It is ironic that a man whose running style prompted one sportswriter to compare him to a demented duck has left such an impressive legacy at UW. But that’s the case for Elroy Hirsch.
Of course, most don’t know him as Elroy. Like so many other legends, it is his nickname that has given him a sort of mythical place in history. Western movies have John “The Duke” Wayne. Rock and roll has Elvis “The King” Presley. And the University of Wisconsin has Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch.
In 1942, Chicago Daily News sportswriter Francis Powers coined the legendary nickname in describing one play of Wisconsin’s 13-7 win over Great Lakes Naval Station at Soldier Field in Chicago. “Hirsch ran like a demented duck,” he wrote. “His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time during a 61-yard touchdown run that solidified the win.” From that moment on, Elroy Hirsch became known as “Crazylegs.”
But “Crazylegs” was no joke. He was a triple-threat halfback who led the 1942 Badgers to an 8-1-1 record, second in the Big Ten and third in the final Associated Press poll.
Unfortunately, Hirsch played just one year at UW, as the U.S. Marines sent him to the University of Michigan to train for World War II. In 1943-44, he became the only Michigan athlete ever to letter in four different sports — basketball, baseball, track and football — in the same year. He also won All-American honors in football for the second consecutive season. In 1946, he was named most valuable player of the College All-Star Game.
Hirsch went on to have a distinguished pro career as well. He set an NFL record of 1,495 yards on 66 receptions and 17 touchdowns in leading the Los Angeles Rams to the 1951 NFL Championship. He ended his professional career with 7,029 receiving yards, good enough to put him in the NFL Hall of Fame and on the NFL All-Time All-Star team.
Despite playing just that one season at UW, Hirsch’s number, 40, is retired at the school, and he’s a member of the UW Athletic Hall of Fame and the Wisconsin State Athletic Hall of Fame. You’ll often find his mug rolling around plastic cups today at Camp Randall.
Ultimately, this adulation stems from the fact that Hirsch, a Wausau native, always stayed close to his Wisconsin roots. After serving in the Rams’ front office for nine years, he became UW athletic director from 1969-87, the longest tenure for an A.D. in UW history.
In late 1981, three Badger loyalists decided to take Hirsch’s legacy to a whole new level while sitting over a few beers at a campus bar. Tom Grantham, Ken Sparks and Rich Backus were searching for a way to raise money to support UW athletics. They decided on holding a run, getting permission from Hirsch himself to name it the “Crazylegs Run” in his honor. Grantham is still the general chairman of the Crazylegs Classic Executive Committee.
The first race, in 1982, attracted 1,525 runners and raised $9,500. Since then, it has contributed more than $1.7 million to scholarships for UW male and female athletes and attracted more than 116,000 runners and walkers. The race, called the Crazylegs Classic today, has been rated one of America’s 100 best events by Runner’s World magazine.
This year’s race will take place Saturday afternoon. Runners will start opposite the Capitol, go down State Street, move onto the UW campus over Observatory Drive to Picnic Point and return down University Avenue to Camp Randall. The race ends at the 50-yard line. Pre-race festivities start at 9:00 a.m. on Capitol Square.
So whatever happened to Elroy Hirsch, the man who ran like a demented duck? Well, if you make it to the finish line of this year’s Crazylegs Classic, you’ll be greeted by “Crazylegs” himself.
For more information, visit www.crazylegsclassic.com.