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Saccomano: Rams have rich history, tied to Broncos


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- To many current fans, a game against the St. Louis Rams conjures up memories of "The Greatest Show on Turf," the Rams marvelous world championship team of several years ago.

Those are great memories, but the franchise history is much deeper than that, and inexorably tied to late Denver Broncos General Manager Fred Gehrke.

The Rams started out as the Cleveland Rams and were moved to Los Angeles by then-owner Dan Reeves (no relation to our Dan).

In the City of Angels, the Rams flourished as the model for the Golden Age of Pro Football (there have been several, including the current, but that was the first), beginning in the post-war years and continuing through the 1950's.

They played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, had two future Hall of Famers ALTERNATING in Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin—and one was married to one of Hollywood's hottest stars of the era, and one of history's most legendary stars. Waterfield's spouse was the legendary Jane Russell, herself the subject of books on Hollywood and sociological influences.

They helped bring pro sports and pro football to the West Coast and played before huge crowds at the Coliseum. Besides the quarterback position, the Rams' three halfbacks were all legends.

Here comes the Broncos hook.

The halfbacks were Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, the football legend whose nickname said it all; Glenn Davis, "Mr. Outside," of Army fame and a Heisman Trophy winner at West Point; and Fred Gehrke. Who? Who was Fred Gehrke, you say?

Well, besides being the future Broncos general manager and the man who hired me, Fred is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Pioneer Award winner for what he did while with the Rams.

He was the starting halfback for a time, ahead of those two legends, and his nickname was "Leather," indicating his toughness.

But under that toughness was an artistic heart.

An art major at the University of Utah, Fred was a very creative man, and he made three very significant contributions to pro football then, and to pro football now.

Fred got tired of having his nose broken in pileups at the line of scrimmage, so he designed a single bar that could be attached to the front of the helmet. He called it a "face mask." It was quickly adopted, about as fast as you could say, "I do not want a broken nose."

He also noted that kickers would be better in a game if they could warm up on the sidelines, but how? You could not have them kicking the ball into the stands, or onto the field of play. So Fred designed a net into which kickers could kick while getting ready to enter a game. You have all watched kickers work the net, likely without any thought that someone actually had to invent this. Yes, that was Fred.

But his most creative idea was neither of those.

As I wrote, he was an art major. And he got this crazy idea about painting Rams horns on the side of the leather helmets. He went to owner Dan Reeves and asked if he could do this, Reeves said yes, and Fred set about individually painting a stenciled Ram horn on each side of every helmet. Naturally, like so many great American inventions, it happened in Fred's garage.

Then he delivered them in his pickup truck, and he always told me there was an audible "Ooooh" from the 92,000 fans in the Coliseum when the Rams first took the field wearing logos on their helmets, an absolute first in pro football.

Again, the helmets were leather, so they got banged around quite a bit during games. So after the game the helmets went back into the bed of Fred's pickup truck and the starting halfback took them to his garage and touched them up for next week's game.

And now virtually every pro, college and high school team has a logo of some form on its helmet (Cleveland Browns, Penn State, and a scattering of others do not for philosophical reasons, not because stencils do not work in their cities).

But the idea started somewhere, and it was with Fred Gehrke of the Los Angeles Rams.

I was honored to represent the Broncos at my old boss's funeral in Southern California several years ago.

The legendary Ram Fred Gehrke was buried in a Broncos sweater.

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