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Monday, February 23, 2004
'Crazy Legs', Wisconsin athletics giant, was 80 news services

MADISON, Wis. -- After a long touchdown run for Wisconsin in 1942, Elroy Hirsch was described as looking like a "demented duck," whose "crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time."

From that day on, he was known as "Crazy Legs," who went on to become one of the NFL's most exciting players and earn a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

On Wednesday, Hirsch died of natural causes. He was 80.

Hirsch died at an assisted living facility where he lived in Madison, said Wisconsin assistant athletic director Steve Malchow.

"There has never been a more loved and admired ambassador for Wisconsin sports than Elroy Hirsch," Wisconsin AD Pat Richter said. "He loved life, loved people and loved the Badgers."

Best known for his unorthodox running style, Hirsch starred at Wisconsin for one season before moving on to Michigan, played nine years in the NFL and led the Los Angeles Rams to the league title in 1951, had a brief movie career, and eventually returned to Madison as the Badgers' athletic director from 1969-87.

"Elroy Hirsch was a big star in a town of stars," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement. "He was an electrifying player who brought a lot of glamour to the NFL."

His nickname remains one of the most recognizable in football. The Wausau native was inducted into four other halls -- college football's Hall of Fame in 1974, two in his home state and Michigan's Hall of Honor.

Born June 17, 1923, Hirsch led the Badgers to an 8-1-1 record in 1942, rushing for 786 yards. He was given his nickname by Chicago Daily New sports writer Francis Powers, who watched Hirsch's 62-yard TD run in a game at Soldier Field.

According to The New York Times, Otto Hirsch, his father and a Wausau ironworker, once said: "We lived two miles from school. Elroy ran to school and back, skipping and crisscrossing his legs in the cement blocks of the sidewalks. He said it would make him shiftier."

Elroy Hirsch's number 40 is one of four numbers retired at Wisconsin despite his single season there.

Hirsch was assigned to Michigan in 1943 while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. He became the university's only athlete to win letters in four major sports in the same year -- football, basketball, baseball and track.

He once competed in the Big Ten outdoor track championship in Champaign, Ill., in the morning before making the 170-mile trip to Bloomington, Ind., to pitch the second game of a doubleheader in the afternoon. Hirsch was third in the broad jump, and his win over Indiana clinched the conference title for the baseball team.

"He was an outgoing, fun-loving, popular guy," said Don Lund, who played football, basketball and baseball with Hirsch at Michigan. "Everything about him as a man and an athlete was outstanding."

Following his stint in the Marines, he played three seasons for the Chicago Rockets of the All-American Football Conference.

He switched to receiver when he joined the Rams in 1949 and was a key part of their revolutionary three-end offense that exploited the forward pass. A deep threat, he set records for catches, receiving yards and touchdowns as they won the title in 1951, the first of his three consecutive Pro Bowls.

After his playing career, he joined the Rams front office, serving as general manager and assistant to the president.

When he returned to Wisconsin as AD, the Badgers' football team had gone winless in 20 previous games. But he helped raise home attendance from 43,000 in 1968 -- the year he went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- to more than 70,000 per game in just four years.

Before he retired in 1987, the department doubled the number of sports it offered and saw the Badgers win national championships in hockey, men's and women's crew, and men and women's cross country.

Hirsch also had a brief career in the movies. In 1953, Hirsch played himself in the film biography "Crazylegs, All American." He went on to star in the movies "Unchained" in 1955 and "Zero Hour" in 1957.

Wisconsin boosters put on an annual run called the Crazylegs Classic to raise money for athletic scholarships. Since its inception in 1982, it has raised $4.2 million with more than 116,000 runners and walkers.

He was the honorary starter every year and would slap high fives with runners at the finish.

Hirsch is survived by his high school sweetheart Ruth, whom he married in 1946. He once said he tried out for the Michigan basketball team, in part, because the Wolverines had a road trip scheduled that year to Madison, where Ruth was still in school.

He son, Winn, lives in California, while daughter Patty Malmquist lives in a Madison suburb.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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