Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Rich Saul's impact extended beyond Rams
By Mike Sando
Rich Saul's former Los Angeles Rams teammates recalled his Pro Bowl talent, scary toughness and, humorously, a legendary appetite that waned only in the retired center's final days.
Early in Saul's career, when he was putting on weight to fulfill George Allen's vision for him as a center, the former middle linebacker from Michigan State would slip a bag of coins under his cap for weigh-ins, fearful the team would cut him if the scale revealed his actual poundage.
That was not all.
"When we would go through the [cafeteria] line in camp, most would put a plate on a tray and then food on plate," recalled former Rams defensive tackle Phil Olsen. "Rich had to eat so much, he would load the food on his tray. He would skip the plate. I'll tell you, up until a few days before he died, we were stuffing him full of food in the hospital."
Olsen and Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood joined the Rams in 1971, a year after Saul. The three bonded quickly, as did their families. Olsen and Youngblood shared a few laughs Monday when remembering Saul, who died Sunday from leukemia at age 64. But they kept coming back to the impact Saul made outside football.
Rich Saul was a six-time Pro Bowler for the Los Angeles Rams.
"I can't express what Richie meant to us," Youngblood said.
Evidence of Saul's impact remains visible in the passages his grown son, Josh, and others shared through a website chronicling the family's recent journey.
"The best was the way he looked at my mom tonight," Josh wrote in an April 6 entry after his father watched the Masters and continued to engage those close to him.
"I have never seen 'I love you' so clearly spoken without words," Josh continued. "Theirs is a bond that will live on forever. I am so thankful to have had such an amazing example of marriage and family leadership to follow."
One of a kind
Saul finished his Rams career with six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl during a seven-year run as their starting center. That he played mostly special teams for his first five seasons, then emerged as a perennial Pro Bowl choice, seems incomprehensible in a modern context. There was no free agency at the time, however. A team could more easily stockpile and develop talent.
The Rams were stacked on the offensive line under coach Chuck Knox, with Hall of Famer Tom Mack at one guard spot and veterans elsewhere on the line. Saul had never played center in college, putting him at a significant disadvantage. The Rams also made Saul their long-snapper, forcing him to learn another skill that was previously foreign to him. Not that he had much choice in the matter.
And so Saul played special teams with a vengeance, earning the nickname "Super Saul" -- shortened to "Soup" with an eye toward his prodigious appetite. His contract was for $12,500, the minimum at the time, but an incentive clause tied to special-teams tackles allowed Saul to collect additional income.
"He made like 100 tackles on special teams that first year," Olsen said. "He just ran down the field and knocked everybody down."
They still called special-teams units "suicide squads" back then, as reflected in a 1971 Life Magazine cover story featuring Saul and others around the league.
"The injury rate is eight times higher on suicide squads than for any other position," a caption in the magazine read.
Saul was undaunted. He'd already overcome a catastrophic knee injury at Michigan State, where Saul and his twin brother, Ron, had earned All-America honors, Rich as a linebacker and Ron as an offensive linemen. That the two would combine to play 318 regular-season games came as an upset following Rich's injury.
"The only thing holding the upper leg to the lower leg was the skin," Olsen said. "It is amazing he got to play in the NFL. He would describe that as a miracle surgery performed by Dr. Lanny Johnson."
Youngblood went to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and set a standard for grit by playing through the 1979 postseason, including the Super Bowl, with a broken fibula.
"I was a defensive end and Richie was a center, and I knew that I should not go in there because Rich Saul will hurt you if you go into his territory," Youngblood said. "There was many a linebacker in the league who did not like to see the schedule knowing they had to go see Rich Saul. That was going to be an all-day affair."
Former Rams video director Mickey Dukich once recounted for the Los Angeles Times a story of Saul, a former wrestler, applying a choke hold on teammate Butch Robertson, a six-time Pro Bowl choice at linebacker.
"Butch passed out," Dukich told the Times for the 1987 piece. "Rich thought he had killed Butch."
Youngblood confirmed the basic details.
"Rich, there was a little conflict in the locker room and it resulted in, he didin't hurt the guy, but he did show that you didn't mess with Rich Saul," Youngblood said. "That was the message. Message was well received."
On the line
The Rams led the NFL in rushing with 2,799 yards during the 1980 season, a total surpassed just twice in subsequent years, by the 1984 Chicago Bears and 2006 Atlanta Falcons. The Rams ranked among the league leaders in that category throughout most of the 1970s, before and after Saul succeeded Ken Iman as the full-time center in 1975.
"[Saul] became an extremely proficient blocker on a team that still used primarily man-to-man blocking on defensive line stunts -- you never see this any more! -- and did a multitude of blocking combinations on running plays," Mack, an 11-time Pro Bowl choice with the Rams from 1966-1978, wrote in an email. "We could slip, slide, fold and cut block defenses as effectively as any team in football and we led the league in rushing. That alone proved he was both smart and a great athlete!"
Saul played 176 regular-season games and 12 playoff games, including the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh following the 1979 season, all for the Rams under four head coaches: Allen, Tommy Prothro, Knox and Ray Malavasi. He was one of three NFL players -- Jack Lambert and Robert Brazile were the others -- to earn Pro Bowl honors every season from 1976 through 1981.
Olsen recalled the famous quote from Jackie Robinson about a life lacking import except to the extent it has impacted the lives of others. He said Saul, who succeeded in finance and real estate following football, lived that ethic and cared more about what people thought of him off the field than on it.
"We used to talk about that a lot," Olsen said.
"He took great pride in being a father and a husband and a grandfather. ... He was always going to the hospital to talk to kids with cancer or to send a note or a card or a picture or go to speak to a group that needed something done. He was a very strong advocate for abused and battered children, very active with the Cancer Society and all those organizations that needed someone to stand up and speak on their behalf.
"That is how people will remember him, as a humanitarian, a good father, a good friend."