FIRST there was Buckets--Bob Waterfield. And then the
Dutchman--Norm Van Brocklin. And finally the two of them, equally
sharing the game's most visible position and creating the most
explosive offense in the history of the National Football
League, one that set records--735 yards in a game, the most
consecutive games (29) with 300 or more yards of offense--that
may never be broken. And now that their old team, the Rams, has
deserted Los Angeles for St. Louis, the game's first and
foremost quarterback controversy seems all the more historic.
This is an article from the Oct. 6, 1995 issue
From 1949, Van Brocklin's rookie season, through '52,
Waterfield's last season, their team won division or conference
titles three times, played in three straight NFL championship
games and in '51 won all the marbles. In '52, the only one of
those years in which the Rams did not play in the title game,
they tied with the Detroit Lions for the National Conference
championship and then lost to the Lions, 31-21, in a playoff
game. The Lions then beat the Cleveland Browns, 17-7, for the
What is most unusual about the Waterfield-Van Brocklin tandem is
that the two quarterbacks divided the burden of success in those
years almost exactly. In those four seasons, Waterfield
completed 415 of 794 passes for 5,929 yards and 44 touchdowns
while Van Brocklin completed 372 of 690 for 6,123 yards and 51
touchdowns. They also shared the punting, Waterfield averaging
42.1 yards on 135 punts, Van Brocklin 43.1 on 90.
Not even a record-setting 554-yard passing game by Van Brocklin
against the New York Yanks on Sept. 28, 1951, could
statistically separate the two. That year the Dutchman's totals
were once again virtually identical to Waterfield's. Van
Brocklin had 100 completions in 194 attempts for 1,725 yards and
13 touchdowns; Waterfield was 88 of 176 for 1,566 yards and 13
touchdowns. It was truly an embarrassment of riches for the
Rams, as both made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The quarterback time-sharing extended through three coaching
changes. In 1949 Clark Shaughnessy used Waterfield to test the
defense, then inserted Van Brocklin for the big play. Joe
Stydahar (in '50) and Hampton Pool (in '52), alternated them
according to who had the hot hand.
Aside from their considerable ability, Buckets and the Dutchman
had virtually nothing in common physically or temperamentally.
Waterfield was an amazing all-around athlete and one of the last
of football's true "triple threat" players--a gifted runner,
passer and kicker--as well as a superb defensive back. Van
Brocklin could throw and kick, period. He was the classic
strong-armed drop-back passer who probably couldn't outrun
Waterfield's wife. Not that anyone back then would have been
motivated to run away from Jane Russell, the movie siren whose
first film, The Outlaw, made her a pinup queen.
Waterfield met Russell when both were students at Van Nuys High
near Los Angeles. He was, she recalls, "a big star at Muscle
Beach" and a daredevil. Waterfield graduated from high school in
1937, worked for a couple of years, and entered UCLA in the fall
of 1940. In '42 he was named to the All-Coast team and on New
Year's Day he quarterbacked UCLA in the Rose Bowl, where the
Bruins lost to Georgia, 9-0. He was in the Army the next year
when he and Russell were married.
Discharged from the Army because of an injured knee, Waterfield
returned to UCLA. But he was better known for his wife than for
his play until a spectacular MVP performance in the annual
East-West Shrine game in San Francisco on New Year's Day, 1945,
in which he averaged 6.7 yards on eight rushes, completed 11
passes, scored the winning touchdown and averaged an eye-popping
59.4 yards on five punts.
Waterfield was signed by the Rams, who then resided in
Cleveland, and promptly led them to the league championship,
defeating Sammy Baugh and the Washington Redskins 15-14 in the
title game. As a rookie Waterfield was the NFL's Most Valuable
Player. Less than a month after his team won the championship,
owner Dan Reeves moved the Rams to Los Angeles, a defection that
some Clevelanders mistakenly blamed on the star quarterback from
California and his Hollywood wife.
Back playing in his hometown, Waterfield's athletic feats became
the stuff of legend. "He could do everything," says Tom Fears, a
Ram receiver from those years who is also in the Hall of Fame.
"None of us had ever seen an athlete quite like that."
Waterfield was also an exceptionally quiet man. "You could spend
10 days with him on a fishing trip," says Don Paul, a Ram
linebacker, "and count the words he said on the fingers of one
"Robert [never Bob or Buckets with her] was truly a man of few
words," says Russell, now living with her present husband, John
Peoples, near Santa Barbara. "But he had a dry sense of humor,
something like Bogart's."
And like Bogie, Buckets liked his cocktails. He soon became
drinking buddies with Reeves and broadcaster Bob Kelley, among
other convivial souls on a team renowned for its merrymaking. He
and Russell would often entertain at their house in the San
Fernando Valley. Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, then the
Rams' young publicity director, recalls a game of pool he shot
with the movie queen at one of these parties as the "highlight
of my life."
"You couldn't help liking Bob," says Fears. "He was quiet, yes,
and because of it, people who didn't know him may have thought
of him as stuck-up. But he wasn't that way at all."
Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch, another Hall of Fame receiver on those
great Ram teams, considered Waterfield "a reclusive loner" who
had trouble escaping the limelight. "Married to Jane and with
all of his own fame, he had absolutely no privacy," says Hirsch.
"It must have been frustrating for such a man."
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 at
Washington & Jefferson," says Deacon Dan Towler, who became a
star with Tank Younger and Dick Hoerner in the Rams' Bull
Elephant backfield and is now an ordained Methodist minister. "I
was at a loss until Bob Waterfield, that good man, took me aside
to show me how things were done."
That was not Van Brocklin's style. Often a charmer away from the
field, he was demonic on it. "He'd get down your throat
screaming if you messed up," recalls Paul. "If you dropped a
pass, you wouldn't see the ball for another quarter," says Hirsch.
"The Dutchman was something else," Towler recalls in a
conversation with Younger and former receiver Bob Boyd. "Why,
there were days he'd give the ball to Tank and never to me. Tank
knew how to handle him, I guess." Younger laughs derisively at
such a preposterous notion.
"Handle him?" adds an incredulous Boyd. "Nobody handled the
Dutchman. In '54, I think he was teed off at both Elroy and Tom,
so I had my best year."
Van Brocklin came to the Rams after an All-America season at the
University of Oregon in 1948. Born in Eagle Butte, S.D., he was
raised in northern California, where, at Acalanes High in Walnut
Creek, he drew some attention for his passing but none for his
running out of the then dominant single wing formation. But
after wartime service in the Navy he blossomed at his proper
position, T-formation quarterback, at Oregon. He graduated from
college in three years, skipping his last year of eligibility
after leading the '48 Ducks to a 9-1 season followed by a 21-13
loss to SMU in the Cotton Bowl. The Rams took him in the fourth
round of the '49 draft, stealing a march on rivals unaware of
his early graduation.
Despite his lack of speed and mobility, Van Brocklin had the
best arm in football, maybe the best ever. "Buckets threw a ball
as light as a feather," says Boyd. "The Dutchman threw bullets."
In his record-setting game against the Yanks in the 1951 season
opener, a 54-14 Ram win, Van Brocklin threw 41 passes and
averaged an astonishing 20.5 yards for his 27 completions, good
for five touchdowns. Waterfield, too, was a superior downfield
passer, the bomb representing the Rams' game plan in those
years. His 82-yarder to Glenn Davis on the first play of the
1950 championship game momentarily stunned the Browns. But Van
Brocklin was football's premier bombardier. In relief of
Waterfield in the '51 title game, his 73-yard pass to Fears in
the fourth quarter gave the Rams a 24-17 win and the NFL title.
Oddly enough, considering the frustrations of coexistence, no
personal problems ever surfaced between the two quarterbacks.
The controversy, as far as the players were concerned, existed
only in the minds of the fans and the press. Waterfield and Van
Brocklin got along just fine, thank you.
Says Russell, "Robert and Norm got along a whole lot better than
the press would have you believe. Maybe it's because they both
had a sense of humor."
"For all of his temper, the Dutchman was a likable guy," says
Hirsch. "And I never heard either him or Waterfield say anything
bad about the other." Says Fears, "We played just as hard for
one as the other. Why shouldn't we? They were the best there was."
Waterfield retired after the 1952 season, and in '53 Van
Brocklin enjoyed his best season yet, throwing 19 touchdown
passes. But the next year the Rams signed a young hotshot
quarterback from Vanderbilt, Billy Wade, and the beleaguered
Dutchman found himself looking over his shoulder once more.
Sid Gillman, who became coach in 1955, finally traded Van
Brocklin, at his own request, to the Philadelphia Eagles in '58.
In '60, Van Brocklin, alone at the helm, led the Eagles to the
NFL title. Then he retired as a player to become the first coach
of the expansion Minnesota Vikings.
Neither Waterfield nor Van Brocklin had much success coaching.
In 2 1/2 seasons as the Rams' coach in the early 1960s,
Waterfield had an unimposing 9-24-1 record. Van Brocklin was
29-51-4 in five seasons with the Vikings, then 37-49-3 in 6 1/2
seasons as the second coach of the expansion Atlanta Falcons.
Waterfield was too easygoing to be an effective coach. Van
Brocklin's problems were, of course, the opposite. "As a coach
he wanted everybody to be as dedicated as he was," says former
Eagle teammate Tommy McDonald, "and you're just not going to get
guys that dedicated to the game."
The Dutchman was also predictably a flop in the public relations
part of his job. When he underwent brain surgery in 1979, he
explained it by saying that he had gotten a brain transplant,
and he had made certain he got the organ from a sportswriter,
"so I could be sure that it hadn't been used."
Waterfield, increasingly addicted to nightlife, would bring
about his own gradual deterioration. When he and Russell
divorced in 1968 after 25 years of marriage, she complained that
he was "out until two and three in the morning continually." The
two quarterbacks' manner of living--the one casually destructive,
the other destructively tense--would kill both men.
Waterfield died at age 62 of respiratory failure on March 25,
1983. Van Brocklin attended the funeral and toasted his old
rival at a wake in Don Paul's Rams Horn restaurant afterward.
Not quite six weeks later, on May 2, he died of a heart attack
at age 57.
It was the final irony: Even in death they could not escape each