the first player ever signed from Grambling--and Larry Brink from North Illinois State. He was always finding great players in out-of-the-way places.”
Professional football had yet to receive its shot in the arm from network television in 1951, though the Rams-Browns game was the first NFL championship to be televised from coast to coast, a privilege for which the old DuMont Network paid $75,000.
The Rams drew 91,985 to the Coliseum for the annual Times Charity Game against the Washington Redskins, but only 59,472 attended the NFL championship game. Still, that was a record playoff crowd.
When the Chicago Bears played an exhibition against the Rams, it was the first time the team had flown to a game; when the Rams played their opening exhibition, instead of the 49ers or the Packers, their opponent was a combined San Diego Marine Corps and Navy team (the Rams won, 55-2).
And the Los Angeles Rams played in Los Angeles.
Cleveland arrived for the playoff game on the crest of 11 consecutive victories--after losing its opener to the 49ers--and five consecutive championships, four in the old All-America Conference and then in 1950 against the Rams in the first NFL game after the merger of the two leagues.
No team in pro football history had ruled the roost so completely and for so long a time.
The game went this way:
After a scoreless first quarter, the Rams got things rolling with a 55-yard drive that ended with Hoerner blasting over for the final yard. Cleveland retaliated with 10 points on the strength of a sequence of passes from Graham to Mac Speedie, Marion Motley and Dub Jones, plus a Groza field goal, to take a 10-7 halftime lead.
Stydahar changed the Rams’ defensive tactics in the locker room and ordered his defensive unit to concentrate on rushing Graham.
“We came out of that (Coliseum) tunnel so sky-high, I don’t think our feet touched the ground,” Thompson recalled. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team as ready to hit as we were.”
The first dividend came when defensive end Brink knocked Graham loose from the ball and Robustelli picked it up, managing to rumble 22 yards before Motley ran him down on the two. Towler scored on his third try, giving the Rams a 14-10 lead.
Twice in the fourth quarter, the Rams tried to stretch their lead, only to be frustrated by the Cleveland defense. They had a first down on the Brown two twice and couldn’t punch in a touchdown, finally settling for Waterfield’s field goal.
Graham promptly brought the Browns even with a 65-yard march highlighted by Graham’s scramble for 34 yards after finding his receivers covered. When Ken Carpenter dived for the final two yards, eight minutes remained, and fans were anticipating sudden-death overtime.
But the Rams still had their favorite weapon, the long gainer, waiting to strike. On the third play after the ensuing kickoff, Van Brocklin faded back as Fears drifted between defenders Tom James and Cliff Lewis. Fears took the Dutchman’s spiral in full flight, running the final 30 yards without a chase.
Fears, who had been an All-Pro end in 1950, was hampered by injuries most of the championship season, but in the big game, he caught four passes for 146 yards, overshadowing his teammate, Hirsch, who had four catches for 56 yards.
When Cleveland got the ball with seven minutes on the clock, Graham marched the Browns to the Ram 42, but on fourth and two, his toss in the flat to the speedy Jones--who had scored six touchdowns three games earlier--was diagnosed by the Rams’ Hecker. The two-yard loss ended the Browns’ domination of the Rams--and of professional football.
Then came what may have been the most amazing feat of the day: The jubilant Rams struggled to lift their coach--all 275 pounds (or more) of him--and parade him around the Coliseum.
“Hoisting Stydahar on our shoulders was quite a task, no doubt about it,” Hirsch recalled. Hirsch was named the most inspirational player by his teammates.
The big news the following day was that the Rams had earned record shares of $2,108.44 each. (The New York Giants collected $36,000 each for winning this year’s Super Bowl.)
Stydahar took the victory as a mandate for his two-quarterback system, which had been widely criticized during the season.
“Anybody who tells me that a team can’t succeed with two quarterbacks is just plain foolish,” he said. “Sunday was a perfect example. Bob (who started) did his job, and so did the Dutchman (who finished). I wouldn’t trade either of them for a whole team of All-Americans.”
Five players from that team--Waterfield, Van Brocklin, Dahms, Jim Winkler, the rookie tackle voted the team’s best lineman, and defensive back Marvin Johnson--and Stydahar have died.
All the others are still savoring that moment 40 years ago.