Amazing what types of stories you can uncover by sitting down to talk with those who loved and remember players from the Cleveland Rams.
In researching my book CLEVELAND RAMS: Forgotten NFL Champions, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with family of the late Jim Gillette and Bob Waterfield, the two biggest stars of the 1945 NFL Championship Game. (The two are pictured arm-in-arm in the photo above. Clevelanders will fondly recognize in the background the pale-yellow brick and dusky windows of old Cleveland Stadium. Even then the so-called “Mistake on the Lake,” just 15 years after its construction, seemed to be aging prematurely on the wind- and snow-swept lakefront.)
Waterfield’s son Buck, calling from his home in Santa Maria, California, told me Ram teammates took to calling his father “Waterbuckets,” shortened later to “Buck,” because he could placekick a ball from the 50-yard line and hit a pail in the end zone. “He did it many times,” Buck said, noting the source of his own nickname.
Waterfield, a quarterback who also was excellent on defense, was a superlative athlete overall and one of the last great three-way players: offense, defense, kicking. What isn’t as well known is that his placekicking prowess was uncovered not at UCLA but after he was in the pros. Rams backfield coach Bob Snyder gave Waterfield a placekicking tryout during his rookie camp at Bowling Green, and he was in — a decision that would prove providential as Waterfield’s PAT was the decisive margin in the Rams’ 15-14 title win over the Washington Redskins in near-zero degree weather.
“Whatever my dad did, he did extremely well,” Buck told me. “Not many people know that he was an excellent gymnast. I have a photo of him doing a one-handed handstand at the corner of the UCLA dorm. He was an extremely accomplished gymnast. He was such a good athlete. He would walk around the house on his hands.”
Jim Gillette — or “Jimmy,” as widow Marguerite calls him — played the pro season of his life as a halfback in 1945, finishing fifth in the NFL in rushing and picking up another 101 yards and a touchdown in the championship game.
Gillette had numerous brushes with disaster. As a teenage he took a gunshot wound to the hip in a squirrel hunting accident, an injury that in mid-1930s Virginia was allowed to heal on its own. Doctors feared he would never walk again, but Gillette persevered, extra-exercising the wounded leg. During World War II he served as a Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship in the North Atlantic amid enemy ships that bristled with torpedoes. “He used to walk in his sleep,” his son Walker Gillette told me at his home in Franklin, Virginia. “One time they found him lying on the very edge of the ship, asleep.” All that came between Gillette and a long somnambulant step into the sea below were a few feet of deck and a very short ship wall.
In a 1944 game against Green Bay, Gillette suffered a long gash in his lower leg, an injury rumored at the time to be the result of an intentional Packer spiking but more than likely the result of a collision with a sharp down marker on the sideline. Nonetheless he was out of the Rams lineup for a month.
“Those guys were the pioneers,” said Walker, who had an NFL career of his own in the 1970s with the San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants. “”It’s a violent game but not as much now as it used to be. Guys used to try to put people out of games. Those guys were tough.”