Fears, Thomas Jesse ("Tom")

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FEARS, Thomas Jesse ("Tom")

(b. 3 December 1923 in Guadalajara, Mexico; d. 4 January 2000 in Palm Desert, California), Hall of Fame football player who for fifty years held the record for most receptions in a game.

If anyone deserves to be called a true Southern California sports hero, it is Fears. He grew up in Los Angeles, attended Southern California schools, and played and coached for the Los Angeles Rams. Fears attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles and played both offense and defense and won All-Southern California honors as tight end. During those years, he worked as an usher at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where he would later play for the Rams.

After graduating in 1941, he attended Santa Clara College and earned accolades and attention from the NFL as a receiver for his size and strength. After two years of college, Fears joined the Air Force in 1944 to serve in World War II. He was captain of the Second Air Force Super-bombers team (1944–1945). When he returned, the Cleveland Rams drafted him as a future selection in the 1945 draft, not realizing he still had two years before eligibility. Fears transferred to UCLA, where he enjoyed two years as an All-American, lettering both years and graduating in 1948. He was part of the famous "mud bowl" of 1947, so called because of the weather and field conditions during the game, when UCLA won the bid to go to the Rose Bowl. Fears had a number of injuries that year, however, and UCLA was often without his services. Nevertheless, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976.

During the Rams' training camp in 1948, Fears practiced as a defensive back. In his first game he intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown. The Rams then switched him to offense, and he became the first rookie to lead the NFL in receiving honors, going on to lead the league in receptions for the next three seasons.

Along with his teammates Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch and Bob Boyd, the six-foot, two-inch, 215-pound Fears became part of the famous "three-end attack." From 1948 to 1950 he caught an amazing 212 passes for 2,827 yards and 20 touchdowns. He set the league record for receptions in a season with 77 in 1949 and then broke his own record the next year with 80 receptions. On his birthday in 1950, in a game against the Green Bay Packers, he set the record for the most receptions in a game with 18. He held this record for fifty years until 3 December 2000 when Terrell Owens of the 49ers made 20 receptions against the Bears. Also in 1950 he caught three touchdown passes to help the Rams win the Western Division title over the Chicago Bears. The Rams were down 7–3 in the third quarter but they scored 41 points in the fourth quarter to win the game, starting with a 68-yard touchdown pass to Fears.

Fears set the scoring record for a single game in a 70–27 win over the Colts in 1950 and was a major player for the Rams in 1951 when they set records in single-season scoring, passing yards per game, and average points per game (39). With quarterback Bob Waterfield and the three wideouts, the Rams of 1950 had one of the highest scoring offenses in history until they broke many of their own records in 2000 as the St. Louis Rams. Yet Fears always insisted that his skills did not match up to many other receivers. He credited his statistics to the Rams' highly innovative passing attack. His teammate, Elroy Hirsch, took exception to Fears's modesty when he said, "He was as fine a third-down receiver as anyone in the league."

The Rams went to the title game in 1950 but lost to Cleveland 30–28. In the title game the following year, however, Fears caught a 13-yard pass and ran 60 yards to score the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter and give the Rams their first NFL title since moving to the West Coast. Fears was named an All-NFL player twice (1949 and 1950).

The next six years of Fears's career included a number of injuries, and his performance suffered as a consequence. He retired after the 1956 season to spend more time with his wife, Luella, and their six children, ending his career with 5,397 yards and 38 touchdowns. He averaged 13.5 yards per catch in his career and was the first receiver to retire with 400 receptions. Fears also had two interceptions, one defensive touchdown, and kicked twelve extra points and one field goal. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970.

In 1960 Fears became an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Rams, serving under head coach Bob Waterfield, his former quarterback. The two did not enjoy the same success at coaching as they had on the field, and they won just eight games in two seasons. At the end of the 1961 season, Fears joined the Green Bay Packers as an assistant coach and worked under the legendary Vince Lombardi. A new franchise begun in New Orleans in 1967 selected Fears as their first head coach. But the Saints replaced him in his third season after winning only one game of the first six that season.

Fears moved back to California, and in 1974 and 1975 he coached the Southern California Sun, a New World Football League team, for two years. After a long battle with Alzheimer's disease beginning in the 1990s, Fears died at age seventy-seven on 4 January 2000 in Palm Desert, California—just three weeks before the Rams, now in St. Louis, won the league title for the first time since Fears had helped them do so fifty years earlier.

Although Fears was not fast, his ability to run precise patterns and to use his size and strength well made him one of the most prolific receivers of all time.

Howard Roberts, The Story of Pro Football (1953), relates Fears's contributions to the Rams' winning seasons. For summaries and anecdotes of some of Fears's college achievements, see Allison Danzig, The History of American Football: Its Great Teams, Players, and Coaches (1956). Joe Horrigan and Bob Carroll, Football Greats (1998), details Fears's major accomplishments on the field and relates some anecdotes.

Markus H. McDowell