The Rams of the 1950s were one of the great offenses in league history. With Both quarterbacks on their way to Canton and a receiver named Crazy Legs, their offense was unstoppable. One of the lynchpins on this incredible offense was a split end named Tom Fears. Throughout his career, he lived up to his name by striking fear in many a secondary. This is his story.
Tom Fears was born on December 3, 1922 in Guadalajara, Mexico to a Mexican mother and an American father, a mining engineer. The family moved to Los Angeles when Fears was six and he quickly became known for his work ethic by unloading flowers for $0.25 an hour.
Soon, he excelled on athletic fields throughout the city and Manual Arts High School. He went to Santa Clara University for a year until the call of duty came a calling with the advent of the Second World War. His father had been taken captive in a Japanese POW camp and young Tom pleaded ever so desperately to be assigned to the Eastern Theater. But instead, he was sent to Colorado Springs to play for the local service team.
His heart beat ever harder until that magical day in 1944 when he heard the wonderful news that the Japanese had released his father. Knowing that his father was safe and sound, Tom Fears could now focus on becoming the very best football player that he could possibly be. Life was too short for him not to pursue greatness.
At the war's conclusion, though he was drafted by the Rams, then in Cleveland, Tom Fears decided to return to college and transferred to UCLA. He knew that he needed a bit more seasoning before competing against the best in the world. Fears didn't waste his opportunity to sharpen his football skills, as he was named first-team All-America in both of his years as a Bruin. By 1948, Tom Fears was ready for the spotlight and moved on to the Rams.
By the time Tom Fears reported to the Rams' training camp, the franchise had been in L.A. for three years, having moved there when the Browns were conceived in Cleveland. Fears enjoyed great success very early partly due to the brilliance of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and, eventually, Norm Van Brocklin. Between Waterfield's and Van Brocklin's passing, Tom Fears began his career by leading the NFL in receptions in each of his first three years. He even broke the league's record with 77 receptions in 1949.
But that record would be short-lived as Tom Fears put on one of the greatest seasons in the NFL's young history the following year. He caught 84 passes for 1,116 yards (league leader) and seven touchdowns while leading the league with 93 yards per game. He even set the single-game record with 18 receptions in a game, beating the Green Bay Packers 45-14 on November 12, 1950. As a result of his greatness that year, Tom Fears was named an All-Pro and invited to the Pro Bowl for the only time in his career.
It wasn't just the brilliance of his quarterbacks that made Tom Fears a player many secondaries feared. No, there was something deep within his soul that powered his legs every Sunday. Could it be that his mother was living her American Dream through her son? Could it be that Fears looked at opposing defenses the way he had always imagined staring down his father's captors in Japan? Whatever it was, it left opposing defenses sprawled on the ground and gasping for precious oxygen week after week.
By 1951, the Rams were ready for a long-awaited championship. In front of just under 60,000 in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, the Rams battled the Browns in a clash of two of the best teams of the decade. Back and forth the game went with neither team giving any quarter. They knew the magnitude of the moment.
As with many great players, when championship moments came, Tom Fears delivered, catching four passes for 146 yards, an incredible average, but it was his last catch that etched his name within the annals of the greatest championship moments in NFL history. Late in the fourth quarter, Tom Fears caught a 73-yard pass from Norm Van Brocklin. Giddily gliding into the end zone, Tom Fears brought a championship to his hometown. It would be the last title the Rams won until 1999.
From there, his career petered down, never leading the league in any category again. He was still effective though, posting 500-yard, multi-touchdown seasons with regularity. The Rams returned to the NFL championship again in 1955 but lost badly to the Browns. As famed Cleveland quarterback Otto Graham bid adieu, Tom Fears caught just one pass for 16 yards. Tom Fears spent one last forgettable year in the NFL before retiring. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970, but the game wasn't done with him just yet.
After retiring as a player, Tom Fears stuck around the game as a coach, first serving as an assistant in Green Bay in 1959 and 1962-1965 as well as a stint with the Rams and expansion Falcons. When the Saints were born in 1967, he became their first head coach, serving in that role through the 1970 season and never posting anywhere close to a winning season. He would never serve as a head coach in the NFL again, but he still remained in the game. For the next two decades, Tom Fears would serve as the Eagles' offensive coordinator, coach in the WFL and the ILAF while also serving as a scout for various NFL teams and a technical advisor for movies such as North Dallas Forty.
Tom Fears died on January 4, 2000. Nearly a year later, the 49ers' Terrell Owens broke his record for most receptions in a game, snagging 20. Even in death, Tom Fears's legacy could be felt throughout the hallowed halls of Canton.