One of the best quarterbacks of the 1950's was Norm Van Brocklin. Nicknamed "the Dutchman", the product of Walnut Creek, California was involved in one of the NFL's great early quarterback controversies with Bob Waterfield while leading the Los Angeles Rams to the NFL championship. Late in his career, he stunned the NFL world and led the Philadelphia Eagles to their last NFL championship for 57 years, forever cementing his status as one of the game's greats. This is his story.
Norman Mack Van Brocklin was born on March 15, 1926 in Parade, South Dakota to a large Dutch family with nine children. His family moved to Walnut Creek when he was young and he was soon starring on various ballparks around town. As a three sport star at Acalanes High School, Van Brocklin quarterbacked the football team to winning records in his sophomore and junior years. He skipped his senior year to fight for his country in World War II in the US Navy.
After his military service, Van Brocklin went to the University of Oregon. As the Webfoot's starter for 1947 he led them to a 7-3 record. He led Oregon to a 9-2 record and a Cotton Bowl loss to SMU, finishing 14th in the nation. Following his collegiate career, Norm Van Brocklin was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth round of the 1949 NFL Draft.
When Norm Van Brocklin arrived in Los Angeles, the Rams already had a franchise quarterback in Bob Waterfield. The future Hall of Fame quarterback had already led the franchise to the 1945 NFL title and was married to Hollywood icon Jane Russell. Backing up a future Hall of Fame quarterback is always a daunting task, but coach Clark Shaughnessy had a plan. In his rookie year, Norm Van Brocklin didn't start a single game but still saw spot action throughout the year and managed to pass for 601 yards and six touchdowns. The Rams made it all the way to the NFL championship game that year, but were shut out by the Eagles.
The following year, Shaughnessy felt like his plan was ready to be revealed to the rest of the league. He started Van Brocklin in six games that year while Waterfield started the other half. Norm Van Brocklin did well that year, throwing for 2,061 yards and 18 touchdowns against 14 interceptions while he made his first Pro Bowl. Incredibly, Bob Waterfield also made the Pro Bowl that year, becoming the first pair of quarterbacks from the same team to make the Pro Bowl in the same year. Led by their unique two-quarterback system, the Rams again made it to the NFL championship game that year but lost 30-28 to one of the league's newest teams, the Cleveland Browns.
The 1951 season was a special year for the Los Angeles Rams which began with a record setting performance by Norm Van Brocklin. In their opening game against the New York Yanks, Van Brocklin threw for an NFL record 554 yards, five touchdowns and ran for another score in a 54-14 domination over the now defunct team. Those 554 passing yards are still an NFL record to this day. As the year went along, Van Brocklin made it to another Pro Bowl despite only starting two games and the Rams made it to another NFL championship game against the Browns. In a back and forth battle, Norm Van Brocklin saved the day by tossing the game winning touchdown pass 73 yards to Tom Fears in the final minutes to secure a 24-17 victory.
The next few years were a bit of a transition for the Los Angeles Rams as the franchise slowly gave Norm Van Brocklin more and more starting opportunities. By the time Bob Waterfield retired after the 1954 season, the job was Van Brocklin's. He led the team to the NFL championship game the following year against the Browns where they lost 38-14. It would be their last appearance in the NFL championship game in the pre-Super Bowl era. After guiding the team to a 6-6 record in 1957, Norm Wan Brocklin announced his retirement but quickly changed his mind and was traded to Philadelphia where his legend would grow.
Norm Van Brocklin's career got a boost when he moved to Philadelphia. He hadn't been to the Pro Bowl since 1955 but he made the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons in the City of Brotherly Love. In his first year, he passed for 2,409 yards and 15 touchdowns. The following year, he passed for 2,617 yards and 16 touchdowns. while the team finished 7-5. Feeling like he had some unfinished business with the team, he decided to return for one final season.
The Eagles had ended the 1940's as champions and began a long aging process in 1951. By 1960, they were widely viewed as well past their primes. And that is why they played every Sunday. Norm Van Brocklin had his greatest season in 1960, throwing for 2,471 yards and 24 touchdowns while leading the team to a 10-2 record. For his efforts, not only was he invited to his final Pro Bowl, but Norm Van Brocklin was also named the NFL's MVP.
Somehow, this aging group of veterans made it to the NFL championship game against the Green Bay Packers. After more than a decade of irrelevance, the Packers were back in the championship hunt when Vince Lombardi joined the organization. In total, 10 future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame were on that Packers roster. The Eagles were undaunted and ended the first half of the championship game up 10-6. After the Packers went ahead 14-10 in the fourth quarter, the Eagles drove down the field before rookie running back Ted Dean ended the drive with a five yard scamper into the end zone to go ahead 17-14.
The Packers barely had time left and drove down deep into Eagle's territory. On the final play of the season, quarterback Bart Starr dumped off a pass to fullback Jim Taylor who was then tackled by Chuck Bednarik. Bednarik lay on him until the clock wound down. Somehow, someway, the Eagles managed to beat a team with so much talent for the NFL championship and Norm Van Brocklin's playing career ended in the perfect way. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Immediately after retiring as a player, Norm Van Brocklin sought to be a head coach. Originally, he thought that Eagle's ownership had agreed on a hand-shake deal to have him replace the retiring Buck Shaw as their head coach. However, that proved to be a misunderstanding and Van Brocklin cut ties with the Eagles.
However, an unexpected opportunity soon arose when the expansion Minnesota Vikings hired him as their first coach. Expansion teams are often atrocious and the Vikings were no exception. Even though the team featured two franchise cornerstones in Fran Tarkenton and Jim Marshall, the Vikings could only muster three victories in their inaugural season. Much was the same for the next two seasons but 1964 seemed to be a turning point with the team ending the year with three straight wins to give them an 8-5-1 record.
Unfortunately, they struggled thereafter, never again ending a season with a winning record under Norm Van Brocklin's leadership. After a squabble with Tarkenton, the quarterback was granted his request to be traded after the 1966 season. Due to the squabble and a dwindling record, the team lost confidence in Van Brocklin and fired him after that season.
After taking a year off, Norm Van Brocklin was hired as the Atlanta Falcon's second head coach after Norb Hecker was fired following a disasterous 1-12-1 1967 season. Though they never reached higher than second in their division, the team was more patient with Van Brocklin than the Vikings, keeping him around through halfway the 1974 season.
Following his dismissal, Norm Van Brocklin spent his remaining years shuffling between his pecan farm in Social Circle, Georgia and various assistant roles in college football. He succumbed to a heart attack on May 2, 1983 at the age of 57.