Hirsch was Three-Sport Star in Wausau

Hirsch was Three-Sport Star in Wausau
Posted on 04/22/2019
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Monday, April 22, 2019

Hirsch was a three-sport star in Wausau

Jim Hoehn

Special to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

This is the eighth in a series of stories on the top 10 best high school athletes in Wisconsin history as selected by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, leading up to the Wisconsin High School Sports Awards on May 8 at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton.

Although his unique running style eventually earned him one of the most recognizable nicknames in sports, Elroy Hirsch’s exploits at Wausau High School gained him the reputation at the time as one of the greatest athletes in the state.

Hirsch’s high school athletic achievements have stood the test of time, earning him a spot on the statewide top 10 list.

Before being accorded the now famous nickname "Crazylegs," Hirsch was a three-sport standout — football, basketball and baseball — at Wausau High School, from which he graduated in 1940. Hirsch later went on to success in four sports in college and then professional football.

Hirsch was a two-time all-conference football player at Wausau under legendary coach Win Brockmeyer. As a junior he led the conference in scoring with 90 points and followed with 102 points in 1940.

Against Merrill in 1940, Hirsch scored five touchdowns on runs of 71, 42, 38, 39 and 37 yards, and had two others called back, according to newspaper reports of the game. He also threw a 30-yard touchdown pass.

Hirsch talked about his time in high school in a 1995 interview with Barry Teicher for the University of Wisconsin oral history project.

"We played single wing and I always played a tailback," Hirsch told Teicher. "One thing I could always do was run fast. Because, I was cowardly when I was a child. I ran away from everything and, to not fight, I ran. I learned to run fast and learned to dodge."

"When I went to high school, I couldn’t make it my sophomore year," he also said. "I wasn’t big enough, I only weighed 125 pounds. But over that next year, I grew to 160. I was one of the bigger guys and, fortunately re-

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tained the speed, still the fear, and became a halfback my junior and senior year."

In 1939, Hirsch led Wausau to the state basketball tournament, where the Lumberjacks lost in the title game to Rhinelander, led by John Kotz. Hirsch was named to the Class A all-state team.

In high school, Hirsch’s accomplishments resulted in other nicknames. A Wausau Daily Herald article from 1940 said, "… the ‘Ghost,’ the name his mates have tacked onto him ..." A year earlier, the Wisconsin Rapids paper wrote, "The outstanding offensive player was Elroy (Swifty) Hirsch, Wausau ball toter …" For college, Hirsch chose Wisconsin over Minnesota with the help of the local business community.

"I was recruited by Wisconsin very heavily, naturally being in the state from Wausau, but my high school coach was Win Brockmeyer, from Minnesota, and he had a little influence there, and I was torn between Minnesota or Wisconsin," Hirsch said in the oral history interview. "But, a group of businessmen in Wausau, very prominent businessmen who were Wisconsin people, got a pool together for my tuition and my room and board, and they sent me to school, so to speak. There were no scholarships in those days."

Francis J. Powers of the Chicago Daily News is credited with giving Hirsch the nickname during a 1942 game against Great Lakes Navy that stuck the rest of his career: "His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions, all at the same time; he looked like a demented duck."

After playing the 1942 season at Wisconsin, Hirsch enlisted in the Marine Corps and was transferred to the University of Michigan as part of the V-12 Navy College Training Program. At Michigan, he lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track in a single academic year. After serving in the Marines until 1946, Hirsch moved to professional football, playing for the Chicago Rockets of the All-America Football Conference from 1946-48.

Hirsch then jumped to the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, where he starred from 1949-57. In 1951, he helped lead the Rams to the championship, setting a single-season record with 1,495 receiving yards — when the season was just 12 games.

In the 1950s, Hirsch was so well known that he appeared in several movies, including playing himself in a 1953 film aptly titled "Crazylegs," which is available on YouTube.

Hirsch became general manager of the Rams in 1960, a position he held until 1969, when he returned to his home state to take over as athletic director at the University of Wisconsin.

Hirsch served as the Badgers athletic director until 1987. In 1988, he was inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame. Hirsch died on Jan. 28, 2004, in Madison at age 80.

Hirsch’s legacy lives on in Madison with the annual Crazylegs Classic run to raise money for Wisconsin athletics. The 38th annual race will be held Saturday.