Waterfield, Robert Staton ("Bob")
WATERFIELD, Robert Staton ("Bob")
(b. 26 July 1920 in Elmira, New York; d. 25 March 1983 in Burbank, California), star quarterback, runner, punter, and kicker for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Cleveland and Los Angeles Rams.
Nothing in Waterfield's childhood would have led anyone to believe he would one day become a legendary quarterback in the National Football League (NFL). His father, Jack, moved the family to Van Nuys in Southern California when Waterfield was four. His father died five years later and Waterfield's mother, Frances, was left to raise and support her son on her own. At Van Nuys High School he played football and was on the gymnastics team, but he did not become starting quarterback until his senior year.
Waterfield graduated from high school in 1938 and worked at an aircraft factory before entering UCLA as a physical education major. He did not play football his freshman year, but became the starting quarterback in 1941, lettering that year and the next. In 1942 he was named an All-American and led the Bruins to their first Rose Bowl, although they lost 9–0 to the Georgia Bulldogs. He left UCLA for a stint in the U.S. Army, where he was commissioned a second lieutenant, but returned a few months later after being discharged for medical reasons (a knee injury from playing college football).
At this point in his career, it seemed that Waterfield's greatest claim to fame would be his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, screen star Jane Russell, on 24 April 1943. Unlike his high-profile wife, Waterfield was reserved and serious, and often resented the spotlight that Hollywood fame brought. His football career was far from over, however. In his graduating year of 1944–1945, he led UCLA to tenth place in offense; Waterfield himself ranked fourth in passing yardage and first in punting (he once kicked a ninety-one-yard punt). At the end of that season, he played in the East-West Shrine Game, and it was there on 1 January 1945, that Waterfield burst definitively onto the national stage as a star football player. Leading his team from behind in the fourth quarter, he threw two touchdown passes, helping the West to win the game 13–7. He also led the game in rushing (53 yards), made three impressive punts (80-, 74-, and 60-yards), and scored the winning touchdown himself on a 12-yard run. For his efforts, Waterfield was unanimously awarded the William M. Coffmann award for outstanding offensive player of the Shrine Bowl—the first player to receive the award. Waterfield graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in physical education.
Waterfield was a third-round draft pick for the Cleveland Rams in 1944; the team offered him a $7,500 contract, more money than any NFL player had ever been offered. It was money well spent, however, as Waterfield led the Rams to a 15–14 championship win over the Washington Redskins, passing for three touchdowns and kicking two extra points. His cool leadership and pinpoint passing accuracy won him the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, the first rookie to be so honored. Waterfield played both offense and defense during his first four years with the Rams, garnering twenty interceptions. When the team moved to Los Angeles in 1946, Waterfield, who had been popular in Southern California while at UCLA, enjoyed a resurgence. He led the league in passing against such seasoned star quarterbacks as Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh. Despite this star performance, beginning in 1947 Waterfield started to share quarterbacking duties with Norm Van Brocklin, playing alternate quarters. In 1949 the duo led the Rams to the NFL western title. One of his star receivers, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, remarked that Waterfield was the best football player he had ever seen.
During Waterfield's eight-year NFL career, he was named to the All-NFL team three times. He led the Rams to three division championships, tied for another, and captured the NFL championships in 1945 and 1951. Waterfield was the league's passing leader twice during his career, and led the league a number of times in kicking extra points and field goals. He also ranked among the best in punting. In 1951 he appeared in his first movie, Jungle Manhunt, with Johnny Weissmuller.
Waterfield retired in 1952 at the height of his career, offering no reason for the move, though many assumed it was because of having to share the quarterback position. During his career he amassed 11,849 passing yards, 98 passing touchdowns, 13 rushing touchdowns, 615 extra points, 60 field goals, and had a 42.4-yard punting average. In 1965 he was the first Ram elected to the NFL Hall of Fame.
Shortly after retiring, Waterfield and his wife, Jane Russell, adopted three infants. In 1953 he starred in Crazylegs, All-American, a movie about Crazylegs Hirsch, in which he played himself. Waterfield and his wife also formed the production company Russ-Field Productions; Waterfield produced a film starring his wife entitled The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown in 1957.
In 1959, when Sid Gilman resigned as head coach of the Rams, Waterfield took the job. Although he had enjoyed great success as a player, his talents do not appear to have translated into coaching. Football writers began calling the Rams the "F-Troop" of the NFL—a reference to a popular television show of the time about a group of incompetent soldiers. Near the end of his third consecutive losing season, with a record of 9–25, Waterfield resigned. He remained as a scout for the Rams and, even though he later remarked that he did not enjoy scouting, drafted such future Rams stars as Roman Gabriel, Merlin Olsen, and Deacon Jones.
Waterfield's marriage had been rocky for some time, and Russell's drinking and infidelity finally led to a divorce in 1968. Waterfield later married Ann Mangus. After a long bout with a respiratory illness, Waterfield died at the age of sixty-two in Burbank, California.
While his coaching and film careers have quickly been forgotten, Waterfield's prowess on the football field remains legendary. His cool leadership, accuracy in passing, and skills at running, punting, and kicking make him one of the premiere athletes in professional football history.
Maxwell Stiles, Football's Finest Hour: The Shrine East-West Game (1950), summarizes the events of Waterfield's life in college and the NFL, focusing on his leap to stardom at the East-West Shrine Bowl in 1945. Jane Russell's autobiography, Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours (1985), relates much of Waterfield's career and life, as well as their marriage and divorce, from her point of view. Deacon Jones and John Klawitter, Headslap: The Life and Times of Deacon Jones (1996), describes Waterfield's coaching career from a player's perspective, and offers some personal observations about his marriage to Russell. Joe Horrigan and Bob Carroll, Football Greats (1998), details Waterfield's major accomplishments on the field and relates some anecdotes.
Markus H. McDowell