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Van Brocklin, Norm(an) Mack

VAN BROCKLIN, Norm(an) Mack

(b. 15 March 1926 in Eagle Butte, South Dakota; d. 2 May 1983 in Monroe, Georgia), football player and National Football League (NFL) coach considered one of the sport's greatest forward-passing quarterbacks.

Van Brocklin was the eighth of nine children born to farmers Mac Van Brocklin and Ethel Van Brocklin. Soon after Van Brocklin's birth the family moved to Walnut Creek, California, where he grew up. Attending Acalanes High School, he was a three-sport star in baseball, basketball, and football. After graduating from high school in 1943, Van Brocklin served in the U.S. Navy until he was discharged in early 1946.

Van Brocklin then enrolled at the University of Oregon and in the fall of 1946, since freshmen were eligible for varsity athletics, he joined the football team. The Oregon team was under the direction of Coach Tex Oliver, an advocate of the single-wing offense, and Van Brocklin ended up as fifth-string tailback because of his extremely slow running speed. But in 1947 Oregon hired a new football coach, Jim Aiken, who installed the T-formation offense and made Van Brocklin a quarterback.

By the third game of the 1947 season, Van Brocklin was the starting quarterback. His breakthrough game as a forward passer came against the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), when he completed 10 of 23 pass attempts for 197 yards, including two touchdown passes, in a victory over Stanford. Van Brocklin was the leading passer in the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) for the season, finishing with 76 completions in 168 attempts for 939 yards, and he was named to the all-conference team.

Van Brocklin returned to quarterback for Oregon in his junior season in 1948, and again he was the leading passer in the PCC, completing 68 of 139 attempts for 1,010 yards. Highlights of the season included tossing a game-winning forty-seven-yard touchdown pass against Southern California and two scoring passes for a narrow win over Washington. Van Brocklin capped off the season by passing for 145 yards and one touchdown in a loss to Southern Methodist in the Cotton Bowl game.

For his offensive exploits in 1948, Van Brocklin finished sixth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy and received first team spots as an All-American from the International News Service (INS) and Deke Houlgate, a well-known Los Angeles sportswriter. The Los Angeles Rams, the only team aware that he would graduate early from Oregon, selected Van Brocklin in the fourth round of the 1949 National Football League (NFL) draft. That summer, after graduating with a B.S. degree in physical education and playing for the College All-Stars in Chicago, he reported to the Rams for the 1949 season. Later that fall Van Brocklin married Gloria Schiewe, his former biology teacher at Oregon, with whom he raised six children.

Van Brocklin, known as "the Dutchman," was six feet, one inch and 199 pounds, and had an exceptionally strong arm and large hands, which combined to give him the capability of lofting towering deep passes, rifling short "bullet" passes, or flicking short "touch" passes with remarkable accuracy. But Los Angeles already had a future member of the Hall of Fame at quarterback, Bob Waterfield, and Van Brocklin was initially relegated to the sidelines. Van Brocklin was soon discontented, and so began the controversy and feuding that typified most of his NFL career, both as a player and as a coach. His temper and lack of tact created confrontations with players, coaches, and sportswriters.

After playing minimally in 1949, Van Brocklin developed his capability as a passer to challenge Waterfield for playing time in the 1950 season. Coach Joe Stydahar began to rotate the two players, making neither happy. Sharing the playing time in 1950, Van Brocklin led the NFL in passing for the first of three times in his career (also in 1952 and 1954) with 127 complete of 233 attempts for 2,061 yards. Los Angeles reached the NFL championship game in 1950, the first of four times during Van Brocklin's years with the Rams. For the 1951 season opener Waterfield was out with an injury, and Van Brocklin proceeded to set an NFL record on 28 September 1951 as he passed for 554 yards against the New York Yanks. With the two quarterbacks sharing the playing time again, the Rams captured the 1951 NFL championship with a 24–17 win over the Cleveland Browns after Van Brocklin threw a seventy-three-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.

Waterfield retired after the 1952 season, leaving the quarterback spot to Van Brocklin. In 1954 Van Brocklin compiled his best season statistically, as he completed 139 of 260 passes for 2,637 yards. But that same year the Rams drafted another quarterback, Bill Wade, and by 1955 Coach Sid Gillman was rotating the two players. Again unhappy, Van Brocklin announced his retirement at the close of the 1957 season, but the Rams traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles before the 1958 season. The deal paid off for Philadelphia in 1960, when Van Brocklin's passing and leadership carried the Eagles to the NFL championship, the second of Van Brocklin's career. He was named the league's Most Valuable Player. Announcing his retirement as a player after the title game, Van Brocklin believed he had been promised the Philadelphia head coach job for 1961, but no offer was made.

In early 1961 Van Brocklin was named head coach of the Minnesota Vikings expansion team. Coaching in Minnesota for six years (1961–1966), he posted an overall record of 29–51–4. His best season was in 1964, when the Vikings went 8–5–1. He was a strict disciplinarian both on and off the field, and his "gruff" approach toward the players and sportswriters created hard feelings. His long feud with the quarterback Fran Tarkenton culminated in Van Brocklin's sudden resignation in early 1967, just one year after signing a long-term contract.

Van Brocklin coached the College All-Stars in the summer of 1968. Three games into the season he was hired as head coach and general manager by the Atlanta Falcons. He compiled an overall record of 37–49–3 while at Atlanta, and his best season was in 1973 with a 9–5–0 mark. But his feuds with players and the media culminated in his dismissal midway through the 1974 season.

After his NFL days Van Brocklin did occasional sports analyst work with Atlanta's WTBS television, and in 1979 he served as an assistant coach at Georgia Tech. But brain surgery that year ended his active football career, and Van Brocklin retired to his pecan farm near Social Circle, Georgia. He died near there at age fifty-seven after a heart attack.

As a head coach Van Brocklin's fiery personality invariably led to problems, no one disputes his place as one of the greatest forward passers in football history. An adept ball handler, he was the prototype drop-back passer. During his twelve seasons as an NFL player Van Brocklin passed for over 2,000 yards in seven different seasons, completed 53.6 percent of his career pass attempts, and was selected for the Pro Bowl game on nine occasions. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1966 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

Material on the highlights of Van Brocklin's career is in many works on NFL history. Among the most useful are Phil Berger, Great Moments in Pro Football (1969); Steve Bisheff, Los AngelesRams (1973); and Mickey Herskowitz, The Quarterbacks: The Uncensored Truth About the Men in the Pocket (1990). A good summary of his coaching days is in "The Dutchman Is Half an Inch Away," Sports Illustrated (13 Sept. 1965). Obituaries are in the New York Times (3 May 1983) and the Los Angeles Times (3 May 1983).

Raymond Schmidt

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