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AS A KID GROWING UP IN WAUSAU, Wis., Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch never tired of racing his shadow up and down the block. Back and forth he'd run, in endless amusement, his arms dangling slightly forward of his thighs, his heels kicking the palms of his hands.
It wasn't until years later—after he had achieved acclaim as an athletic hero at Wisconsin and Michigan—that Hirsch truly realized just how, well, crazy his legs were. In the spring of 1943 he was on the Wolverines' track team as a long jumper. Coach Ken Doherty, however, thought the All-America runner, who had trademarked the broken field run in his two college seasons, would be far more effective as a sprinter if he could only get Crazylegs to stay in his lane. After examining Hirsch's cleat marks, Doherty saw the problem: While Hirsch's right foot remained straight, his left toed inward. When he brought the leg back, it flew off on a wide tangent, sending him veering off-course. "I must've looked pretty funny," Hirsch would later deadpan.
While that splay-toed gait may have kept Hirsch from a career as an elite sprinter, his crazy legs helped carry football into the modern era. Throughout his five decades in football—as a standout collegian, a trailblazing pro and a college administrator—Hirsch, a member of six halls of fame, was just as oblivious to his own ingenuity as he was when he was a child. The distinctive stride he conceived in his youth, which discouraged would-be tacklers from diving at his knees, was the first of his many pioneering influences on the game.
In 1942, his only season at Wisconsin, Hirsch, a standout at Wausau High, emerged as a triple-threat halfback who was as elusive as his nickname was obvious: After he scampered off the right end and zigzagged through the open field for a 61-yard touchdown that broke a 7-all tie against Great Lakes, Chicago Daily News writer Francis Powers observed that the 19-year-old sophomore starter "ran like a demented duck. His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time." When asked about the sobriquet, the self-effacing Hirsch's stock reply was that "It was better than being called Elroy."
Still, there was no overstating his dynamism on the field. A Look magazine All-America, the 6' 1", 190-pound Hirsch led the No. 3 Badgers to an 8-1-1 record and first-ever victory against a top-ranked opponent. Facing No. 1 Ohio State on Halloween, he threw for a touchdown and accounted for more than 200 yards of total offense in a 17-7 upset.
After finishing the season with 786 yards rushing (on 141 carries) and five touchdowns, and 226 yards passing (on 18 completions), Hirsch enlisted as a Marine in the V-12 training program the following year—which forced his transfer to Michigan. There, he became the first Wolverine to letter in four sports. In the fall he earned All-America honors at tailback again as Michigan went 8-1 and tied with Purdue for a share of the Big Ten title.
When his military assignment kept him from making regular trips back to Madison to visit his Badgers sweetheart and future wife, Ruth Stahmer, Hirsch again displayed some ingenuity: He joined the basketball team. "It was the only way he could get to Madison to see me," Ruth said. As the starting center, Hirsch led the conference in rebounding and finished second on the team in scoring. In the spring of 1944 he pitched the Wolverines' baseball team to a Big Ten championship and distinguished himself as a long jumper on Doherty's conference-winning track and field team.
That season Hirsch completed one of college sports' oddest daily doubles. Participating in the Big Ten Outdoor Track Championships at the University of Illinois, he broad jumped 22' 5�" inches during the preliminary round, then left the meet and traveled by car 150 miles southeast from Champaign to Bloomington, Ind., to pitch the second game of a double-header. After tossing a four-hitter in a 12-1 Wolverines win, Hirsch was greeted by news that his long jump mark had held up for third place at the meet.
The next year Hirsch was dispatched to Parris Island, S.C., and later El Toro, Calif. (He rose through the ranks to U.C. staff sergeant and was ultimately discharged as a second lieutenant.) It was with the Marines in El Toro in 1946 that he made his football return. After another great year, he was invited to play in the Chicago Tribune College Football All-Star Game. Against the NFL champion Los Angeles Rams, Hirsch scored on two long touchdown runs in a 16-0 victory and was named the game's most valuable player.
His early reputation in the pros, however, was as one of the game's most-often injured. Picked fifth overall by the nascent All-America Football Conference Chicago Rockets in 1945, Hirsch struggled to stay healthy in three frightful seasons in the Windy City. The nadir came in a '48 game against the Browns when Hirsch suffered a skull fracture that left him unable to walk for weeks and seriously impaired his coordination.