Born in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, Norman Van Brocklin was one of nine children. His father was a watchmaker. The family later moved to northern California, where young Norm became a three-sport standout at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California. He was the high school’s quarterback during his sophomore (5-3 record) and junior (4-2-2 record) years, but joined the U.S. Navy in his senior year during WWII, serving from 1943 through 1945.
After the war, Van Brocklin, attended the University of Oregon where he became the school’s first All-American quarterback. He led Oregon to the Pacific Coast Conference title in 1948 and a Cotton Bowl appearance. In 1949, he graduated from the University of Oregon in three years, where he still had a year’s eligibility remaining, but decided to enter the pro football draft.
Rams Tandem QBs
Van Brocklin was selected 37th overall in the fourth round of the 1949 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He signed with the Rams in July that year, a team that already had a star quarterback in Bob Waterfield, who rose from UCLA fame and was also married to film star, Jane Russell. However, in 1950, the Rams new coach, Joe Stydahar, began platooning his two quarterbacks, Waterfield and Van Brocklin, each averaging about two quarters’ worth of playing time per game. The Rams that year also had talented receivers, including Mexican-American Tom Fears at split end, and flanker back Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. The team that year – playing a 12-game schedule – proved to be an offensive powerhouse, setting a scoring record of 466 points for the year, or 38.8 points per game average, which still stands today as the NFL record for seasonal points-per-game. Van Brocklin and Waterfield finished 1st and 2nd respectively in 1950 passer rating, and Fears led the league and set a new NFL record with 84 receptions. The Rams won their division but lost the 1950 title game to the Cleveland Browns, 30-28.
Entering the 1951 season, Van Brocklin and Waterfield were again slated to split quarterbacking duties. However, by the time of opening day, September 28, 1951, Waterfield was injured, so Van Brocklin had the helm all to himself – and he would proceed to make the most of it. The opponents that day in 1951 were the New York Yanks, a new team that had its origins as the Boston Yanks, then as the New York Bulldogs, and finally, the New York Yanks in 1950. That year they moved to Yankee Stadium as their home field. However, this team would fold after two seasons. Still, in 1950 they had posted a winning record of 7 and 5. Then came their first game of the 1951 season in September with the Rams in Los Angeles. There, the Yanks would suffer a terrible trouncing, the first of 10 losses that year.
Van Brocklin SoloVan Brocklin played the entire game that day and completed 27 of 41 pass attempts, setting the NFL single game passing record at 554 yards. He broke Johnny Lujack’s previous single-game record of 468 yards, which had been set two years earlier.
Van Brocklin threw five touchdown passes – four to “Crazy Legs” Hirch, and one to Verda Thomas “Vitamin T” Smith. He nearly had six TD passes, completing a late fourth-quarter toss to Tommy Kalmanir, who was stopped just short of the goal line. Van Brocklin also scored one touchdown himself in a one-yard plunge, capping a 97-yard drive.
The final score was 54-14, with the Yanks’ scores coming on a 79-yard punt return by Buddy Young and a 30-yard run by Art Tait after he intercepted a Van Brocklin pitchout. In the game the Rams also set league records for total yards at 735 and first downs at 34.
The Rams that year again won their division with their high-powered offense. And this time, the Rams won the title rematch against the Cleveland Browns, 24-17, with Waterfield and Van Brocklin splitting the QB duties, though Van Brocklin threw the game-winning 73-yard touchdown pass to Tom Fears.The Rams’ teams of 1950 and 1951 were all-star performers and they set several long-standing records. The 38.8 points-a-game average by the 1950 team is an NFL record that has stood for 64 years.
Hirsch also set an NFL record in 1950 with 1,495 receiving yards and tied the record for touchdown receptions with 17. Tom Fears set a record in 1950 too, with 18 catches in one game, a record that stood for a half-century.
But Van Brocklin’s single-game 554 passing yards of September 1951, as of this writing, still stands today and remains unbroken – which is quite surprising given the amount of passing in the today’s modern game. Plus the fact that NFL teams now play a 16- game schedule, compared to 12 games-per-season in the 1950s.
Van Brocklin also won the NFL passing title in both 1950 and 1952, even though he was playing only half of the time.
Following the 1952 season Waterfield retired leaving Van Brocklin alone to continue quarterbacking the Rams. He would win a third passing championship with the Rams in 1954 and would also lead them to another title game in 1955, though losing that game to the Browns, 38-14, with Van Brocklin having a sub-par performance, throwing six interceptions.
Joins The EaglesAfter a few more seasons with the Rams, Van Brocklin announced his retirement in early January 1958, with plans to enter private business in Portland, Oregon. Less than five months later, however, he changed his mind and was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for two players and a first round draft pick.
It was later disclosed that Van Brocklin did not want to play another season for the Rams under head coach Sid Gillman’s offense, though he did not have personality issues with Gillman. Van Brocklin was very much his own man at the QB spot, and he was not happy with head-coach play-calling during a game or plays sent in from the sidelines.
In Philadelphia, Van Brocklin found the independence he wanted, and his fortunes rose. Under famed head coach Buck Shaw, Van Brocklin in 1958 was given total control of the Philadelphia offense and he steadily improved the Eagles’ attack. Early in the 1959 season, Sports Illustrated wrote: “Norm Van Brocklin is still the most accomplished passer in pro football. He throws long, short, hard or soft with equal facility. He could use more protection, but he unloads so quickly that he can get by with what he has….”
In his third and final season with the Eagles in 1960, the team had the best regular season record in the league at 10-2, and hosted the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field.
This was an Eagles team also famous for its fearsome two-way man, center/linebacker Chuck Bednarik, and other players, including, running backs Clarence Peaks, Billy Ray Barnes and Ted Dean, receivers Tommy MacDonald and Pete Retzlaff, linebacker Maxie Baughan, and defensive back, Tom Brookshier.The Packers, meanwhile, had their own considerable stable of stellar performers such as: running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, quarterback Bart Starr, wide receiver Max McGee, linebacker Ray Nitschke, and legendary coach, Vince Lombardi.
Prior to the game, Sports Illustrated, in a December 19th, 1960 article titled “Dutch is The Difference,” cited Van Brocklin as one of the two or three best quarterbacks in all football, “who studies and probes defenses with great patience” and when he finds the flaw he is looking for “he attacks it with vigor, intelligence and, usually, wonderful success.” The magazine predicted that with Van Brocklin, the Eagles might just win their first football championship in 11 years. But at kick-off time, the odds-makers had the Eagles as 2-point underdogs.
At Franklin Field on the day after Christmas, Van Brocklin did throw to Tommy MacDonald for one score, but the championship game proved to be primarily a defensive battle. In the fourth quarter, with the Packers ahead 13-10, Van Brocklin took the Eagles on a 39-yard scoring drive following a 58-yard kick-off return by Ted Dean to put the Eagles up, 17-13, which proved to be the winning margin. Thus, the “Dutchman” added another distinction to his career – becoming the only QB to defeat a Vince Lombardi-coached Green Bay team in championship play. Van Brocklin also won MVP honors in that game.
Coach Van Brocklin
After his championship season with the Eagles, Norm Van Brocklin retired from active play and became the first head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, then an expansion team. There, between 1961 and 1966, he coached players such a quarterback Fran Tarkenton and wide receiver Paul Flatley, bringing the Vikings to a 2nd place finish in 1964 at 8-5-1. Overall, Van Brocklin compiled a 29-51-4 mark with Minnesota through 1967, when he resigned.
A year later, he became head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in midseason, a team that had won only three games in more than two seasons. Van Brocklin posted a 37-49-3 record with the Falcons, leading them to their first winning seasons, 7-6-1 in 1971, and 9-5 in 1973. In 1974, with the team 2-6, he was let go. Van Brocklin by this time had settled into a local area about 35 miles east of Atlanta, owning a pecan farm there, where he began to spend more time. He was also a sports analyst for a time on Ted Turner’s WTBS “SuperStation” in Atlanta. His last football job was as an assistant coach at Georgia Tech under Pepper Rodgers in 1979, working with running backs. That year, he also underwent brain surgery twice to correct an oxygen shortage and remove a blood clot.
Norm Van Brocklin died of a heart attack in May of 1983. He was 57 years old. ”He was a fierce competitor, a no-nonsense guy on the field,” said Marion Campbell, who had played with Van Brocklin. Tommy McDonald, his favorite receiver on the Philadelphia Eagles team, said of Van Brocklin: ”His play calling was absolutely fantastic..” Norm Van Brocklin was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. He played 12 seasons, had 23,611 yards passing, 1,553 completions and 173 touchdown passes. He was also named to the Pro Bowl nine times.
Record Still Stands
Norm Van Brocklin’s 554 yards passing performance from September 1951 still stands today as the NFL single-game passing record.
In pro football history, quarterbacks achieving 500 yards or more passing in a single game is quite rare, occurring only 17 times during the last 65 years. Fifteen quarterbacks have thrown one game each of 500 yards or more, including: Y.A. Tittle (1962), Vince Ferragamo (1982), Phil Simms (1985), Dan Marino (1988), Warren Moon (1990), Boomer Esiason (1996), Elvis Grbac (2000), Tom Brady (2011), Matthew Stafford (2012), Eli Manning (2012), Matt Schaub (2012), Tony Romo (2013), and Philip Rivers (2015). Two players have done so twice – Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints (2006 and 2015) and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers (2009 and 2014). Although none of these QBs have yet eclipsed Van Brocklin’s 554 yards (Warren Moon and Matt Schaub have come closest, each with 527-yard performances), given the nature of the modern passing game, it is no doubt just a matter of time before the 554-yard record is surpassed.
Additional football-related stories at this website include: “I Guarantee It” (a profile of Joe Namath, his famous prediction for Super Bowl III, his bio & pro career, and his off-the-filed activities); “Bednarik-Gifford Lore” (the respective playing careers of Chuck Bednarik and Frank Gifford, and one famous on–the-field meeting between the two ); “Slingin` Sammy” (career of quarterback Sammy Baugh and Washington Redskins history, 1930s-1950s); and “Celebrity Gifford” (a detailed look at the advertising, sports broadcasting, and TV/film/radio career of Frank Gifford ). See also the Annals of Sport category page for other sports stories. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please help support the research and writing at this website by making a donation. Thank you – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 30 January 2016
Last Update: 30 January 2016
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “Dutchman’s Big Day: Football Passing
Record,” PopHistoryDig.com, January 30, 2016.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Best Passing Yardage
1- Johnny Unitas, 1959 Baltimore Colts
2- Bill Wade, 1958 Los Angeles Rams
3- Otto Graham, 1952 Cleveland Browns
4- Otto Graham, 1953 Cleveland Browns
5- Norm Van Brocklin, 1954 L. A. Rams
6- Norm Van Brocklin, 1959 Phila. Eagles
7- Johnny Unitas, 1957 Baltimore Colts
8- Bobby Layne, 1958 Dt. Lions/Pt. Steelers
9- Bobby Thomason, 1953 Phila. Eagles
10-Norm Van Brocklin, 1958 Phila. Eagles
Source: “List of the Day: Best Passing Yardage Seasons, 1950s NFL,” Today in Pro Football History, March 30, 2010
Note: In the 1950s, the best quarterbacks threw for 2,500-2,800 yards for an entire season. Now, NFL quarterbacks throw for 4,000 -5,000 yards a season. Teams also play 16 games a season as opposed to 12 in the 1950s, and there’s a lot more passing in today’s offensive strategies.
“Rams Easily Beat Yanks by 54 to 14; Van Brocklin Passes for 554 Yards, New League Record–Tosses for Five Touchdowns,” New York Times, September 29, 1951, p. 12.
Tex Maule, “The Eagles Have Gone Dutch; Norman Van Brocklin, A Quarterback With a Mind of His Own and The Best Arm in the League, May Bring Philadelphia Back into the NFL Championship Picture,” Sports Illustrated, October 13, 1958.
“Dutch Is the Difference,” Sports Illustrated, December 19, 1960.
“Norm Van Brocklin,” Wikipedia.org.
“Norm Van Brocklin: NFL’s Outspoken Coach; Wherever the Young Chief of the Minnesota Vikings Goes, The Fur Flies,” Saturday Evening Post, 1962.
“Norm Van Brocklin,” Pro Football Hall of Fame (inducted 1971).
AP, “Norm Van Brocklin Is Dead at 57; Star Quarterback in Hall of Fame,” New York Times, May 3, 1983.
Ron Fimrite, “Mr. Hollywood and The Dutchman: Two Legends, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin, Shared a Job at Quarterback for the Great Postwar Ram Teams,” Sports Illustrated, October 6, 1995.
Fred Bowen, “Best Single-game Passer in NFL? It’s No One You’ve Seen Play; L.A. Rams’ Norm Van Brocklin Still Owns the Record – From 1951,” WashingtonPost.com, October 21, 2015.
“List of NFL Quarterbacks Who Have Passed for 400 or More Yards in a Game,” Wikipedia.org.
“List of the Day: Best Passing Yardage Seasons, 1950s NFL,” Today in Pro Football History, March 30, 2010.
Josh Katzowitz | NFL Writer, “Remember When: Van Brocklin’s 554-Yard Day Has Lasted 6 Decades,” CBSsports.com, September 6, 2013.
Chase Stuart, “Norm Van Brocklin and Otto Graham: Who Was Better?, FootballPerspective.com, February 22, 2015.