Thomas Jesse Fears was born on 3 December, 1923 in Guadalajara, Mexico and died on 4 January, 2000 after spending a 6 year long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Tom was the son of an American mining engineer who had married a Mexican woman, and moved with his family to Los Angeles at the age of 6. There, he began to display his ample work ethic by unloading flowers for 25 cents an hour, and later serving as an usher at football games for double that amount.
Tom was an American football wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams in the National Football League, playing 9 seasons from 1948 to 1956.
Tom first played football at Los Angeles’ Manual Arts High School, then advanced to compete for Santa Clara University. Tom spent 1 year at the latter school before he was drafted for World War II and spent the next 3 years in military service. After his father became a Japanese prisoner of war, Tom sought to become a fighter pilot to fight Japan. Tom became a pilot, but was instead shipped to Colorado Springs to play football for a service team.
Upon his release, he had been drafted by the Rams in 1945, but remained in school and transferred to UCLA, winning All-American following each of his 2 seasons at the school. Tom’s senior campaign nearly ended in abrupt fashion in 1947, when he and some Bruin teammates were investigated for posing in local advertisements for a Los Angeles clothing store. When it was determined that Tom and the other players worked for the store, and were not identified as athletes, the matter was dropped.
The job had been one of many provided by school boosters, and included a brief bit as a pilot in the Humphrey Bogart film, “Action in the North Atlantic.” The largesse by such people led Tom to joke that his $6,000 first-year contract and $500 bonus from the Rams meant that he was taking a pay cut.
Tom was the first player in NFL History to line up on the line of scrimmage, away from the tackle, thus making him the first Wide Receiver in NFL History. Selected as a defensive back by the Rams, Tom quickly made his mark as a wide receiver in 1948, while also displaying his versatility by playing on defense and at tight end. During his first 3 seasons at the professional level, he led all NFL receivers in catches, and broke the league’s single-season record with 77 catches in 1949.
The record would be short-lived as he increased that mark to 84 during the 1950 NFL season, including a then-record 18 catches in one game against the Green Bay Packers on 12 November. Tom also helped the team advance to the NFL title game with a trio of touchdown receptions in the divisional playoff against the Chicago Bears, winning All-Pro accolades for the second consecutive year.
During the ensuing offseason, Tom became embroiled in a contract dispute with the team for the second straight year. The year before, he hinted at leaving the team to work for General Motors Corporation, then announced on 13 March, 1951 that he was retiring to work for a local liquor distributor. Neither threat materialized, and despite offers from four Canadian Football League teams, Tom signed for $13,000.
That season, Tom played in only 7 games, but helped lead the Rams to their 3rd straight championship game appearance. After 2 disappointments, the franchise captured its 1st NFL title since moving to the West Coast, with Tom an integral part of the title game victory when he caught the winning score. Tom’s 73-yard touchdown reception midway through the 4th quarter broke a 17-17 deadlock with the Cleveland Browns.
After bouncing back in 1952 with 48 receptions for 600 yards and 6 scores, the beginning of the end of his career began after he fractured 2 vertabrae in a 18 October, 1953 game against the Detroit Lions. Limited to just 23 receptions that year, he would average 40 catches the next 2 years, but after a preseason injury in 1956, he hauled in only 5 passes and retired on 6 November. For the remainder of that campaign, he served as an assistant coach, finishing his playing days with 400 catches for 5,397 yards and 38 touchdowns.
Tom was out of the game for the next 2 years, but returned briefly as an assistant in the 1st year of Vince Lombardi’s reign with the Packers. Business conflicts back in California caused him to leave the position at midseason, but Tom resumed his coaching career the following year with the Rams under former teammate Bob Waterfield. After 2 seasons in that role, Tom returned to Green Bay for a 4 year stint as an assistant, where he was part of championship teams in 1962 and 1965.
Tom applied for the head coaching job with the St. Louis Cardinals (football) after the 1965 NFL season, but after not being chosen, he joined fellow Packer assistant Norb Hecker, who had been named head coach of the expansion Atlanta Falcons. In the first game of the 1966 regular season, Tom caused controversy when he accused Rams coach George Allen of attempting to garner inside information on the team from a player that had been cut, charges that were never proven.
After that 2-12 first season in Atlanta, Tom became a head coach for the first time when he was hired by the expansion New Orleans Saints on 27 January, 1967. Despite the promise of the team scoring on the first-ever kickoff return in franchise history, Tom’s nearly 4 years at the helm of what became a perennial losing franchise were an exercise in frustration.
In 1970, Tom was recognized for his professional playing career when he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That March, rumors of Tom replacing the departed Don Shula with the Baltimore Colts surfaced, but Don McCafferty was hired by the Maryland team in early April. Issues between Tom and Saints owner John Mecom, Jr., primarily Tom seeking the additional role of general manager, fueled such speculation. On 20 April, the matter ended when he was given control over all player personnel matters.
Tom’s tenure in his new dual roles, however, would be short, when the team ended the first half of the 1970 NFL season with a 1-5-1 mark, resulting in his dismissal on 3 November after compiling an overall mark of 13-34-2. Tom resurfaced a few months later, serving as offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, but when head coach Ed Khayat was fired at the end of the 1972 NFL season, Tom was out of work again.
After spending 1973 off the gridiron, Tom was named head coach of the fledgling World Football League’s Southern California Sun on 14 January, 1974. The fragile financial condition of the entire league resulted in Tom leading the team for less than 2 years before the WFL folded in October 1975.
Tom’s disappointment was soothed somewhat when he was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976, the same year he was named president of the All-Sports Council of Southern California, which helped amateur sports in the area. 1 year later, he returned to coaching as an assistant at San Bernardino Junior College.
During this period, he was also working as a technical adviser for movies with a football connection, and in 1979, began a football scouting service. The 2 roles came together in controversial fashion when Tom began working on the production of “North Dallas Forty,” a film that took a look at the sordid side of the professional game.
Tom had 3 clients: the Packers, Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers, but after the movie was released, Tom saw all 3 teams drop his services. Claiming that the NFL had blacklisted him, Tom spoke with league commissioner Pete Rozelle (who had worked for the Rams during Toms’ playing days), but never again found work in the league.
Remaining on the fringes of the sport, Tom in 1980 worked as a coach for the Chapman College club football team, then became a part-owner of the Orange Empire Outlaws of the California Football League the following year. In 1982, he was hired as player personnel director of the new United States Football League’s Los Angeles Express. Bolstered by huge spending from team owner William Daniels, the team reached the conference championship game, but saw financial troubles doom not only the team, but the league as well.
Tom’s final position in football came in 1990, when he was named head coach of the Milan franchise in the fledgling International League of American Football.
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