After watching Bob Waterfield lead the Cleveland Rams to the NFL championship in 1945, Rams Coach Adam Walsh didn't hold back in assessing the rookie's impact on the game, played in freezing temperatures in Cleveland.
"Bob Waterfield is the greatest T-formation quarterback in the world," Walsh announced in the victorious locker room.
More than 50 years later, Waterfield's football exploits still resonate in the memories of those who witnessed his storied career.
A Valley boy who starred at Van Nuys High, Waterfield's life reads like a Marvel comic book. He was Captain America and the mighty Thor rolled into one, a real-life superhero who rewrote the record book, won the big game and got the girl--a movie star, no less.
As a quarterback, he probably ranks behind John Elway as the best ever from the region. As an all-around football player, he has no peer.
During his eight-year NFL career with the Cleveland and Los Angeles Rams, Waterfield was a quarterback, kicker, punter and defensive back.
Upon Waterfield's death at 62 in 1983, Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: "Man and boy, Bob Waterfield was the best football player you or I ever saw. What could be done with a football, he could do--run, pass, kick, tackle, bat down, catch. He had gifts that were not given to the rest of us."
It was said Waterfield could pass a football 60 yards and kick it just as far. The record books support it. He still holds the UCLA and Rams records for longest punts--91 and 88 yards, respectively--and he kicked five field goals for the Los Angeles Rams against Detroit in 1951, also a club record.
But he was best known for what he did with a football in his hands. His quarterback skills, passing and running, were instrumental in helping UCLA reach its first bowl game and sparking the Rams to two NFL crowns, including their only title in L.A.
Waterfield honed his considerable athletic abilities at Van Nuys, where he developed into an outstanding football player and gymnast. Born in New York, he grew up on Hartland Street, less than a mile from the Van Nuys campus, when the Valley was still wide-open spaces.
"When I was a kid in Van Nuys," Waterfield recalled in 1976, "I used to go dove hunting with my shotgun, right across the street."
Although he wasn't highly recruited out of Van Nuys, Waterfield distinguished himself at UCLA. He led the Bruins to the 1943 Rose Bowl, where they battled No. 1-ranked Georgia to a scoreless deadlock for three quarters before the Bulldogs prevailed, 9-0.
Waterfield was in the Army later that year when he married Jane Russell, his high school sweetheart who by then was a movie star and a popular pin-up girl. Discharged from the Army because of a knee injury, Waterfield returned to UCLA, but was better known for his wife than for his play until a most-valuable-player performance in the annual East-West Shrine game in San Francisco on New Year's Day, 1945.
Waterfield was a third-round draft pick of the Cleveland Rams, and he promptly led them to the championship, defeating Sammy Baugh and the Washington Redskins, 15-14, in the title game and becoming the only rookie quarterback in NFL history to start and win a championship game.
After the 1945 season, Waterfield signed a three-year contract at $20,000 a year, making him the game's highest-paid player, and Rams owner Dan Reeves moved the team to L.A., a defection that some Clevelanders blamed on the star quarterback from California and his Hollywood wife.
Back playing in his hometown, Waterfield and the Rams took the city by storm. An astounding 95,000 spectators showed up at the Coliseum for the team's first home game--a preseason contest against the Redskins in a rematch of the 1945 title game.
The Rams were the first major professional sports franchise to play on the West Coast, and Waterfield became their first superstar. In 1946, he led the Rams in passing, scoring, punting and interceptions, proving his defensive prowess.
"Waterfield led the Rams with the surety of Churchill, and the quiet dignity of Ed Murrow," wrote the Los Angeles Examiner.
Reserved and introverted, Waterfield nonetheless thrived in the limelight--on the field and at home. He and Russell built a house in Sherman Oaks overlooking the Valley and adopted three children. They enjoyed entertaining, and their parties attracted a who's who from the sports and entertainment worlds.
"I remember Waterfield had a party at his house and he invited me along with some of the players," said Pete Rozelle, who was the Rams' public relations director before becoming NFL commissioner. " I ended up playing pool in the garage with Jane Russell, which was a great thrill for me--a little PR man at that time. I forgot 1/8who won 3/8. I was watching her too much."
Years later, Russell was asked by Larry King what it was like to be married to a sports star.
"Well, it was wonderful because we were with the sports crowd," Russell said. "Marilyn Monroe asked me one time, when she was going to marry Joe DiMaggio, 'What's it like being married to a sportsman?' And I said, 'Well, you'll have a lot of guys around.' "
Waterfield earned the respect of his teammates with his play, as well as with his kindness and generosity. Recalling his own travails as a hazed rookie, Waterfield was uncommonly considerate of younger players.
"I didn't know anything about football when I came to the Rams from college," said Deacon Dan Towler, a running back who became a star with Tank Younger and Dick Hoerner in the Rams' "Bull Elephant" backfield. "I was at a loss until Bob Waterfield, that good man, took me aside to show me how things were done."
Towler said Waterfield tried to minimize the vast salary differences between himself and teammates, allowing players to use his car and gas credit card at training camp.
"The unselfish attitude made Bob a model for everybody else," Towler said.
Waterfield's final years playing for the Rams were marked by great success and perhaps the greatest quarterback controversy in NFL history. Starting in the 1949 season, he shared time with Norm Van Brocklin, another future Hall of Famer.
With two outstanding quarterbacks and two Hall of Fame receivers--Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch and Tom Fears--the Rams set the league on fire with an innovative offense that featured spread formations, players in motion and long passes--lots of them. They averaged 38 points in 1950, still an NFL record.
After consecutive losses in the NFL title game to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1949 and to the Cleveland Browns in 1950, the Rams broke through in 1951, defeating the Browns, 24-17, for the championship at the Coliseum.
Waterfield played one more season before retiring in 1952 at 33. In 1985, he was the only player voted to three positions on the Rams' 40th anniversary all-time team by readers of The Times: quarterback, punter and kicker.
Waterfield returned to coach the Rams in 1960, but he was too easygoing and quiet to be effective. He resigned midway through the 1962 season with a 9-24-1 record.
Later asked what kind of coach he thought he was, the always candid Waterfield replied, "Losing."
Increasingly addicted to night life, Waterfield would bring about his gradual deterioration. When he and Russell divorced in 1968 after 25 years of marriage, she complained that he was "out until 2 and 3 in the morning continually" and returned home only to sleep.
Waterfield died of respiratory failure on March 25, 1983. His second wife, Jan, was at his bedside.
Among those saddened by the demise of one of the city's greatest sports heroes was The Times' Murray, who wrote: "With a football in his hands, Bob Waterfield could always handle third-and-long yardage. In life, third-and-long yardage was not such a sure thing. Life sacked him. . . .
"The music had stopped, and the pompoms were put away for the old quarterback. You could find Waterfield in recent years in a small bar on Ventura Boulevard. In the morning. He was among friends who knew what Bob Waterfield was, he didn't have to tell them. Bob hated to have to tell anybody about himself."
In the early 1970s, Waterfield was asked to pinpoint the happiest time of his life.
"The days," he said, "when I played football."