Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, a college football star, member of the NFL Hall of Fame and a longtime athletic director at the University of Wisconsin, died early this morning in Madison of natural causes. He was 80.
The Wausau native is one of the foremost sports icons in state history, a football legend who appeared in three movies -- starring in one patterned after his life -- and later helped stabilize the university's floundering athletic program.
"There has never been a more loved and admired ambassador for Badger sports than Elroy Hirsch," UW athletic director Pat Richter said in a statement today. "Anyone who came into contact with him enjoyed a special treat. He loved life, loved people and loved the Badgers. His passing is a huge loss and the Badger family offers our sympathies to his family at this time."
Hirsch's No. 40 is one of just four numbers retired by the Badgers, even though he played only one year of football at the school. In 1942, the nimble halfback averaged 5.5 yards per carry in leading them to an 8-1-1 record, a second-place finish in the Big Ten Conference and the No. 3 ranking in the final Associated Press poll, earning third-team All-American honors.
Like many of his generation, he joined the Marines soon afterward and completed his college career at Michigan while stationed in Ann Arbor during World War II. He was a two-time All-American at the school, a Hall of Fame enshrinee there and the only Wolverine ever to letter in four sports (football, baseball, basketball and track).
"I think he really enjoyed his time at Michigan. He had tremendous success there," said National W Club president Terry Murawski, who worked closely with Hirsch since the early 1980s. "But I think growing up in Wisconsin, no doubt he considered himself a Badger."
It was at Wisconsin that Hirsch was labeled with the nickname that stuck with him the rest of his life, a name he wore proudly. Sportswriter Francis Powers of the Chicago Daily News is credited with coining it in his recap of the Badgers' 13-7 victory that year against Great Lakes Naval Station at Soldier Field.
Wrote Powers: "Hirsch ran like a demented duck. His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time during a 61-yard touchdown run that solidified the win."
In 1993, Hirsch told The Capital Times that the nickname had kept him a recognizable figure through the years.
"The nickname does it because I don't think anyone would remember Elroy," he said. "The nickname and the prominent nose."
Hirsch is survived by his high school sweetheart Ruth, to whom he was wed in 1946 by her father, a Methodist minister. They had two children, a son Winn, of California, as well as daughter Patty Malmquist of Verona.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Household name: Hirsch became a household name upon flourishing as an NFL star with the Los Angeles Rams, a position which allowed him to cross over into movie stardom.
After three relatively anonymous and injury-plagued seasons with the Chicago Rockets of the short-lived All-American Football Conference, Hirsch signed with the Rams, who had drafted him out of Michigan.
He was switched to end and made into a flanker in the team's revolutionary "three-end" offense, becoming one of the first deep threats in league history. In the Rams' NFL championship season of 1951, Hirsch led the league in catches (66), receiving yards (1,495), average yards per catch (22.7) and receiving touchdowns (17).
Norm Van Brocklin, who was Los Angeles' quarterback that season, said at the time: "Talk about the gent who zigged when he should have zagged. Roy' also has a zog' and a couple of varieties of zug' when he's under full steam."
Hirsch announced his retirement in 1954 but at the Rams' urging he returned for three more seasons, finally leaving the game in 1957. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1968.
"Elroy Hirsch helped revolutionize the game of pro football as one of the first big-play receivers," said Hall of Fame President John Bankert. "His contribution to the game will forever be preserved here in Canton."
His reputation certainly was enhanced by the 1953 movie "Crazylegs, All-American," in which he played himself. He also appeared in the 1955 film "Unchained," which featured the classic Righteous Brothers hit "Unchained Melody" and was nominated for an Oscar.
"People nowadays throw around the word `legend,' and I'm not sure we take time to really think about what that means," Murawski said. "Elroy was truly a legend -- he had a movie made about him.
"He told me one time that the last game he played in the L.A. Coliseum, the fans literally tore the uniform off his body. He left in his jockstrap or shorts or something like that. It was true chaos.
"I always said that since Elroy was such a common man, that people in Madison probably didn't appreciate the lofty position and esteem that he held throughout the country."
Athletic director: Hirsch took over as athletic director at the UW in 1969 and held the post until 1987. He remains the longest-tenured AD in school history.
He inherited a department with a $220,000 debt and a football team that had not won a game in two years. He hired John Jardine in 1970 to turn around the football program and enlisted good friend Butch Strickler to hold a fund-raiser that later became the celebrated "Butch's Bologna Bash."
A tireless promoter of the program, he grew particularly attached to the Wisconsin hockey team, which gained national prominence under his watch. He often led the parties at their tournament appearances and one legendary night in Providence, R.I., gave a bartender $500 and told him to give everyone in the house a drink.
"He was the epitome of the type of boss you'd like to have," said former Badgers coach Jeff Sauer, reached this morning on his cell phone in Florida. Sauer was hired to replace Bob Johnson in 1982.
"He was very supportive of hockey, and he loved the enthusiasm of the fans. He put the fans first, and people really appreciated that. He was a great friend and a really great person to work for."
Marsh Shapiro, owner of the Nitty Gritty restaurants, knew Hirsch well dating back to the days when Shapiro was a sportscaster with WKOW/Ch. 27.
"It's a sad day. He was a great guy," said Shapiro, who had lunch with Hirsch a few months ago. "One of the first things he did when he came here was go out to Mautz Paint and get all the red paint he could lay his hands on. Then he came back and started painting everything that wasn't moving red at the stadium.
"One of the things I remember so vividly is the fact I saw him cry with joy on so many occasions when we'd win a big game. He was a players' athletic director. He loved to be around the athletes and reveled in the thrills and joys they got in playing the game."
Hirsch retired in 1987, noting at the time, "There's nothing worse than a retired guy hanging around his old job. I don't like that. So I make myself scarce. If I can help, they know my phone number, and I'll come running."
He did, so to speak. Until his death, Hirsch served as honorary chairman and race starter for the Crazylegs Classic, a 5-mile run that was first held in 1981 and remains a major fund-raiser for the UW.
1923: Born June 17 in Wausau, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Otto Hirsch. Raised in Wausau.
1941: Graduates from Wausau High School, praised as one of the greatest prep athletes in Wisconsin Valley League history.
1942: Comes to the UW and plays football with the Badgers for one season. Becomes one of the Badgers' best players. Tagged Oct. 17 with the name of "Crazylegs" after a 62-yard touchdown run at Soldier Field in Chicago. A reporter from the Chicago Daily News is credited with giving him the nickname.
1942: A lieutenant in the Marine Corps, he is ordered to transfer to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to start basic training.
1943: Plays for the University of Michigan and becomes the first man to letter in four sports. Besides football, he participates in baseball, basketball and track.
1945: First-round NFL draft choice by Cleveland.
1946: Joins the Chicago Rockets of the All-America Football Conference.
1946: Marries Ruth Stahmer. Eventually has two children, a son, Winn, and a daughter, Patty.
1948: Suffers a skull injury that nearly ends his career.
1949: Joins the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League. Receives a bachelor's degree from Baldwin-Wallace.
1951: Helps lead the Rams to their only National Football League championship.
1953: The story of Hirsch's life, "Crazylegs, All American," is released as a movie.
1955: Appears in the movie "Unchained."
1957: Retires from professional football. Appears in the film "Zero Hour." Accepts a position with Union Oil Co. of Los Angeles.
1960: Becomes general manager of the Rams.
1965: Inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
1968: Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
1969: Returns to Madison to become athletic director of the University of Wisconsin.
1973: Sues S.C. Johnson and Son of Racine over the use of his nickname for a women's shaving gel.
1974: Becomes a member of the Collegiate Football Hall of Fame.
1975: The State Building Commission denies the use of tax money for a Field House remodeling project.
1975: Considered for the athletic director's position at the University of Hawaii. Turns the job down.
1977: Inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame. State Rep. Richard Pabst, of Milwaukee, calls for his firing for failure to produce winning football and basketball programs.
1980: Admits that an alumnus of the University may have committed a recruiting violation in the football program.
1982: Hires Steve Yoder to replace Bill Cofield as men's basketball coach after much-criticized search.
1982: First annual Crazylegs run is held.
1983: Football program comes under fire again as new instances of recruiting violations are alleged.
1984: Inducted into the University of Michigan Hall of Honor.
1987: Retires as athletic director June 30. The day before, a resolution is passed in the state Legislature praising his work as athletic director. Sen. Michael Ellis of Neenah refuses to sign on saying Hirsch did a "lousy job."
1987: Joins WTMJ radio as a UW football commentator. Is criticized for appearing in a commercial with then football coach Don Morton, promoting a brand of beer to raise money for an indoor practice facility.
2000: Admitted to Meriter Hospital for tests. No further information is made available.
2003: Attends his final Crazylegs Classic on April 26.