Grabbed by horns, Rams were ahead of the curve

Late Gehrke's `draw' play painted a new future for the look of football

Sports Plus

February 24, 2002|By Andy Knobel | Andy Knobel,SUN STAFF

Fred Gehrke, who died this month at the age of 83, was an All-Pro receiver in 1945, the year he helped the Cleveland Rams win the NFL championship. He was also the architect of the Denver Broncos' "Orange Crush" team that reached Super Bowl XII.

But those aren't the reasons he has a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For that, credit goes to Gehrke's artistic vision.

Those cool horns that millions of viewers saw on the St. Louis Rams' helmets during this year's Super Bowl were his idea.

Gehrke, one of the first art majors to play in the NFL, received the hall's first Daniel F. Reeves Pioneer Award in 1972 for touching off an era of colorful helmets and logos.

Back when Gehrke played, every team wore leather helmets. From the neck up, a Los Angeles Ram looked like a New York Giant. A Chicago Bear looked like a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Gehrke, who was a designer for an aircraft company in the off-season, wanted to give the Rams a distinctive appearance.

"I made a pen-and-ink sketch of a ram's horns one day in 1947 and showed it to our new coach, Bob Snyder," Gehrke told the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise in 1994. "He said he couldn't visualize it on the headgear and told me to go home and paint it on a helmet.

"So I took one of those gosh-awful brown leather helmets and painted it blue, then made a free rendering of a ram's horns in gold."

Owner Reeves took one look and said, "That's it! Do it."

Snyder told Gehrke to paint 75, and the halfback finished one a night during the summer of 1948 at his home, lining them up on his garage floor. He created a cardboard template, but, because of the differing helmet sizes, had to paint most of them freehand.

Gehrke was paid $1 a helmet, which covered only the cost of the paint, he said. He provided the labor for free, and for the next two years carried cans of blue and gold paint with him to touch up helmets after each game.

By 1949, the Riddell sporting goods company had created a plastic helmet, baking in Gehrke's design. The logo idea quickly caught on and, during the next decade, most other NFL teams, beginning with the Colts, adopted their own designer helmets.

Change for a Buc

Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a few weeks ago that helmet logos "have evolved in the NFL to the point where the confused Tampa Bay Buccaneers next season actually might wear a question mark."

That, of course, was before they hired Jon Gruden. Now, Tampa Bay's helmets could feature the coach's famed "Chucky" face.

Target practice

Paul Herbert, a golfer on the European senior tour, credited a recent improvement in his tee shots to his decision to paint terrorist Osama bin Laden's face on the head of his driver.

"The thought of that face smacking into a golf ball sorted me out," he said.

Dennis Rodman wannabe

Some catchers tape their fingers to help pitchers read their signs.

"I don't like to do that because it affects your grip on the ball," said former major-leaguer Jim Leyritz.

Instead, Leyritz painted his fingers with Wite-Out.

Compiled from wire reports and Web sites.

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